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By Talia Jessener
On Tuesday 31st January the Henry Jackson Society were delighted to welcome Major General Elazar Stern MK, a Yesh Atid member of the Israeli Parliament, to speak on Israeli ethics, and to discuss whether Israel can maintain itself as both a Jewish and a democratic state.
He began with a brief history of his military career, speaking of his 34 years of service within the IDF and his pride of rising to the rank of commander of an officer training school. He stated that the role the IDF plays within Israeli society cannot be compared to any other army in a Western society, and reminded us of David Ben Gurion’s famous description of Israel as a ‘melting pot.’ However, Stern went even further, claiming Israeli society is a melting pot, but one with a low temperature, going on to explain that while it is proud of the diverse range of people it brings together, it manages to maintain the importance of the individual within society as well.
He also spoke of a childhood raised by two Holocaust survivors, and claimed that his parents’ survival instilled in him two essential principles by which he lives his life. Firstly, he believed in the importance of the ‘never again’ doctrine; explaining wholeheartedly that the Jewish people have the right to a Jewish state in the land of Israel, and that they should be able to protect themselves to avoid reliance on other nations. Secondly, he believed that people should never differentiate between people on the basis of colour, race, religion or sexuality. He stated that he is often questioned on the seemingly contradictory nature of these principles, with some arguing that in order for Israel to remain a Jewish state it cannot be a democratic one, and hence must discriminate on the basis of religion. However, his reply was that both his principles, and both the concepts of democracy and a Jewish state can fit together and that one is not more or less important than the other.
After prompted by questions from the audience, Stern then went on to talk about party politics and his political career. He explained how he began in the Hatnuah Party before moving to Yesh Atid in 2015, feeling they best represented his political outlook. Expanding, he claimed that, although he had been raised as a religious Jew, he believed that the best approach was always a compromise, or a ‘golden best’ as he called it. However, he had noticed the problem of assimilation not only in the diaspora but also within Israel itself, and highlighted how the fact that a Jewish conversion was so deliberately difficult was causing more problems for the Israeli community than it was worth. He believed that if someone wanted to come to Israel and were ready to die to defend it, they should not need to prove a high level of religious practice in order to convert to Judaism and feel part of the Jewish state, especially since so many Jews in society today are secular. He also believed that making the process easier and more secular would slow the problem of Israel’s Jewish-Arab demographic.
While Israel’s many divisions reflect the broad diversity of its people, he concluded that now, more than ever, with anti-Semitism again on the rise in Europe, it was time for both the secular and religious aspects within the Israeli community to finally come together as a one. Ultimately, he concluded, if Israel couldn’t show that it takes itself seriously on important issues of the day, why should the rest of the world?
To view a transcript of this event click here