The 16th Annual Herzliya conference opened at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, with a discussion by Israeli senior ministers and political party leaders on the joint initiative “Shared Israeli Hope.” President Reuven Rivlin opened his keynote address saying Israeli society has transitioned from being made up of a clear majority and minorities into a society made up of four main sectors or tribes, which are becoming more and more equal in size: secular, Modern Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox and Arab.
“We must speak the truth; this is not something that we expected,” he said, noting that many had called him a post-Zionist following his previous Herzliya conference address and questioned, “Is anyone who discusses the issues of Israeli identity, post-Zionist?” He explained that Israel was “Four tribes, four competing, different stories, about who we are, and what we want to be.” He noted that “the headline of the conference should have been, ‘Israeli hope: to be or not to be.’” He said that “a year ago there were those that interpreted my words as yet another typical, joyful presidential call… but first and foremost, my words were intended to serve as a call to wake up to the gaps and inadequacies between the reality of Israeli society and the system of Israeli institutions.” Looking ahead he said, “We are obliged to strive for institutional and systematic changes which must be conducted as a national effort… we must recognize that there are material and structural barriers to forming shared rules of the game for the different sectors… The creation of a shared Israeli identity and a shared Israeli hope is a mighty and noble process which will take a generation.”
One of the main engines for change Rivlin discussed was that of academia and employment. “Academia and the Israeli labor market will become an engine of real change, only when academic institutions and employers view the establishment of the Israeli dream – for a young man from Ofakim, a young woman from Bnei Brak, a young man from Jatt and a young woman from Binyamin – as a national mission of paramount professional and economic interests… Academia and the labor market today cater mainly to two tribes, but there are two more.”
He noted that if Israeli society were willing to embrace the necessary changes, the State of Israel would serve as a model for others, “A Jewish and democratic state; democratic and Jewish is one in the same.”
Following the president’s keynote address, senior ministers and political party leaders were given the opportunity to respond.
MK Naftali Bennett, Minister of Education and Minister of Diaspora Affairs, and Chairman of Habayit Hayehudi party, began his address by taking the audience on a journey to 3,000 years in the past: “We are in a sovereign state. A Jewish State under the rule of King David with great economic and political power.” He traced Jewish history through the periods, explaining how Jews in the Diaspora lived in survival mode, “Zionism was based on survival and security.” He noted that now, back in the Jewish homeland, Jews no longer needed to be afraid and could “break into a new creativity without being afraid,” adding that the new generation of Zionism needed to be based on “destiny.” He stressed that Judaism was a religion focused on contending “with the reality of the world and bringing values into it.”
Directing his address to his role as minister of education, Bennett said, “I am the minister of education of all children in Israel… they are all my children and they are equal regardless of their color, religion, politics or anything else. We express this with an intensity unlike anything else in Israel.” He also noted how his office had adjusted budget allocations to ensure that adequate funds were appropriated to areas in need in Robin Hood fashion: “We take from the strong and give to the week… when I took on my position… per capita more funds were invested in wealthier areas.”
MK Aryeh Deri, Minister of the Interior and Minister of Development of the Negev and Galilee, and Chairman of the Shas Party, said, possibly ignoring the entire books of Numbers and Deuteronomy: “It was never the dream that one [nation] should get rid of the other.” He stressed that the Arab citizens “truly want to integrate within us and be a part and parcel with us… We need to show them that we respect their culture, heritage and history… We have no desire to mix cultures but rather to live together in one state” with full equality and egalitarian rights. Also paying an homage to the man from Sherwood Forest, Deri said, “There are steps, even as painful as they may be, where we will take from the big… and give to the smaller ones.” He added that any “discourse of hatred” needed to immediately be stopped. To a round of applause he stated, “In our state it is prohibited that we should accept any racism or discourse of racism.” He should have possibly share this with the minister of Religious Services from his own party, who announced a while back (I paraphrase) that non-Orthodox Jews are not really Jewish.
MK Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint Arab List, opened his address noting all the ideals and values that he shared with the president: “Bringing the various populations closer to one another. Advancing the general welfare of all citizens. Building shared citizenship.” But he added that there are “important things that we cannot ignore… The basic thing that guides me in politics is my deep internal conviction that the guiding interests of both people are equal. Everyone wants the blessing of life.”
He emphasized the principles of nationalism: “What does it mean to be a citizen? What does it mean to be a national? We want complete equality on the national level and the civil social level.” He said that it was impossible to only talk about the economy and citizenship without nationalism. He also noted how he was always steered to discuss the future rather than the past: “We have a deep pain. In the heart of every Arab. The injustices of the past. And it hurts me so much when I hear narratives of 3,000, 4,000 years and I am told not to talk about the narratives of 60 years but to look into the future.”
By that narrative, MK Odeh referred to the fact that the Arabs of Mandatory Palestine had a chance to receive two thirds of the land if only they accepted that the Jews could have one third — and they refused. They wanted instead to murder all the Jews of the land with the help of the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. They failed and have yet to recover from the shame and disappointment of that terrible failure.
Odeh focused specific attention on the subjects of unrecognized villages and said that it would not hurt anyone for the state to “state recognizes the terrible massacre of Kafir Qasim and the massive injustices and confiscation of land.” He stated that his party’s stance was two states for two people, side by side with complete equality for both but “crimes occurred and we have to talk about that… There are citizens of the State of Israel who are not allowed to return to their land… Will it harm one Jewish person…. If people of Mahalul are returned to Mahalul… To build 80 villages… Will it harm one Jewish person?… We need to talk about civil and national rights for Arabs in Israel and it doesn’t have to harm anyone. The opposite. That is what will heal these two people.”
Naturally, when MK Odeh speaks of two states, he really means four states: three purely Arab — Jordan, the PA and Gaza, and one 20% Arab — Israel.
MK Zahava Galon, Chairman of Meretz, said that the “elephant in the room” was that the Arabs do not have their own state and we are “50 years into the occupation of the territories.” She said that no discussion could take place regarding the demographic question without talking about occupying this nation and controlling their lives.
Taking on the judicial perspective of “Shared Israeli Hope,” Chief Justice Miriam Naor, president of the Supreme Court, noted that “Our image as a democratic society requires a balance between the individual and society.” She said that the legal system plays a role in advancing Israeli partnerships and creating boundaries. “Discrimination undermines social solidarity. The courts are responsible for eradicating discrimination.”
Which is why they are appointing their own judges, evading the control of the legislator on judicial selections — because as soon as you let the people make their own decisions they’re bound to start discriminating.