Sectarianism

Sectarianism

In the gloomy days after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, a delegation of intellectuals from the United States came to Jerusalem. There were no visitors in Israel at the time, and they were perhaps the first to arrive. It was after the war and just before the elections. I was on the slate of a leftist party called Moked. It was a tiny party. We knew almost all our voters by name. The quality of the supporters was never in doubt—it was the party of the left intelligentsia—but the numbers were very much in doubt.

In the event, we got one seat in the Knesset, out of 120. The party advocated a two-state solution: Israel and Palestine. Those were the Golda Meir days. The mere mention of a Palestinian state was a heresy that guaranteed its adherents a place in the frozen lake of Dante’s ninth circle. The ice has melted since then. The idea of two states has become an Israeli consensus, something that many Israelis say in public, but not enough Israelis believe in private.

Ariel Sharon, the commander of my unit in that war, was at the time the great unifier of the right. He forced Menachem Begin’s party and the General Zionist Party to form an election bloc—the bloc that later succeeded in bringing Begin to power. Against all army regulations, Sharon started campaigning for this bloc while still in uniform. Worried that Sharon would stir things up in the army, the government ordered that anyone who was listed on a party’s slate be immediately released from service for the duration of the election campaign. So, along with Sharon, I found myself released from active service heading from the Suez Canal back to Israel proper.

On the day I arrived home in Jerusalem, I was assigned to meet that delegation from the United States at the King David Hotel, in order to present to them the ideas of our Moked Party, as other parties presented theirs. I was relatively young and absolutely angry, so I guess I gave the speech of an angry young man, believing then, as I do now, that it was Meir’s government that brought upon us that horrendous war.

When it was all over, two people approached me: “My name is Irving Howe.” “My name is Michael Walzer.” The names rang a huge bell. I was surprised and impressed. Then, if memory serves, Irving said to me, “I agree with a great deal of what you said. But why do you promote a party that has no chance of winning elections? Why don’t you join the Labor Party and change it from within? They will surely let you people be active among them. Sharon is doing politics; you are not.”

Then, the punch line came. “Let me tell you. From my experience, the one thing you should avoid at all costs is becoming a sect. Sectarian politics is a terrible waste. I feel that you are in danger of becoming sectarians, as I was in my youth.”

I replied, “Don’t judge our situation by the American two-party system. Our system of proportional representation, with gove...


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