The modern State of Israel was established 70 years ago based on humanistic and pluralistic values, noble standards of equality and solidarity among all people. While Jewish presence in the Holy Land persisted for thousands of years, and some 2000 years ago, there was a period of Jewish sovereignty that was extinguished, contemporary Israel was established by pioneers coming primarily from Europe. They held diverse views regarding many aspects of life, however, they all shared a strong conviction that the Jewish people is capable of maintaining democratic sovereignty and with fairness for all, even amidst the difficult circumstances emanating from its geopolitical position.
For Zionism, a state was a pre-requisite to safeguarding the Jewish people. Israel exists to provide for the wellbeing of all its citizens, Jews and non-Jews, but it is also an existential point of reference, and if necessary a refuge, for every Jew on earth. Still today, Israel is an exemplar of a functioning democracy amongst authoritarian regimes, a true multicultural society respecting, albeit not perfectly, the rights of minorities. Still today, the majority of Israelis would prefer to live in a country abiding by the high moral tenets that the first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion and his like, have upheld.
The frequent failure of present-day Israel to be fully accepted in the family of nations and to find favor in world public opinion should not in itself be of particular concern to us, Israelis. The critical importance of safeguarding the country’s borders and its citizens against those still seeking its elimination, justifies even the price of certain seclusion. Nevertheless, straying from the high moral standards upon which Israel was established, and breaching the moral boundaries the state founders have set for us, could become a real threat to the existence and wellbeing of Israel as we know it, and of world Jewry.
The visit to Jerusalem this week by Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán [18-20 July] symbolizes such moral failure. The recent agreement reached by the Israeli and Polish governments, exonerating Poland of some of its notorious actions during the World War II, is another example of boundaries that Israelis should not cross.
In her unconventional book on the banality of evil, reporting from the trial of Nazi criminal Eichmann, German Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, “evil can be banal and redefined as a civil norm.” She added that, “most people will comply but some people will not […] The Final Solution […] ‘could happen’ in most places but it did not happen everywhere.” While Orbán and his like across Europe cannot be compared to Nazi criminal Eichmann, reactions today in parts of Europe to immigration from the east serves as a brutal reminder of how quickly and seamlessly moral standards can deteriorate, also and even presently in Europe.
Hosting illiberal leaders in Jerusalem whose raison d’être is elimination of immigration, and by that legitimizing their policies, is an absurdity and an outcry. The reasons pushing Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to try to court Poland, Hungary and others, in an effort to split and weaken the EU toll in the region is understandable. He and his government often face automatic and even perfunctory criticism from the EU conglomerate, so trying to draw a wedge inside Europe is basic realpolitik. The EU has some responsibility, too, when others are more inclined to accept forces wishing to destroy the principles on which it stands.
Nevertheless, short-term political gains from realigning with Europe’s extreme right might prove very costly for Israel. Endorsing Orbán works against the Jewish state’s core values and interests. For Israeli leadership, national interest should go far beyond immediate political gains and their responsibility extends to world Jewry. The implications of their actions and statements ought to be in good faith for the Jewish people and for Zionism-at-large.
The litmus test for Israel’s leaders in that regard should be whether the Jewish community in the discussed country supports the leadership in question. Are the country’s Jews as a minority feeling welcome, safe and protected? In the case of Hungary, the answer is no. Orbán’s anti-Semitic undertones and policies threaten Hungary’s Jews. That should be sufficient to disinvite him and several others who are in a similar position.
Beyond the immediate political gains, the EU and Israel should act more responsibly in order to serve the long term interests and wellbeing of their people. Brussels and Jerusalem must reestablish trust and increase practical exchange within the wide spectrum of center-right and center-left in both entities. They should work together, within the many existing joint frameworks, to create more unity between moderate forces, and together reject radicalism. Israel has valued expertise it can share with the EU in the field of absorbing immigrants and making refugees feel at home. Europe’s greatest challenge today is one Israel has dealt with throughout its existence, being a true immigrant society. In proportional terms, Israel taking in one million Russian immigrants when it had less than six, some three decades ago, can be compared to Germany taking in over ten million immigrants today. Albeit not similar, specifically on the background of religious affinity between Jews which is absent in Europe, many challenges are the same.
Israel will stand to gain from opposing Europe’s extremists and sticking to the noble values upon which it was established. World Jewry will be proud once again to be affiliated with their second homeland, Israel. And Europe will have an ally with unprecedented credibility in fighting xenophobia, a calming element to a most volatile region at its footsteps, to defend the values upon which the European Union was created, on the rubbles of World War II.
Raanan Eliaz founded and led for a decade the European Leadership Network (ELNET) and its Forum of Strategic Dialogue (FSD), two organizations dedicated to strengthening relations between Europe and Israel. He is a member of the Mitvim Institute’s task-team on Israel-EU relations.