Herzog’s Responsibility Zionism: The way to save Israeli politics – opinion

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The Jerusalem Post 06.03.2024


Herzog’s Responsibility Zionism: The way to save Israeli politics – opinion


It’s infuriating. Most Israelis want a new, mutually respectful politics – yet the media, social media, and our politicians have addicted too many to a politics of demonizing and demagoguing.


Recently, someone on a WhatsApp group disliked a column I wrote – not for the first time, won’t be the last. But why essentially call me a traitor by suggesting it “belonged on pro-Palestinian media”? By contrast, when I observed that some “hostage families” disagree with what the media call “the hostage families,” a lawyer friend quipped: “You can’t criticize anything any hostage relatives say… but that doesn’t mean you have to listen to them!”


These two minor exchanges captured Israel’s major domestic challenge, once we win this war: Given how good we are at dying together, can we learn to live together? The WhatsApper’s Pavlovian response to an article he disliked was October 6-style trash-talk politics. Right-wingers insist anti-Bibi types started it and are its most vicious practitioners. Left-wingers blame Benjamin Netanyahu and the Right. We centrists see each side using the other’s extremism to justify its own aggression and irresponsibility.


By contrast, my lawyer friend doubly violated the political status quo. He showed empathy while accepting complexity. It’s true. Anyone who cannot imagine how nightmarish it is for these families to deal with this unimaginable ongoing horror has no heart; but anyone who makes policies for the good of 9.3 million people facing evil enemies based on loved ones living a nightmare has no head.


We all know history too well to characterize Israelis’ brutal tribal politics as “unprecedented.” Jews, Zionists, and liberal democrats worldwide have long demeaned their political rivals no matter what technology dominated: in “stump” speeches before the printing press; during America’s “dark age of partisan journalism”; on radio; on television; online. I leave it to psychologists and theologians to explain this delight in knocking down your neighbor, which often reflects a panic that they’re not just wrong, but threatening you.


Most Israelis learned, however, on October 7, what some of us had argued for years: Israel lacks the margin of error other democracies enjoy to indulge in such do-it-to-them-before-they-do-it-to-you politics. Our enemies are too vicious; our borders, too vulnerable; our living space, too tiny.


Silencing extremist politicians in favor of patriotism 

LET’S SILENCE our petty, pompous, polarizing politicians while boosting our patriotic president. In August 2022, celebrating the 125th anniversary of Theodor Herzl’s founding Zionist Congress in Basel, President Isaac Herzog described the “Responsibility Zionism” we need. He proclaimed: “Together, we’ll choose responsibility every day and keep our country and our people safe; together, we’ll continue debating, arguing, and grappling” with tough questions “while fostering a respectful, enriching, and responsible dialogue between all parts of the Jewish people.”



Unfortunately, within months, extremists from both sides defied this call for decency and responsibility – egregiously, self-destructively.


Since October 7 , our soldiers keep “choosing responsibility” so nobly, heroically, to keep us “safe.” We owe it to them, to the hostages, to every murdered and maimed citizen, and to ourselves, to create the “respectful, enriching, and responsible dialogue,” President Herzog champions.


So, yes, time to change tone. Citizens should make three promises. First, self-restraint. Try, when arguing about politics, to be civil, respectful, empathetic, accepting complexity while avoiding character assassination and accusations of treason against fellow citizens.


Second, let’s channel that repressed aggression into a creative backlash against demonizing politicians and media hate-merchants. Walk out on politicians who spew insults – even attending events and demonstrations to storm out when they peddle their poison.


Impose media blackouts, too. Wouldn’t it be amazing if everyone watched whatever news station they prefer at 8 p.m. for five nights in a row, but used social media to coordinate a massive TV turnoff or channel-change as soon as the first shouting match erupted on their favorite channel?


Finally, let’s adopt more nuanced, realistic positions, tempering expectations while accepting that essential democratic tool called compromise. “Crime Minister” activists demanding Netanyahu’s ouster should propose that President Herzog  pardon Bibi preemptively, if they really want to end the Bibi era – and Bibistas’ obsession. Coalition members should reinstate the usual categories to this year’s Israel Prize, honoring some leftists who disagree with them politically, but nevertheless built this miracle we Zionists call the State of Israel.


And all of us, as Responsibility Zionists, should pursue a compromise on the haredi draft issue . Build on the current fear of our enemies and patriotic surge. Endorse a massive call-up of all but the most exceptional 18-year-old yeshiva students, to serve in a Civil Guard. Haredim should first protect their own communities, as a three-year transition to a broader draft. Cultivate a culture of service, acknowledging that Jewish history is filled with scholar-warriors. Have this new defense corps teach about those role models.


This compromise may soften ultra-Orthodox resistance. It will save the army from too many recruits with medieval Talmudic talents lacking the skill and motivation to serve in our modern army.

Finally, rally around President Herzog’s call for “Responsibility Zionism.” Building up to what will be a painful Independence Day – which falls this year on the significant secular date of May 14 – let’s host Zionist salons. Read foundational and modern Zionist texts with a particular goal: writing short preambles to the ideal constitution we and our neighbors think Israel needs, which, in Herzog’s resonant words, “gives us our sense of shared fate as well as shared destiny,” while remaining “anchored in our deepest roots, weaving together the inseparable threads of peoplehood, land, and state.”


A Distinguished Scholar in North American History at McGill University currently living in Jerusalem, Gil Troy is an award-winning American presidential historian and a leading Zionist activist. He is, most recently, the editor of the new three-volume set, “Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings,” the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People ( www.theljp.org )  . Two years ago he co-authored with Natan Sharansky Never Alone: Prison, Politics and  My People,  was published by PublicAffairs of Hachette. Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of  The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist. 




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Prof Gil Troy · 20 Derech Bet Lechem · Apt 2 · Jerusalem 9310925 · Israel