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A woman walks past election campaign posters of Israeli Prime Minister and Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu in the southern city of Sderot, Israel, Monday, Jan. 7, 2013. General elections in Israel are scheduled for Jan. 22, 2013. Posters read in Hebrew," Strong Prime Minster Strong Israel." (Tsafrir Abayov/AP)

Later this month Israelis will be going back to the polls. Skeptical about the chance of peace with the Palestinians and cynical about the possibility of real social and economic reform, they are likely to give Benjamin Netanyahu another term in office.

The Prime Minister is perceived to be tolerable — at least more tolerable — than his anemic competition from the center-left. If peace and social democracy are not to be had, he would, so the thinking goes, at least keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.

But Israelis should be wary of this lethargic, fatalistic view of their prospects. The coming election is not only about whether Iran gets the bomb. It is, rather, a referendum about whether the state will get to keep its very identity as a Jewish democracy.

It is usually a boring political platitude to pronounce that a coming election is the most important a nation has ever known. But in Israel’s case the cliché is true.

Consider three seemingly unconnected recent developments:

First, last October the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics acknowledged that there are more non-Jews than Jews in the area under Israel’s control between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan. This has been true for a while, but it’s the first time a major Israeli government organ officially recognized it.

More or less at the same time, the same government bureau released some longitudinal statistics about trends in Israeli undergraduate education. In the last decade there has been a 25 percent drop in the number of students choosing to major in the humanities. Israeli students, like their American counterparts, are moving away from history, literature and philosophy in favor of more “practical” majors. The “people of the book,” as Israeli Jews like to call themselves, are choosing to read fewer and easier books when they attend university.

Finally, let us recall the third presidential debate in the United States. There was little disagreement between the candidates on foreign policy, and there was nothing they agreed about more than their support for Israel. The two men seemed to compete in expressing unconditional devotion to their Middle Eastern ally.

These seemingly disparate episodes add up to a worrying story: The demographic data tells us that Israel is losing its identity as a Jewish democratic state. Under the areas Israel controls, a minority of Jews determines how a majority of non-Jewish Arabs live. The contentious debate about Israeli “apartheid” has, in practice, been resolved. We did not embrace or plan our apartheid like the white South Africans; we do not live by an ideological code of racial supremacy like they did. The Palestinians bear a much greater responsibility for still living under our yoke than did Blacks in South Africa for their subjugation. We have drifted into our apartheid rather than enthusiastically designed it. But the drifter and purposeful captain sometimes arrive at the same destination.

Our American friends may ‘have our backs’ but they will not do the most basic thing a friend should — prevent us from self-destructing.

At the same time as Israel is losing its identity as a Jewish democratic state, its young people are turning away from the areas of study that would help them understand why that identity was important in the first place and the difficult tensions it engenders. What will tomorrow’s leaders know about European anti-Semitism if they don’t study history? What will they understand of the ability to reconcile Judaism and democracy if they have no sense of the cultural and philosophical commitments of either? Reflecting on this new found disdain for the “speculative” arts one recalls John Stuart Mill’s famous admonition: “There have been, and may again be, great individual thinkers, in a general atmosphere of mental slavery. But there never has been, nor ever will be, in that atmosphere, an intellectually active people.”

Finally, there is no one to stop us from stepping off the precipice. Our American friends may “have our backs” but they will not do the most basic thing a friend should — prevent us from self-destructing. South Africa changed direction and saved its soul due to significant pressures from the outside. Who will pressure us to do the same?

It is usually a boring political platitude to pronounce that a coming election is the most important a nation has ever known. But in Israel’s case the cliché is true.

It hasn’t been so long since we lost our way. We can reverse course. We can negotiate with the Palestinians — or at least with some of them. We can separate from the Palestinian territories — or at least from some of them. We can become a Jewish democratic state again. We can elect the kind of government that will recommit to public higher education and to the fields of study that let us understand the contradictions and attractions of a Jewish democracy.

It would be nice if we had real political friends who would nudge us in that direction. But we don’t. Never mind.

As Hillel Hazaken, one of our classical scholars and interpreters was fond of saying: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if not now, when?”


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