Israel’s March 17 election is two years earlier than it should be, thanks to the collapse of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government in December. Contributing to the breakup was an impassioned debate over whether a stronger legal emphasis on the country’s Jewish character would ultimately make Israel less democratic.
In Israel’s early years, leaders hoped that becoming Israeli would unite the nation’s diverse population, which now includes Jews of eastern European origin, of Middle Eastern descent and, more recently, from Africa; secular liberals; right-wing West Bank settlers; ultra-Orthodox of many sects and large numbers of Russians not recognized as Jewish by government rabbis. Twenty percent of Israeli citizens are Arabs; many feel loyal to both Israel and their Palestinian relatives.
All these individuals and groups have their own definitions of what it means to be Israeli. While more than three-fourths of Jewish citizens say they are proud to be Israeli, the number has been dropping in recent years, according to pollster Tamar Herman, with the Israel Democracy Institute.
Some on the left are critical of Israel’s military occupation and the ever-expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank, land Palestinians claim for a future state, she says. On the right are those who “think that Israeliness is not Jewish enough. And they have to share this Israeli identity with Arabs,” she says.
Here are five conversations with five very different Israeli voters about their sense of identity, their belief in democracy, and what they hope for in the election.
A Champion Of The Settlers
In 1975, Daniella Weiss helped start the West Bank settlement of Kedumim. Now a grandmother of 18, she has seen the school there grow from a shack for two first graders to a bustling building with some 1,000 students.
For her, Israeli’s identity is the land that in the Bible is called Judea and Samaria – known to most of the world now as the West Bank. Taken by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, the area is home to 2.7 million Palestinians without Israeli citizenship, more than 350,000 Jewish settlers, and is still controlled by the Israeli military.
“It is the land of the Jews, for the Jews, in the Biblical place that was promised to the Jews,” Weiss says.
Arabs have no real place in any part of Israel, she says, not even the million who are citizens in Israel proper. Guaranteeing equal rights in Israel’s 1947 declaration of independence was “fine at the time,” she says, but not now, as “the Arabs did not prove loyalty to the state of Israel.”
If that sets Judaism above democracy in Israel, she says, so be it. She wants stricter rules on the Jewish Sabbath, limits on Arabs in parliament, and courts rooted in religious law.
“If you want to call it theocracy, call it this. But I think Jewish laws are the better laws for the Jews,” she says.
Israeli police have arrested Weiss for confrontations and investigated her support of settlements that even the Israeli government considers illegal.
This election, she wants to keep Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister, though says she considered voting for his rightist rival Naftali Bennett.
For Weiss, it’s all about territory.
“There is only one issue. Only one,” she says. “Will the country, the state of Israel be just for the Israelis, just for the Jews, or will it be divided?”
The Venture Capitalist
Venture capitalist Michael Eisenberg loves the 2009 book Start-Up Nation about Israel’s dynamic high-tech sector, just for the image it created of his adopted country.
“It disrupted the branding of Israel in a very positive way,” he says.
From parliamentary candidates, he wants to hear less about West Bank settlements and conflicts with Palestinians and more about Israel creating a nation with a strong, modern economy.
He doesn’t really wish to debate whether a Jewish state can truly be democratic or what steps Israel should take to deal with Iran and its nuclear program.
“I don’t think there is a tremendous difference between (the leading politicians) on what to do about Iran,” he says. “We have real fundamental issues in this country around the economy, around opportunity, around innovation, around how we increase the creative class in this country.”
Two years ago, Eisenberg contributed cash and his vote to Naftali Bennett, a startup founder and settler leader who would like to annex large parts of the West Bank.
This election, Eisenberg hasn’t yet decided who to support.
“I don’t feel anyone I’m looking at has taken the leadership steps necessary to be prime minister of this country,” he says.
Born and raised in an Orthodox family in New York, Eisenberg says he brings American sensibilities about freedom and scale that sometimes set him apart from native Israelis, even after 20 years in Jerusalem.
He moved on the advice of a rabbi, who waved away an esoteric religious question by telling Eisenberg the best way to serve Israel was to go there and create 10,000 good jobs.
He calls Judaism his “absolute core.” He strives to go to synagogue three times a day and turns off all technology on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath, to spend time with his wife and their eight children.
He sees no tension between Israel striving to guard the rights of Jewish people and being a democracy that treats everyone fairly, despite what he calls “decades of neglect” – some inadvertent, some deliberate, he says – of infrastructure and opportunities for Arab-Israeli citizens.
He says that should be remedied with massive investment. This is a topic he prefers to discuss much more than what kind of peace deal might work with the Palestinians.
“When you’re building a state, you kind of focus on where you can make progress faster,” he says. “Kind of like building a startup.”
A Reform Rabbi In An Orthodox State
Rabbi Nava Hefetz wrestles regularly with one of Israel’s core contradictions of identity: a democratic state guaranteeing equal rights for all, but that exists and advocates for Jewish people.
As education director for Rabbis for Human Rights, Hefetz developed a curriculum for young Israelis to study the country’s Declaration of Independence as a rabbi would the Torah. That means deep consideration, one sentence at a time, drawing on Biblical, literary, historic, legal and other sources for understanding.
The program is taught in some of Israel’s pre-military academies, where many students spend a year between high school and their military call-up.
Hefetz calls the academies “the reservoir of the next leaders in Israel.”
“We want to educate them to think in a critical way,” she says.
There is plenty to think about. Israel’s Declaration of Independence guarantees equal social and political rights to everyone regardless of religion, race or sex.
It also identifies Israel as a Jewish state, a country where Jewish people can “be masters of their own fate.”
Hefetz says simply considering the more than 20 percent of Israeli citizens who are not Jewish – predominantly Arab Muslims – raises real questions.
“Do we develop the country also for their benefit, or only for the Jewish population?” she asks.
Hefatz deeply values living in a place where the dominant culture lets her “live a normal Jewish life.”
But she also notes that Israel comes up short because it discriminates among Jews. Religious and civic life in Israel, including marriage, divorce, and Sabbath rules, is controlled by an Orthodox rabbinate.
Hefetz is ordained as a Reform rabbi.
“I’m not recognized by the state,” she says simply.
Raised secular by parents born in Egypt, Hefetz spent fourth grade in Catholic boarding school in Paris.
It was a “total shock,” she says. Later the family joined her father doing agricultural development work in Africa.
She served in the Israeli military during the 1973 Mideast war, which led to a “break” in her Israeli identity.
Because her organization avoids taking direct political positions, Hefetz won’t share her party preference this election. But she says current leaders tap too much into Jews’ sense of vulnerability.
“Fear. This is what maintains them in power,” she says.
At 91, Still Fighting For His Vision
Uzzi Ornan says his vote is private, but it will reflect his life-long fight to be Israeli.
The 91-year-old linguistics professor was born in Jerusalem back when the British ruled Palestine. He calls his parents, both born Jewish, Eastern European “revolutionaries.”
His mother, Ornan says, smuggled pistols as part of the 1905 Polish uprising against Russia. He calls his father part of the “revolt against the Jews” — a man seeking to break free from his religious upbringing.
As a teen in Tel Aviv, Ornan joined the Zionist Irgun underground militia. His enemy was imperial Britian.
“It was the feeling that we are not free,” he remembers now. “We called ourselves Hebrew, not Jewish.”
He helped make bombs, targeting red British post boxes. That soon forced Ornan to go into hiding.
He left Irgun, realizing the militant group sought more of a Jewish state than he did. But when British officers eventually found Ornan, they imprisoned him in detention camps in Africa for four years.
Ornan says the only time he ever covered his head for a Jewish religious ceremony was in one of the camps, during Passover. At first he refused the request of his fellow inmates. But he soon “understood if I didn’t, I’d have nothing to eat,” and put a handkerchief on his head, he says, chuckling at the memory.
Applying for citizenship in Israel, he was granted it because his mother was born Jewish.
Years later, Ornan fought this in court, calling it “a Nazi approach.” He lost in 2013. The Supreme Court also refused his request to list his ethnicity as “Israeli” on his government ID. Justices ruled that there is no evidence of a uniquely Israeli people.
A nation, he says is “one territory, one people, everyone who lives here.”
An Israeli Passport, An Arab Identity
In her five decades as an Israel citizen, Najwa Mubarki, who is Arab, has voted just a couple times.
“When I was younger, and did not understand politics, I voted twice,” she says. “But now I see the Arab parties are a fig leaf for Israeli racism, meant to show that Israel is a democratic state.”
Her reluctance to vote is not uncommon. Turnout among Arab-Israelis fell from more than 75 percent two decades ago to 56 percent in the 2013 election.
Some Arab-Israeli groups actively boycott elections – saying to participate is to lend credibility to Israeli practices that hurt non-Jewish citizens, as well as Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation. Others say their votes for parliament make little difference to their lives.
Mubarki is in the latter camp.
She was born in Akko, a coastal city not far from her father’s village of an-Nahar. Like many Arabs, he fled or was evicted during the 1948 war following Israel’s declaration of independence.
Despite being born in Israel, Mubarki says she does not feel Israeli.
“I carry an Israeli passport,” she says, “but my identity is not Israeli.”
Since she does have that passport, she can’t travel to most Arab countries – not even to visit relatives in Lebanon. Although Akko has both Arab and Jewish populations, Mubarki says in her experience the “cultures never mix.” Education systems are separate. She knows many Jewish Israelis – personally and professionally — but counts few real friends among them.
“We are always friends until we talk politics,” she says.
An independent film producer, Mubarki moved to East Jerusalem in 1993, shortly after the signing of the Oslo Accords. That historic agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization promised a path toward an independent Palestinian state. It has yet to be realized, but Mubarki says living in the city that she hopes will someday be the capital of Palestine may help establish that claim.
Many Jewish Israelis worry that Arabs, including Arab-Israelis, would like to see an end to Israel, at least as a Jewish state.
“This is not an issue I think about,” Mubarki says. “My focus is having a state for me.”