Our reflexive response tells us to fix the problems we see in Israel, but we must do precisely the opposite. After all, the problem is not with the current government — it goes far deeper.
By Yuli Novak
On the slopes of the mountains of northern Catalonia are giant homes that date back hundreds of years. Most of them are abandoned. They remain there because someone, long ago, had enough patience and faith to build something that would not be destroyed by time, war, or the elements. It’s quite impressive — in fact, it’s inspirational.
There, on the mountains, I learned how to quarry stone with a chisel and hammer a few weeks ago. The truth is that it is both easier and more difficult than I imagined. It is physically easier and mentally harder, and demands a great deal of patience and faith.
During the week I was there, at the windy mountains, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Tzipi Hotovely, almost got herself fired. According to the newspapers, it was because of an English-language television interview she did. Upon watching the interview, I understood that in some sense, Hotovely is a gift to the cause. In her own strange way, she makes reality far easier to understand.
Hotovely’s interview with i24:
Hotovely, in her typical arrogance and fanaticism, stirred controversy by speaking her mind about non-Orthodox American Jews, arguing that they are not qualified to understand, let alone criticize Israeli policies because they “never send their children to fight for their country.” Hotovely went on to mention how she was prevented from speaking at the Princeton chapter of Hillel, the largest Jewish student organization in the world, and chalked the decision up to a “liberal dictatorship.” She also spoke about the Western Wall and the Israeli government’s decision to cancel a long-negotiated agreement that would have created an egalitarian prayer space at the holy site, saying that the brouhaha was simply another manipulative attempt to attack the government.
Not long after the interview ended, the prime minister picked up his phone and Hotovely apologized. The deputy foreign minister explained that she did not actually mean what she said, and that we should all just move on with our lives — that is, go back to watching the Israeli government destroy Israel’s democracy as the political opposition watches in astonishment that its democracy is being subverted.
In a certain sense, in the long run, Hotovely’s interview is an important moment in Israel’s developed political reality. When the person in charge of Israel’s foreign relations starts to damage the delicate relationship between Israel and American, we must pay close attention. It is significant because in a single moment, Hotovely put a spotlight on the most important cracks at the heart of the Israeli regime. In doing so, she showed us exactly where we must push.
In order to quarry stone, you must first of all choose the right rock and hope that if there are invisible cracks, that they are located in the right place. Then, you draw a line where you want it to break and begin striking it with the chisel. Weak, evenhanded strikes. Don’t aim for one specific spot, but a few select points along the line. Don’t stray from that line; once you start striking the rock you must continue. Even as you begin to feel pain in your arms and shoulders, and even, or perhaps especially, when it seems that the pain and the effort are leading nowhere.
Quarrying stone demands faith, and this faith is constantly tested by the senses because nothing appears to have happened. And why should a few weak strikes with a chisel break the stone? It makes no sense. It’s hard to remember sometimes that what we see with our eyes does not always reflect reality. How easy it is to fall into that trap. The process is almost Sisyphean. But when that stone finally breaks all at once, it’s a wonder to see.
One of the main problems with acting as an effective opposition under the type of regime we see unfolding in Israel is the impossible power relations. We have hardly any power in the socio-political arena compared to that of the Israeli government. They are stronger, more frightening, and more violent. Their threats, unlike ours, hold water — enough water to drown each and every one of us if and when they decide to. Telling ourselves that we can win in an arena where power dynamics are so unequal is taxing, inefficient, and can have negative psychological repercussions. We need to be smarter than that.
But there are also small areas where the power dynamics are reversed, where the regime lacks much power. These spots are the contradictions that lay at the very foundations of the regime; they are invisible cracks upon which it is based. It is because of these cracks, then, that it will crumble. A week ago, Tzipi Hotovely showed us exactly where one of these cracks is located. Although surely unintentionally, she revealed to us where we must apply our pressure.
Recognizing the crack
Contrary to our reflexive response to attempt to fix the problem, we must do precisely the opposite. Some things, after all, must not be fixed but broken.
One of these cracks is the way the Israeli government treats Judaism — as part of its nationalistic, messianic, and corrupt worldview. This is crucial because the forces that maintain segregation at the Western Wall are the same forces that prop up the occupation over the Palestinians in the west bank and gaza. It is the same group that puts religious-nationalist values above liberal democratic values — a group that truly believes it is worth more than others.
The government’s treatment of non-Orthodox Jews is not the most cruel thing happening in Israel today, and it is far from the most violent or dangerous. But it gives us something to work with. Something to work on.
The Western Wall crisis is pushing American Jews to join the real struggle for our home. It is a harsh but also beautiful moment to witness, as they see reality for what it is. The Israeli government’s actions are radicalizing American Jews, unwittingly turning them into activists and dissidents.
Tzipi Hotovely is correct to claim that the criticism American is leveling against her and the Israeli government is “political.” This really is a political issue. It is a ideological struggle between two opposing worldviews.
When Hotovely decries American Jewry’s “liberal dictatorship” she is revealing exactly where the heart of the conflict and struggle lies: this is not a struggle over nuances — it is a war over principles and worldviews. It is a war over what kind of regime we want here, not just which political party is in power.
We must wrap our heads around that fact along with all of its repercussions: in a war, people pay the price. There is no avoiding it. One such price is giving up on the false notion that Israel is a democracy that protects the rights and liberties of all who live under it. That is extremely painful, not only because we must come to terms with the fact that we have been living a lie — that we are not who we thought we were — but because it means something quite radical about the nature of the struggle that must take place here, and the price we will have to pay to win.
When we recognize such cracks, we must strike at them. Again and again, calmly and patiently. We needn’t demand that Netanyahu fire Hotovely. We must recognize that people like her are a gift to the struggle; they help us see reality for what it is.
The past and the future beget fear. What we must do is to bravely recognize what is taking place now, in the present. We must fight, here and now, with devotion and without getting confused by what is happening above the surface. In chiseling, what we see is often perplexing. We must simply believe, for when the stone finally breaks, it takes you by surprise.
Yuli Noval is an activist and the former executive director of Breaking the Silence.