Israel’s inability to assemble a government is not easy to understand. America has been in deadlock since the 1970s, but that’s hardly surprising since (a) it’s not a democracy but a dysfunctional eighteenth-century republic lingering on well past its sell-by date; and (b) power is fragmented among a handful of political institutions that must align just so for anything to get done.
Since they’re designed to pull in different directions, that rarely happens and stalemate is the norm. But Israel is different. It has no bicameral legislature, no separately-elected president, no Supreme Court as Americans understand the term, and no ancient relic like the Electoral College to gum up the works even more. All it has is a Knesset with 120 seats awarded on the basis of strict proportional representation. Politics may be rough and tumble, but putting together a government should be smooth as silk.
Yet it’s headed for its third election in less than a year. What’s going on?
The answer can be summed up in a single word: Jew. It’s a term that everyone recognizes but no one can adequately explain. Because no one knows what it means, no one knows what a Jewish state means either. The structure is disintegrating, consequently, under the weight of seventy-plus years of incomprehensibility.
The “who’s a Jew” question has bedeviled Israel from the start. Jews are not a religion because most are non-practicing. (David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, was more comfortable in a Buddhist temple than in a synagogue.) They’re not an ethnic group because European, Persian, or North African Jews have nothing in common in terms of language, cuisine, or other such markers. They’re not a race because they’re actually more genetically diverse than most of their neighbors. And contrary to all those anti-Semites out there, they’re not a conspiracy either because the political breakdown wouldn’t be so advanced if they were.
Israeli politics reflect this fundamental confusion. Each major party bases itself on a different concept of Jewishness. Netanyahu’s Likud represents a strain of militant Jewish nationalism going back to pre-war Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who was more than a bit cozy with the Italian fascisti. Labor sees itself as part of the European social-democratic tradition and hence appeals to those who think that Jewishness somehow implies a progressive world view. The United Torah Party, which has seven Knesset seats, is orthodox through and through and therefore defines Jewishness exclusively in terms of divine law.
Then there’s Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel is our home”), which jumped from five to eight Knesset seats in the last election and which traditionally appeals to immigrants from the former Soviet Union. (Lieberman himself was born in the old Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.) With little to offer in terms of positive ideology, Yisrael Beiteinu defines itself chiefly in terms of what it hates. Members hate Palestinians because they remember all too well when a Hamas supporter blew himself up at the seaside Dolphinarium disco in Tel Aviv in June 2001, killing twenty-one people, most of them teenagers from the former USSR. But they hate orthodox rabbis too because they insist on classifying most of them as non-Jews.
A bit of history is needed to understand how this strange situation arose. Because Israel defines itself as a refuge for victims of anti-Semitism, its founders decided in 1948 that if a single Jewish forbear was enough to get you sent to Auschwitz, then it was enough to enter the Jewish state. Internally, however, they gave the orthodox rabbinate a monopoly on how to define Jewishness, which means you weren’t Jewish unless your mother was Jewish, the only standard the rabbis regard as valid.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, this means that hundreds of thousands of people who have immigrated fit one definition but not the other. This is no small matter in a state in which in which civil marriage doesn’t exist and rabbis will not marry anyone whose lineage is not impeccable and in which job discrimination in favor of Jews is wide open.
But things get even stranger where the military is concerned. Ex-Soviets are subject to the draft, but orthodox Jews are not because Ben-Gurion thought it was somehow good for the Jewish that they continue studying the Talmud. Despite such privileges, many orthodox Jews oppose the Jewish state because they regard it as a deeply heretical effort to undo God’s work by throwing the Diaspora into reverse and organizing a return to the Holy Land.
So Israeli soldiers from the former Soviet Union, history’s first atheist state, battle anti-Zionists in the Occupied Territories on behalf of anti-Zionists at home who don’t regard them as Jewish and despise everything they stand for.
Lieberman won’t join a coalition with Netanyahu until he eliminates such exemptions, something Netanyahu absolutely cannot do because he relies on the religious parties for support – not just United Torah but Shas, the Sephardic orthodox party, and Yamina, the party of the fascistic Ayelet Shaked. But he won’t join with Benny Gantz’s more centrist Blue and White coalition because it depends on at least tacit support from the Arab Joint list, the Knesset’s third largest bloc. With roughly 25 percent of the electorate hostile to Zionism either from an ultra-orthodox or pro-Palestinian perspective, Lieberman is a king-maker with no one to anoint.
The upshot is deepening paralysis. Israel is an artificial state that would have fallen apart years ago if it weren’t for the hostility of its neighbors. This is why whenever Hamas or Islamic Jihad fires off a rocket in Israel’s direction, they’re doing what Israeli leaders could never accomplish on their own, which is to bind together an otherwise fractious Jewish state. They are Zionism’s best friend and the Palestinians’ worst enemy.