Miracle on the Sea of Galilee

By David Hazony

Almost two years of terror and bloodshed in the Jewish state have led to political and cultural changes whose full significance is only now coming to light. Most commentators have focused mainly on the military and diplomatic fronts: The collapse of the Oslo accords and the disintegration of the PA, the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, the strengthening of the American-Israeli alliance. On the domestic front, observers have tended to dwell on the marked shift of the electorate towards the political Right, as poll after poll shows voters flocking to parties that initially opposed Oslo and warned of its dangers. Yet the most significant change has been cultural, and its impact might be more important than any of the more widely reported effects: Zionism, the belief in the need for a state that acts to advance the interests of the Jewish people, is making a comeback.
In response to growing hostility from without, coupled with the radicalization of Israel’s own Arab population—many of whose leaders now reject the legitimacy of a Jewish state and openly identify with the Palestinian struggle—the cultural and intellectual elite that had been sympathetic to one or another element of post-nationalism in the past two decades has begun embracing the principles that have been the foundations of Zionism since Herzl wrote The Jewish State over a century ago. This trend extends to the most basic questions of political identity: In the past two years, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has modified the code of ethics that it had adopted in 1994, and has made “love of the land” and loyalty to the State of Israel, “the national home of the Jewish people,” into one of its three guiding principles. The Education Ministry has begun encouraging the display of Zionist symbols, such as the national flag, in Israeli schools, and has begun revising its approach to teaching Jewish history, even going as far as withdrawing a history textbook on the twentieth century that failed to present the basics of Zionism and cast doubt on the justice of Israel’s cause in the Six Day War.
Perhaps the most vivid expression of the cultural change is the emergence of a group called the Committee for National Responsibility, convened by the Yitzhak Rabin Center for Israel Studies in Tel Aviv. Sixty prominent Jewish writers, scholars, officers, journalists, and public activists, representing a range of political views from the Zionist Left and Right, have been meeting since February 2001 with the aim of identifying the unifying principles most Jewish Israelis share. The group was founded by Israel Harel, a central figure of the settlement movement in Judea and Samaria, and is now headed by Maj.-Gen. Uzi Dayan, Israel’s national security adviser. Its roster includes political theorist Yael Tamir, who was Ehud Barak’s absorption minister and now heads the Rabin Center; senior Ha’aretz journalist Ari Shavit, a past chairman of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel; historian Alex Yakobson of the Hebrew University, who was a longtime activist in Peace Now and the Meretz party; Bnei Brak Mayor Mordechai Karelitz, a close adviser to some of the leading haredi rabbis in Israel; R. Uri Regev, the leader of the Reform movement in Israel and the country’s best-known advocate of equality for all branches of Judaism; Brig.-Gen. (res.) Effie Eitam, a leader of the religious Right who recently became the head of the National Religious Party and a minister in the Sharon government; as well as Yoram Hazony, president of the Jerusalem-based Shalem Center (which publishes AZURE).
In July of 2001, eight of the group’s members, including Shavit, Yakobson, Tamir, Karelitz, and Hazony, closeted themselves in a hotel in Tiberias on the shores of the Sea of Galilee (known in Hebrew as Lake Kineret) and hammered out a document that gave voice to their shared views, and which quickly became a focus of broad popular agreement surrounding the purposes of the State of Israel. The result of their efforts, which they called the Kineret Declaration, was subsequently ratified by the members of the full committee in October 2001. Its ten sections, the product of extended negotiations, offer statements of principle affirming the essential values of Israeli society: Israel is the national home of the Jewish people. Israel is a democracy. Israel is a Jewish state, maintaining a formal connection with the diaspora and with Jewish history and religion. Israel respects the civil rights of all citizens, Jews and non-Jews alike. Israel is committed to peaceful relations with its neighbors.
None of these represent a major departure from the beliefs of classical Zionism. But it has been a long time since these principles were presented as part of a unified position, reflecting a broad consensus of opinion in the Jewish state. Over the past generation, each of these principles has become a rallying cry for different groups seeking to alter the country’s cultural and legal makeup by arguing that these values are fundamentally irreconcilable, that a full-blown conflict between Israel’s “Jewish” and “democratic” sides is unavoidable. “There is no contradiction between Israel’s character as a Jewish state and its character as a democracy,” the declaration asserts in response. “The existence of a Jewish state does not contravene democratic values, nor does it in any way infringe on the principle of freedom or the principle of civil equality.”
Moreover, the democracy to which the signatories have committed themselves is a robust one, as is articulated at length in three of the declaration’s articles. The authors affirm the individual’s “freedom of religion and conscience, language, education, and culture,” and give their full support to the idea that Israel provides “full equality of rights for all its citizens, without distinction of religion, origin, or gender”—a statement that is particularly important in time of war, when democratic freedoms can most easily be curtailed.
But the most significant element of the Kineret Declaration is its unequivocal stand on the Jewish character of the State of Israel. The agreement’s first, third, and ninth articles cover this topic, adopting a tone that has been rare in the public discourse. “We believe that it is out of supreme and existential necessity, and with complete moral justification,” the authors write, “that the Jewish people should have a national home of its own, the State of Israel…. The right of the Jewish people to lead a life of sovereignty in the land of Israel is an enduring and unquestionable right.” Similarly, “The Jewish character of Israel is expressed in a profound commitment to Jewish history and Jewish culture… [and] in strengthening the Jewish diaspora and deepening its relations with it.” Not content with general statements of principle, however, the authors present a list of specific ways in which this commitment finds expression:
The Jewish character of Israel is expressed in a profound commitment to Jewish history and Jewish culture; in the state’s connection to the Jews of the diaspora, the Law of Return, and its efforts to encourage aliya and absorption; in the Hebrew language, the principal language of the state, and the unique language of a unique Israeli creativity; in the festivals and official days of rest of the state, its symbols, and its anthem; in Hebrew culture with its Jewish roots, and in the state institutions devoted to its advancement; and in the Jewish educational system, whose purpose is to inculcate, along with general and scientific knowledge and the values of humanity, and along with loyalty to the state and love of the land of Israel and its vistas, the student’s attachment to the Jewish people, the Jewish heritage, and the book of books.
Such statements have been relegated in recent years to the status of outdated, reactionary, and repressive sloganeering—particularly in the face of the universalist, “myth-smashing” tendency that has overtaken much of academic discourse and has been deftly translated for use in the public arena. By reaffirming these beliefs, the Kineret Declaration has placed them back at the heart of the Israeli debate, reducing their opponents to a marginal status commensurate with their numbers in Israeli society.
Indeed, since its publication, an impressive array of high-profile Israelis have endorsed the Kineret Declaration, including several hundred political, cultural, and intellectual figures from across the ideological spectrum. These include first-rank academic figures such as legal scholar Ruth Gavison, political theorist Shlomo Avineri, ethicist Asa Kasher, and scholar of Jewish thought Aviezer Ravitzky; political leaders such as President Moshe Katsav, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, and Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna; high-ranking military officers including the incoming IDF chief of staff, Maj.-Gen. Moshe Ya’alon; and cultural icons such as songwriter Naomi Shemer, poet Dalia Rabikovitch, novelist Aharon Meged, and popular singer-songwriter Aviv Gefen.

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