The First Temple lasted about 400 years, the Second Temple held for 600 years, and the Third Temple—if modern Israel may assume that name—is dangerously close to kicking the bucket at 75 years. Only this time there is no Assyria to whisk ancient Israelites into oblivion, no Babylon to herd Judeans into exile, and no Rome to extinguish Jewish sovereignty for two millennia. Today—much as Iran would have liked to be our latter-day vanquisher—the Jewish state is demolishing itself from within.
The build-up began, perhaps, when Menachem Begin won by a landslide in 1977 by riding the hostility of Mizrahi “Second Israel” against the largely Ashkenazi “First Israel.” During the four following decades Israel’s fragile web of coexistences was politicized and crudely mishandled. Since the late 2000s, feeding on the outgrowth of commercial news channels and the social networks, Likud’s public voice has been aggressively sectarian: anti-secular, anti-liberal and anti-Ashkenazi. The three millennia of Jewish history became chips in Israel’s political game: nationalists claiming biblical borders miraculously emptied of Arabs, ultra-Orthodox leaders despising nonbelievers. (“They have forgotten how to be Jews,” Netanyahu once sweetly whispered to a senior rabbi when he thought the microphone was off.)
Secular and liberal Jews like myself entered the fray to claim our right as legitimate heirs to Jewish history and culture, with a modern and selective approach to such treasures as the Bible and the Talmud. This was the gist of the book I co-authored with my late father Amos Oz, Jews and Words (2012). We truly believed—how naively, in retrospect!—that the big Israeli arguments are about ideas; a new round of the great Jewish battles waged in words.
Demography may not be on our side, we thought, because Orthodox families are far larger; populism is not on our side, because it caters to haters. But we did have the discreet charms of modern Hebrew culture and literature, Jewish humanism. Tel Aviv or even the kibbutz, we thought, may yet win the hearts of youngsters living in more traditional worlds. “The next great aliyah,” I would say, “may come from Bnei Brak and Mea She’arim.”
Years went by. Netanyahu was put on trial and turned against the judiciary. His cronies, now a well-organized network of pseudo-journalists and “shofars,” built up a case against the Israeli Supreme Court, accusing it of Ashkenazi elitism and left-wing (that is, human rights-oriented) leaning. And still, we did not see what was coming. We believed in democracy and in the market of ideas.
When Netanyahu formed his “full-right government” in December 2022, filling it with extreme nationalists and ultra-Orthodox members, it seemed that we still inhabited an age-old Jewish universe: bickering sects of Jews nursing mutual anger, even loathing, but somehow pulling together and sharing history, language and fate. Or, in the Israeli format, a delicate social contract that allowed the ultra-Orthodox not to serve in the army; the alt-nationalists to settle in the West Bank; and the liberal seculars to enjoy Tel Aviv, the economy they helped to boost and the beauty of our imperfect but livable state. Then it all came crashing down.
I tend to believe that the Bible was wiser than us when it commanded equal human rights to the strangers living among you. The conquest of the Palestinians—whether or not their leadership ever allowed a viable peace agreement—sent its rot down to the roots, both Jewish and democratic. It educated three generations of Israelis to believe that democracy is the tyranny of the majority and that the losers need not be heard. First, the Palestinians; then, the Israeli Arabs; soon, the left; possibly the seculars.
When the alt-right Netanyahu government was elected, it trumpeted an extreme nationalist, ultra-Orthodox and racist set of policies, but it did not make clear to its voters and opponents that it was out to kill off judicial independence. It did not disclose its plan to turn Israel into a Poland or a Hungary, devoid of separation of powers and free press, but also encumbered by occupation and lacking access to any bill of rights.
There are five powers behind the threatened coup d’état—and a coup d’état it is—darkening Israel’s grand anniversary. There is an unhinged ultra-libertarian think tank that, with unbelievable hubris, plotted to change our regime in two months, filling the Supreme Court with judges loyal to Netanyahu. There is a bunch of arch-nationalists, encouraging violence against innocent Arabs, who openly vow to eject every Palestinian from the land. They are joined by an ultra-Orthodox leadership whose raison d’être is to keep a million men and women uneducated and unemployed, respectively shut in their yeshivas or their homes. For the benefit of those who wish to study or work, their parties now demand gender segregation in universities and workplaces, as well as in cultural and sports centers. The fourth power is Israel’s prime minister himself, bent on axing his corruption trial and bowing to the demands of a greedy wife and a foul-mouthed son. The fifth group are his hundreds of thousands of blind followers, including those who regularly beat up demonstrators and shout abuse at us in pro-democracy rallies.
Is the great Jewish tradition of intellectual democracy, of putting differences into words, dead and gone? As I write these words, I am still very afraid of deadly violence in the coming weeks.
So much for prophecy of doom. Here is a cautious prophecy of redemption. At 75 years, Israel is not a new country. Its democracy is older than itself, dating to 1897, when the first Zionist Congress was held in Basel. It was a democratic congress, even more so (and astoundingly early) in the following year when women entered as full delegates. But only in 2023 did Israeli civil society discover its dormant power. We are now wider and more comprehensive than the so-called “First Israel,” the secular, liberal and sometimes well-to-do. There are many more of us than merely “the Left,” and we are out to reclaim symbols all too easily hijacked by the nationalists, including Israel’s flag and national anthem, “Hatikva.” Hatikva. Above all, we have the leading light of the Declaration of Independence, a magnificent document of Jewish national pride, commitment to peace with the Arabs, and equal civil and human rights.
Millions of Israelis who voted for the center and the left will no longer take abuse from Netanyahu and his ilk. We, the protesters, have served Israel faithfully in the army, industry, technology and education. We have seen stark inequalities rise and persist between this country’s serving citizens and its non-serving, not-even-working citizens. We have seen the chances for peace disappear into the distance, and Palestinians humiliated and unjustly killed in our name. We have seen fraud and bribery rise among the powerful, headed by the prime minister and his immediate family. In Israel’s present government,. a majority of ministers did not serve in the army at all. By way of eerie compensation, a few of them served prison terms for either violence or corruption.
And we bit our lips, even when voters for the opposition were tagged as privileged elites and self-hating Jews, the left branded as traitors, and the Ashkenazis compared to Nazis—not by anonymous trolls but by Likud’s elected politicians. We struggled politely, within the rules, when public discourse was hijacked by Bibi-spokesmen masquerading as journalists and by Likud-loving lunatics substituting swear words for arguments. Until they began to undermine liberty itself.
I am awed by the number of my countrywomen and countrymen who are out on the streets fighting this good fight. It is a very dangerous moment, civil society pitched against state, honest ideology straining against counter-ideology coupled with power-mongering and individual self-interest. This fight must be won.
My heart goes out to Israel’s friends abroad. Please know that we shall be grateful for your moral support, but we assume full responsibility for our future. I must conclude, fingers trembling on the keyboard, that 2023 may become a very significant year in Jewish history. May the Third Temple remain standing, but only as a democracy.
Fania Oz-Salzberger is an Israeli essayist, professor emerita of history at the University of Haifa and regular contributor to Moment.