Meimad: A Viable Alternative for Israel by Deborah Mark
Meimad: A Viable Alternative for Israel by Deborah Mark

Volume 2 , Issue 4

?How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese??

Charles DeGaulle

I was reminded of DeGaulle's statement of exasperation as Jews worldwide struggled to comprehend the results and implications of recent Israeli elections. Underlying the tensions of the ?Who is a Jew? debate, there seemed to be both confusion and resistance to a contest of twenty-seven defiantly individualistic parties competing for seats in the next Knesset. The parliamentary system, Israeli-style, is foreign to most American Jews, who are used to the predictability and stability of the two party system. As coordinator of theAmerican Office of MEIMAD (Centrist Religious Party) this past fall, I found myself immersed in both election campaigns. The contrast was inescapable between the American public relations-run campaign, ending in gracious conciliation by midnight, and the hard-fought ideological confrontations with its ominous overtones, in Israel. On the morning after the Israeli elections, many of the fundamental issues still lacked consensus or resolve.

Why Another Party?

In anticipation of such inevitable political chaos, why would anyone seek to create yet another movement, another party?

One obvious reason is that new parties in Israel will always be an attractive vehicle for political results because, as we have seen, coalition politics in a close election will reward a ?minor? victory (of one or two seats) with leverage and clout during the negotiations that precede the formation of a government. Second, political ends in Israel are most often achieved through direct political intervention and involvement; whereas American Jewish influence develops through access to power, through grass-roots organizations, conferences and lobbying groups. An American interest group will often achieve its ends through influence and access to candidates and officeholders without ever having to declare itself on any ballot. As American Jews with a strong interest in Israeli affairs, we must be comfortably familiar with these two alternative models for political action and result. Within the United States, we have not strayed far from the ?Purim? model, the prototypical diaspora experience which offered salvation by fortuitous access to power, access earned through assertion of longstanding Jewish principles, mutual interest and goodwill. Sometimes, even in our time, the agent is mysterious, almost mystical--an Eddie Jacobson, the Missouri haberdasher who arranged for Truman's secret meeting with Chaim Weitzman in those crucial months in 1947. More predictably, American Jewish interest is asserted through the diaspora Jewish leadership, its efforts diffused through over fifty major organizations, committees, and boards in a baroque infrastructure that is often effective, always well-meaning, yet, in a way, less democratic and understood by the average Jew than, even the crazyquilt Israeli ballot list. So whether in galut or in Israel, it seems that the tiresome ?two Jews--threeopinions? jokes (e.g., the Jew on the desert island who built two shuts--so there would be one where he never goes!) are not going to go out of style anytime soon.

In the case of MEIMAD, its formation as a new party was, paradoxically, motivated by the desire of its founders to be a unifying force by seeking to utilize Jewish tradition in a positive way. MEIMAD foresaw the crisis stemming from two critical problems: the growing gap between religious and secular Jews in Israel and the political deadlock with the Arabs. By entering the political arena, we hope to contribute to the realization of an Israel that reflects the hopes and visions invested in it by the entire Jewish people. The necessity for a new party was specifically to perpetuate the special role that the religious Zionist community has played in Israel's development. Made up primarily of traditionally oriented Jews, it is the only such political framework in Israel which opposes the attempt to amend the Law of Return and other forms of religious coercion, it saw the necessity to distinguish itself as religious Zionists from the platform of the NRP (National Religious Party) which has taken more extremist positions on both religious and political issues. In contrast, MEIMAD gained considerable attention in Israel for its following positions:

The peace, welfare and preservation of the State of Israel as a Jewish State takes precedence over the goal of political control of the entirety of Eretz Yisrael.

MEIMAD advocates Israeli initiatives that reflect needs of Israeli security while creating the basis for a workable peace with the Palestinians and the Arab States.

The ways of Torah are those of peace. Coercive legislation is not the way to advance religious observance. MEIMAD would not support attempts to advance ?religious? legislation that lack a clear national consensus or that threaten the unity of the Jewish people.

MEIMAD supports the full integration of women in public and political life, including the elected lay bodies of organized religious life and the leadership of MEIMAD itself.

MEIMAD supports the movement to change the Israeli electoral system by introducing regional representation in the Knesset and the direct election of the executive branch.

MEIMAD is led by Rabbi Yehuda Amital, head of the Gush Etzion Yeshiva and founder of the ?Hesder? yeshiva movement (which requires students to serve in IDF combat divisions). He has become one of the most respected religious and political personalities in Israel.

A Fresh Perspective

My participation in MEIMAD's effort has given me a fresh perspective on potential relationships between Israeli and American Jews. For many years, American Jews have been exceedingly Zionist, i.e., ?pro-Israel? yet they have traditionally drawn the line at direct involvement in Israeli politics. Many educational programs instilled the passion and ever-righteousness of the Zionist cause while hardly acknowledging, except as an occaisonal historical footnote, the serious philosophical divisions within the movement. By high school, many Jewish students are familiar with Jeffersonian vs. Hamiltonian democracy but not with the conflicting visions and personal antipathy between Ben Gurion and Begin; they may know of Antietam but not the Altalena. Most American Jews are unaware of the historical conflicts between religionists and Zionists, let alone of any of the ensuing compromises that were reached between them. The mythology of Israel grew as we welcomed the steady stream of Israeli visitors: we applauded Eban. Ben Gurion, Goida, Dayan, Rabin, Weitzman, then Begin, Sharon, Shamir, Netanyahu without skipping a beat. The danger. as we are seeing now, is that by making each one into a fungible symbol of Israel, when some of us no longer share in their particular vision, Israel is condemned with the same simplicity.

An alternative approach is that involvement in Israeli political events is an inevitable outgrowth of a professed belief in a Jewish State. From the moment that Nathan Birnbaum spun the term ?Zionist? into modem usage in the late 1890's, it was meant to convey a political, as opposed to a purely philanthropic, approach to Eretz Yisrael and its eventual settlement. Beyond the widely accepted belief in Jewish statehood, the concept spawned sub-headings, hyphenations, with each Zionist subgroup contesting the relative political, social and religious values that would prevail with the realization of the Zionist goal. There were debates as to what should be the Zionist goal. For American Jews to be ?Zionist? without wishing to ?get involved? in Israeli politics is a deviation from the historical continuum that reflects many of the same divisions that were so painfully apparent in the 1988 elections. As unnerving as the outcome was, the apolitical approach to Israel ironically led to the most despair because it left most American Jews feeling helpless, alienated and bereft of the illusion on which many loyalties were based.

?A Fresh New Breeze?

MEIMAD received nearly 17,000 votes in November 1988, just short of the number needed for a seat in the Knesset. In an election that has generally been characterized as fractured and spiritually divisive, MEIMAD, by entering the political fray. became a symbol to many Israelis and Americans, traditional and secular, of ?a fresh new breeze?, offering sensitivity and reason to the various factions within the Israeli electorate. All polls predicted success at the level of one or two seats. MEIMAD enjoyed unprecedented popularity in the Israeli press; on election eve, after the polls closed but before the returns were reported, Israeli television broadcast a documentary of Rabbi Amital and his vision for Israel as expressed through the MEIMAD platform.

In the United States, our office received a spontaneous outpouring of positive feedback from all segments of the usually splintered Jewish community. From across the country, MEIMAD became the political address for Jews searching for positive political and spiritual identification.

Unfortunately, the goodwill alone could not ultimately overcome the inherent disadvantage that a new party faces in a system that heavily favors incumbency. MEIMAD, in particular, achieved a very late start, declaring itself fully in the Summer of 1988, thereby allowing less time to raise funds and campaign than is usually allotted for planning a New York wedding or shul dinner!

Nevertheless, in the aftermath of November 1, editorials and commentators and many Israelis who voted otherwise expressed genuine regret and provided poignant analysis of what might have been had MEIMAD prevailed especially in light of the fierce polarization and backlash and resultant religious stereotyping that took place in the weeks that followed. The issues raised by MEIMAD became the focus of a painful debate waged within Israel and the American Jewish community on the very issue of the Jewish State. It became clear that MEIMAD has a very crucial role to play in creating an Israeli society that will serve as a source of unity, pride and strength for the entire Jewish people.

Rabbi Amital writes:

It is incumbent upon us to find as many good points in this generation as possible...lf we believe that the State of Israel is a haven for millions of Jews, and that the survival of those Jews hinges on peace for Israel and the Jewish State's capacity to withstand its many enemies; and if we believe that the re-establishment of the Jewish State and its survival constituted Kiddush Hashem -- sanctification and glorification of God's name; if the State of Israel is precious to us; if we have not yet been infected by the ?Haredi heresy? which excludes God from the history of the re-establishment of Jewish Statehood and regards it as a purely human act-- then we had better realize that the State of Israel is not going to endure if cordial relations do not prevail between all sectors of the nation. Only if Jews relate to each other as brothers, irrespective of ideology, can we maintain this state. Otherwise we live under a threat of destruction.

From A Torah Perspective on the Status of Secular Jews Today. by Rabbi Yehuda Amital, appearing in Tradition, 23(4), Summer 1988.

By crossing that arbitrary line into direct involvement in Israeli politics, American participants have defined an active, yet non-intrusive role. Unlike many American-based organizations that have been lobbying the Knesset for understanding of American Jewish concerns vis a vis Israel, we are sharing a vision with a significant group of Israelis and through our efforts at hashara and financial support, enabling them to make themselves and their positions known, thus allowing them to function effectively within their own system. As American partners, we've gone beyond planting trees as our means of identification; we're helping to impart new thoughts, fresh energy and spirit into a system badly in need of such infusion.

Harry Truman said that ?Men make history and not the other way around.? Today's politics is tomorrow's historical moment in retrospect. With so much at stake, remaining on the political and historical sidelines is the ultimate default.

Deborah Mark is the North American Director of MEIMAD.

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