Every once in a while an op-ed is published in Haaretz that expresses almost precisely what I feel. Lily Galili, a veteran Israeli journalist, says it best in her own words here and below. Israelis, especially the so-called Israeli left, has to regain its moral compass. Her barbs are accurately directed against the Zionist left, i.e., Meretz and some left-leaning Labor members. Of course, terms like "left", "center", and "right", have recalibrated meanings when speaking of Israel. Here, the "left" denotes the center in the rest of the world, the "center" denotes the right and the "right" is ultra-right.
Where I disagree with Galili is the nostalgiac view that there was a time when the Israeli left had a moral compass. What she should have said is that there was a time when at least some individuals cared about the moral dimension of Israel's policy. That tradition goes back in Zionist circles to Ahad ha-Am and Judah Magnes. There were never more than a handful, and they were always marginalized in Zionist circles, even among the Zionist left.
I also disagree that there are no prophets in Israel today. There may not be any among the Zionist left, but there are among the human rights organizations.
Regaining our Moral Compass
It is hard to remember when exactly moral discourse vanished from our public arena. It happened sometime during the second intifada, as even Israel's left replaced morality with a value system of pragmatic justifications. It is no longer about what is permitted and what is forbidden, even in the context of a bloody conflict. It is about which actions are worthwhile and feasible. Morality became something for nerds, a label the left is afraid of.
The deal Israel's left made was also splendidly pragmatic: It would market the two-state solution to the public and in return make "the other" disappear. Thus the limits of morality were replaced by the limits of power, and universal values were exchanged for the winning argument: "It's good for the Jews." The ultra-scrupulous, who have felt a certain discomfort about having the moral lobe excised from their brains, squirm and say: "It's not that I love Arabs all of a sudden, but ..." Such thinking is on par with the annoying cliche: "It isn't that the Arabs have suddenly become lovers of Zion."
This distorted situation has been perpetuated to the extent that it has become impossible to remember that there used to be a different reality. This is what things look like today: Yisrael Beiteinu MK Avigdor Lieberman is proposing to move Israel's Arab citizens to another country. The counterargument: This isn't practical. The siege on Gaza is starving its inhabitants. The counterargument: They're just going to launch more Qassams. Jews are launching pogroms against Arabs in Hebron. Not a good idea at all - it'll just prompt reprisal actions.
The list is long and astounding. And if revoking citizenship were practical, and if Arabs were to swear on the Koran not to respond to the siege and the pogrom, would it be morally right to carry out all those actions?
Assuming that the answer is no, no one is going to say so aloud. It is hard to find anyone in the public arena, and certainly the political arena, to sound a moral voice and propose clear norms of good and evil. To use a technological metaphor - the moral compass has been replaced by a practical GPS. And for those who prefer metaphors from a different conceptual realm: It has been a long time since the prophets disappeared from our lives - the prophets of wrath and even the false prophets. Today no one even has the pretensions of prophesizing. This is, after all, the role of intellectuals in the modern world - to discern the boundaries between good and evil, between what is permitted and what is forbidden. In short, to be prophets. However, if we return to Ahad Ha'am's distinction between a priest, who serves the people and gives them what they need, and a prophet, who chastises and rebukes, our intellectuals serve as translators into the language of the possible and the worthwhile - a reality that we understand in any case. What a waste of their talents.
It should be noted that we have an abundance of priests. We don't need Amos Oz to declare resoundingly that the Labor party's historic role has come to an end - for that we have pollster Mina Zemach. But this, too, has already become tradition. Oz, sometimes by joining an impressive duet with A.B. Yehoshua, has proposed several unity governments over the years and has established and dismantled coalitions using advice whispered into the ears of pet politicians. It is not clear who bestowed this role on the two novelists, a role usually reserved for political bigwigs. Yet it is perfectly clear that they have betrayed their role as trailblazers and identifiers of morality and justice. In the choice between priest and prophet, they chose to be priests.
There is no one who will preach morality to us on behalf of the Palestinians, Israel's Arabs, the handicapped, the poor and all the "others." The latest report by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel shows crystal clear that we have already exacerbated all the damage we can do to them. The drama is turning into a real social and political tragedy, as the prophets are slowly being replaced by the messiahs. As a result of this process, a large public is finding itself trapped between priest and messiah, a deadly combination in an environment lacking clear moral criteria.
Obviously it is difficult to talk about morality in a reality of corrupt governments and a distorted division of the world into the axis of evil and the rest. But now, precisely now, a window of opportunity for correction has opened. Barack Obama's election as U.S. president has immediately changed the atmosphere, and the global economic crisis is restoring some moral consideration to economic discourse. Israel's government is about to be replaced and a new leftist party wants to take over the leadership of "the camp." Such a move must be accompanied by a semantic change and a revised consciousness - including, for example, explicitly saying that some things aren't done, not because they don't bring any gain, but because they are immoral. To use such language does not turn the speaker into a "sucker" - it transforms him or her into a human being. The left has done its share in the transformation of morality into an expression of weakness; now it has a chance to restore morality to its natural place as an important element in the nation's strength.
However, right now, it doesn't seem like this is going to happen. On arid earth where there is no morality, no new left will grow.