Leftists and liberal Jews in the US are outraged by the anticipated entry of the far-right Kahanist fringe group “Otzma Yehudit” (Jewish Power) into the Knesset. Meanwhile, under the radar, another new party “Zehut” (which translates as Identity), headed by ultra-right libertarian Moshe Feiglin, is hoping to be the surprise of the elections.
Feiglin will enter the Knesset with at least four seats if he passes the election threshold. This would be without the support of PM Benjamin Netanyahu, who once expelled him from the Likud. Young secular Israelis flock around Feiglin. In his lectures and interviews, he speaks about his libertarian vision for a Jews-only Israel and the freedom to use cannabis.
While the Kahanists are denounced as racist thugs, and rightly so, Feiglin has become ‘cool’ and a ‘superstar’, appearing frequently in television studios and on the front pages of leading newspapers. Cannabis has become a buzzword for many Israeli politicians in the coming elections. However, behind Feiglin’s advocacy of it lies a darker agenda, which includes Jewish supremacy, a return to religious law, re-conquest of the whole West Bank and Gaza Strip, and a synagogue on the site of the Muslim Noble Sanctuary, where the Jewish Temple once stood.
For years, Israel has been wrestling with its identity (zehut): Is it Jewish and democratic, or more Jewish and less democratic, or vice versa? Israeli Jews define their identity today by distinguishing themselves from Arabs. Recently, to tip the balance toward Jewishness, the nation-state law was enacted. When celebrity actress Rotem Sela deviated from the consensus, posting on Instagram that “Israel is a state of all its citizens, and all human beings are born equal,” Netanyahu hit back by saying, “Israel is not a state of all its citizens. Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish nation – and it alone.”
For Feiglin, however, the nation-state law does not go far enough. The Zehut Party, which he founded, gives Israeli Jewish youth a dual identity: The freedom to be secular and smoke cannabis, as well as the right to deny Palestinians both zehut and freedom. Feiglin sees no need for civics classes and panels to discuss the issue of “Jewish and/or democratic.” His message is unequivocal – the country is Jewish, period. Judaism is democratic—for Jews. In the course of years, surveys conducted among Israeli youth asked, “Should Arab citizens be given the right to vote?” About half answer in the negative. Netanyahu and right-wing leader Naftali Bennett are sowing, but Feiglin is reaping the fruit of the country’s educational system.
We can blame the Right for stroking racism, but the Zionist Left and the Arab parties play a key role in forming Israeli identity. Arab parties say it is natural for a persecuted minority to unite into parties of a national character to protect its national identity. However, in this way, they remove themselves from any ability to influence the body politic, giving fuel to the Jewish claim that they aren’t part of Israeli society. For its part, the Zionist Left sees itself as the party of the state’s founders; it cautiously treads the line between Jewish and democratic. It fears an Arab majority, the demographic question haunts it, and although Jews are 75% of Israel’s population, it behaves as though they are a threatened minority.
After Israel conquered millions of Palestinians in 1967, the problem arose of how to preserve a Jewish majority. The methods have been many and varied. First, they administered a cruel military occupation that has lasted 52 years with no end in sight. After Palestinians rose in revolt, (1987–1991), an agreement was made (the Oslo Accords) dividing the conquered territories into three areas and establishing a fake Palestinian Authority. After a second uprising a decade later, Israel built a long high wall between itself and the West Bank like the one that is inspiring Trump today. Nowadays, with no partners in sight, leaders in the center float the idea of a unilateral disengagement like the one in Gaza (2005), while some on the Left still advocated the outdated two-state solution. A wide range of further techniques are proposed: granting autonomy to the Palestinians, annexing Area C à la Naftali Bennett, or Netanyahu’s “we will do nothing, because there is nothing to be done and no one to do it with.”
The amazing thing is that the Left remains stuck on the old slogans. Meretz and Labor are both potentially facing collapse in the elections. The Center ebbs and peaks with every election. On the Right, the sands are constantly shifting: Bennett splits from the Jewish Home to establish the New Right, the Jewish Home merges with the Kahanists, Kahlon turns his back on the Likud, Lieberman is not taking prisoners, and now, Feiglin is joining the fray.
Now comes dark horse Feiglin with a solution that is surprisingly easy. He doesn’t lose sleep over keeping a Jewish majority because he supports the apartheid paradigm of white South Africa. After the territories are reconquered and Oslo nullified, Palestinians will not be allowed to vote for the Knesset. He offers a rehashed approach to the demographic problem: encourage “voluntary emigration.” “The Land of Israel belongs only to the Jewish people by virtue of divine election,” he holds. Feiglin dares to express aloud the extremist scenario for solving the demographic problem.
While the Israeli Left debates the issue of identity and juggles the democracy/Judaism dilemma, the Right attracts the masses by doubling down. As long as the Arab population backs parties with an Arab and Islamic identity, the Right will rule, even when three former chiefs of staff unite against it. The Right’s delegitimization of Arab citizens is not a gimmick to make sure the base shows up at the polls; it is a way to block the opposition from forming an electoral alliance with the Arab parties. The issue is so important that when the above-mentioned Rotem Sela challenges the idea that the Arabs are illegitimate, the PM personally rebukes her and tells his opponents not to dare ally themselves with the Arabs.
By advocating the separation of Palestinians from Israelis—whether by unilateral withdrawal or two states—the Left fails to distinguish itself from the Right, because the logic in both cases is that Jews must remain demographically segregated. The only effective way to deal with the Right would be to introduce the idea that after Israel made division of the territories impossible, it should opt to become a normal country and build a democratic egalitarian society.
A new identity (zehut) must be formed that is not built on extreme nationalism but on human dignity. After the first wave of the Arab spring, masses of young people in the Arab world (Sudan, Algeria, Morocco) are taking to the streets and calling for democracy. They are prepared to sacrifice their lives for it. Hundreds of thousands of young people in the West Bank and Gaza are fed up with the Occupation, with the Palestinian Authority, and with Hamas dictatorship. They yearn for democracy and civil rights. These are our future partners in a new political identity that will transcend borders and nationalities, a zehut that is based on a yearning for peace and a normal life within a single framework uniting Israelis and Palestinians. All other solutions perpetuate the status quo and allow the Feiglins to carry off the youth in a cloud of legalized cannabis—when in fact they are legalizing apartheid.
- Translated from the Hebrew by Robert Goldman