After an emotionally exhausting election campaign in which I found myself—for the first time ever—terrified that the wrong results might prove an existential threat to Israel’s existence, the moment of truth had come. There, on a large screen in a (literally) cheesy kosher Italian restaurant in Paris’s 16th arrondissement, I was about to see the results of the exit poll at the close of voting.
I wasn’t alone. The place was packed with French Jews, members of B’nai B’rith, who had arranged the dinner for me. I was going to say a few words in Hebrew, which my host would translate. But there was no point. All eyes were on the screen as we held our collective breath.
My host, chauffeur and translator, who had left Israel for France as a child, discussed the election with me on the way over. I was a bit surprised that he was as staunchly in favor of the prime minister as I was, and just as fearful that Chaim Herzog and Tzipi Livni might take his place. “They are leftists, like Obama,” he declared. “That’s why Obama wants them in office—to undermine Israel’s security. He knows they won’t give him trouble on Iran, like Bibi does.”
For French Jews, traumatized by Islamic anti-Semitism and terrifying attacks like the recent massacre in the Hypercacher, a kosher market, Israel is increasingly being viewed as an immediate refuge. Some 5,000 Jews immigrated to Israel in 2014, up from 3,289 in 2013. Everywhere I go in Jerusalem, I hear French. As the screen lit up with the election results, a shout of joy reverberated through the room.
Not everyone in the Jewish world felt that way. Despite the euphoria of a hard-won victory, the aftermath of this bitterly fought campaign has been sobering, highlighting a real, deep and perhaps unbridgeable divide among Jews everywhere. Questions asked during the election have not gone away; they have simply deepened. Do the Arabs want to annihilate Israel, or will they be sincere partners in peace following a two-state solution? Are President Obama’s Mideast policies a threat to Israel’s existence, or will his proposed framework for a negotiated settlement with Iran prove the best deal possible under the circumstances to prevent a terror-supporting Iran from becoming a nuclear power?
I believe that the sides being taken on these vital issues, both before and after the election, are no whim of the moment that might change tomorrow with new information, but are a deep-seated expression of each individual Jew’s core identity and worldview. They are an insight into whether a Jew—French, American or Israeli—defines himself or herself as a practicing Jew and the Land of Israel as God-given, a place to express Jewish identity through adherence to the Torah; or whether one sees oneself as a modern secularist and the State of Israel as a temporary political response to anti-Semitism following the Holocaust, one whose reason for existence might disappear just as quickly. Put this way, these views are admittedly extreme. But as election reactions prove, most Jews incline to one view or the other.
“Most American Jews overwhelmingly support liberal positions and see the idea of two states for two peoples as the only way to avoid a future in which Jews rule over a minority that lacks equal rights. [The election results] will only further the alienation of the majority of American Jewry from Israeli politics and values,” Jewish-American author and sociologist Samuel Heilman told Haaretz. In contrast, the Zionist Organization of America’s Mort Klein told Haaretz, “I’m proud that the Israelis chose reality and security over fantasy and a phony hope in change.”
In Israel, reactions were even more extreme. Gideon Levy of Haaretz wrote, “The first conclusion that arose just minutes after the announcement of the exit polls was particularly discouraging: The nation must be replaced. Not another election for the country’s leadership, but general elections to choose a new Israeli people…” Secular playwright Joshua Sobol derided “mezuzah-kissing” Jews as “fools” and likened Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett to the Nazis. His remarks came in defense of secular Israeli painter and political pundit Yair Garbuz, who caused an uproar at a Tel Aviv rally before election day by asserting that “amulet kissers and pagan worshipers” are controlling the country.
Our newly re-elected prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, responded: “I heard someone speak of people who kiss mezuzot with disdain. Since when is it a crime to kiss a mezuzah?”
He added, “We know where we came from and we know what country we came back to. We know what we are fighting to keep. We know about our tradition and about our heritage.”
Those who voted for Netanyahu, rooted for him and rejoiced in his victory would certainly agree. I’m sad to say I don’t feel comfortable asserting that is also true about the other side. That’s an unbridgeable gap with which we Jews will just have to learn to live.
This article was first published in the May-June 2015 issue of Moment Magazine.