Dr. Einat Wilf and Mark Regev spoke at a Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs event Feb. 9.
Canadian Jews who don’t like the look of Israel’s new government should not withdraw from engagement with that country and its discourse, but get more involved, says Dr. Einat Wilf, a former Labour party member of the Knesset.
Leaders in the North American Jewish community are expressing concerns over the new government and aspects of its policy agenda, while others worry that the always-present fear of schisms between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry could be reaching a breaking point. But Wilf said this is a time for overseas Jews to act strategically to influence policies that reflect their priorities.
Wilf, who served in the Knesset from 2010 to 2013, is an author, businessperson and one-time foreign policy advisor to Shimon Peres. She was part of a panel convened by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs Feb. 9. Wilf engaged with Mark Regev, who is chair of the Abba Eban Institute for Diplomacy and Foreign Relations at Reichman University and a former spokesperson and senior foreign affairs advisor to Binyamin Netanyahu. He also served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Kingdom. Yaron Deckel, the Jewish Agency for Israel’s director for Canada and a veteran Israeli journalist, moderated the event.
Wilf said it is up to Canadian Jews to decide how to respond to the political situation in Israel. “But my personal view is that this is perhaps the time for Jews outside Israel to fund more and channel money and efforts to things that have to do not with welfare but actually with how Israel is Jewish,” she said. “North American Jews, if they want Israel to be hospitable to their kind of Jewish practice, they need to make a stark choice.”
The Conservative and Reform movements in Israel are simply too small to be major players in this discussion and so the more practical camp with which Diaspora adherents of those denominations can partner to meet their goals is the secular movement, Wilf said. This is the most likely way to advance policies such as egalitarian prayer at the Kotel, liberal interpretations of identity for aliyah and reducing the powers of the chief rabbinate.
Both panelists attempted to dispel some conventional wisdom, including that Israeli society is divided, turning its back on liberalism and getting more and more religious.
“Israeli democracy, as it stands now, is more inclusive, more representative of the greater diversity of voices than it has been probably throughout its history,” said Wilf. That diversity, by its very inclusiveness, has opened the door to ideas that can be considered contrary to traditional progressive Israeli values, she argued. “That means that more non-liberal voices are represented than ever before.”
Regev concurred. The “good old days” of early Israeli democracy were, he said, “a one-party state run by the Labour Party.… It was a much more conformist society, it was difficult for gays, it was difficult for women, it was a society that was more closed, it was difficult for Mizrahim,” he said. “Today, I have no doubt if you look at the trajectory, Israel is more liberal, more pluralist, more open, more free than ever before.”
A couple of decades ago, Regev noted, if you wanted to go out for dinner in Jerusalem on a Friday night, you had to travel to east Jerusalem. “Now, in Jewish Jerusalem, you have all sorts of places you can go to,” he said. “The idea that Israel is becoming only more religious, more Haredi, more Orthodox is just not true.”
One of the areas where most Israelis agree, said Wilf and Regev, is on the Palestinian issue. After Yasser Arafat ended the peace process and started the Second Intifada, and his successor Mahmoud Abbas demonstrated no more conciliatory a tone, Israelis realized the ball was not in their court. All they can do is wait for a change of leadership on the Palestinian side, both said.
The fiercest divisions in Israeli society right now are over proposals to reform the judiciary, including allowing the Knesset to override Supreme Court decisions by a majority vote and to hand the power of judicial appointments to politicians.
Deckel noted that Canadian legalist Irwin Cotler has warned that the judicial overhaul would make Israel a flawed democracy and other Jewish leaders in North America have spoken up in ways that are rare or unprecedented against some of what the new government is advocating.
“Is there really a threat to Israeli democracy?” asked Regev. “I’m not so sure. I don’t believe there is. I believe Israeli democracy is strong. I believe we can debate the pros and cons of the different judicial reforms put on the table without having to say this is the end of democracy.”
Both commentators think fears of the new government are overblown, although Wilf has a caveat. She has studied past Netanyahu governments and concluded their bark is generally worse than their bite or, at least, that the “hysteria” with which they were met was not commensurate with the policies they enacted.
“All Netanyahu governments, especially the one of 2015, were received with complete hysteria and none of it materialized,” said Wilf. “Sometimes the exact opposite. Netanyahu turned out to be much more centrist, careful, generally very much eschewing violence and conflict and even bringing peace agreements.”
A difference now, said Wilf, is that Netanyahu is head of a more ideologically narrow government, where in the past he had built fairly broad coalitions.
“For Netanyahu, that was very comfortable,” Regev said. “Because, when you have a coalition partner to the left of you and a coalition partner to the right of you, that allows you to be the conductor of the orchestra, so to speak.”
Regev sees a danger in Diaspora Jews who disagree with events in Israel airing dirty laundry, but Wilf said that is the least of her concerns. No matter who is in charge or what policies they advance, overseas opponents will make the same case, she said. “They still would have argued that Israel is a settler-colonial, apartheid, genocidal, white European blah blah blah,” she said. “That’s how they work.”
Addressing the widespread spike in antisemitism, Regev sees a silver lining. “You could be very cynical and you could say some things don’t change. But something has changed,” he said. “Something very important has changed. Unlike my father when he was a child and the Jews were stateless and defenceless and knocking on people’s doors [saying] ‘Please let me in so they won’t kill me,’ today we can proudly say that, if something has changed, the Jews have changed. We have a state. We have a successful state. With all our problems, Israel is a very successful country, politically, economically, diplomatically, militarily. We can protect ourselves.”
Gail Adelson-Marcovitz, national chair of the board of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, opened the online event, which attracted more than 1,000 participants. “Many of us believe that Israel is a state of the totality of the Jewish people and not just its citizens,” she said. “While it is the citizens of Israel who elect their government, that choice has ramifications for many aspects of our partnership and specifically impacts Diaspora Jews. We feel that our interest must, at the very least, be heard, if not respected, particularly in those areas where we are impacted.”