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National Agenda : A Kinder, Gentler Zionism for Israel? : Yitzhak Rabin's election victory heralds a change in the values of the Jewish state that emphasizes secularism and pragmatism. That does not please everyone.

August 04, 1992|DANIEL WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — During a private, post-election victory celebration among old-time Labor Israel's supporters the other day, an elderly woman who has backed the party ever since she fought in successful struggle for independence raised her glass in a toast.

"I can finally feel good about being an Israeli again!" she exclaimed.

It was a sentiment commonly heard among party stalwarts thrilled by the victory of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the restoration after 15 long years of a true Labor-led government. It reflected a sense, felt on all sides of the political divide, that Labor's victory will mean not just a change in politics, but for better or worse a change in the values of the Jewish state.

Elections in Israel are regarded as gauges not just of political opinion, but also of the state of Israel's identity. Ever since the late Menachem Begin and his Likud Party toppled Labor from power in 1977, critics have claimed to see a drift to the political and religious right in Israel--toward a militaristic, less tolerant, less open society and one less respectful of democratic values.

Now, in an electoral stroke, a pair of liberal parties anchor Israel's new government. Not only is the Likud Party excluded, but so are groups further to the right, as well as religious parties that had aggressively pursued a campaign to make the country more pious.

The dramatic switch reignited lingering disputes over the very nature of Israel and especially its founding ideology, Zionism. And it could mean significant change not only to the politics of the Jewish state but also to the rhythm of its everyday life.

Both contenders in the ideological debate claim to be the heir to authentic Zionism, which at its most basic holds that Jews need a state of their own.

To Labor boosters, however, Rabin's victory means revival of a kinder, gentler Zionism, one laced with a heavy dose of pragmatism. In their view, Israel is meant to engender normalcy for a people long burdened by persecution; in Israel, Jews for the first time are meant to feel at ease with the world at large. The centuries-old "Jewish question" would be resolved by making Israel a state like others in the liberal, modern Western mold that Jews throughout history helped to construct.

Within this stream of Zionism runs a strong, secular current and a disregard for tradition--the whole late 19th-Century idea of leaving Europe's Jewish ghettos to return to the ancestral homeland in Palestine was, in part, a revolt against religious-centered Judaism, and some ultrareligious Jews to this day consider the state a sacrilege. But these historical Zionists were bent on creating a New Jewish Man--an identity nourished by the land, by work and security.

To others, however, including the downcast followers of the deposed political right wing, this brand of Zionism represents an elite, soulless vision of Jewish life. To them, insisting that Israel be like any other country smacks of trying "to pass" for non-Jew. Israel must function on its own terms and with its own values protected by its own arms--and to heck with what outsiders think.

Over time, the right found common cause with groups that emphasized the religious roots of Israeli identity. The establishment of Israel in the Promised Land was not an accident but an affirmation of the God-driven history of the Jews, in this religious view. Jews were in Israel because they were Jews--not simply because they were refugees. All Jews, whether they are persecuted or not, should return to the land.

These two branches of Zionism clashed over the very map of Israel. For Labor Zionists, although Palestine was the ancestral home for the Jews it was also a land that could be divided if needed to serve the interest and survival of the State of Israel.

For the right, led by Likud, such division was blasphemy. You could no sooner divide the Promised Land than you could lop off one of the Ten Commandments. As in biblical disputes of birthright, no part of the patrimony could be ceded--least of all to Arabs, who became stand-ins for the ancient enemies of the Israelites who had first settled in the Land of Milk and Honey.

Although the territorial dispute is the best-known battlefield for the ideological struggle, it is not the only one. There is also a cultural and civil debate that is bound to intensify now that Labor has resumed power. Clashes will rage on issues ranging from bus schedules on the Sabbath to religious instruction in the schools; from the production of non-kosher meat to the induction of religious students into the army.

It is unlikely that either side will win these struggles unconditionally. In a sense, it is misleading to read into the results of any one election--the latest one included--judgments about the state of Israel's identity.

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