© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How Jewish Should Israel Be? 2 Israelis Voters Have Answers


Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, had a blunt message in the U.S. Congress yesterday. At the invitation of congressional Republicans, Netanyahu said the deal the Obama administration is working on with Iran not only won't prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb, as intended, but in his words, it, quote, "paves the path to the bomb." This speech was controversial both here and in Israel where Netanyahu will stand in parliamentary elections on March 17. We're joined on the line by NPR's Emily Harris in Jerusalem. Emily, good morning.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So what was the reaction to Netanyahu's speech there?

HARRIS: Generally, it was considered a good speech. It really was seen through the prism of Israeli elections that are going on in two weeks here, though. For example, it was broadcast almost live on TV and radio, but the election commission had a five-minute delay so they could cut him off in case he started campaigning.

GREENE: Oh, so in Israel, there are these restrictions on campaigning on television in the period leading up to the election. Did they have to cut him off?

HARRIS: They did not cut him off. But, you know, all the instant analysis afterwards and in the newspapers today, it was all about politics. Some people think that this is going to give him a boost in the polls, which he could use at this point. And his main opponents on the left in the Labor Party basically honed their criticism in not on his stance on Iran, which is not that controversial in Israel at all, but on the damage that's been done to U.S. relations. And they claim that Netanyahu has actually lost influence with world leaders on this very crucial issue to Israelis. And then one line that a lot of commentators picked up on was this moment when Netanyahu said that if Israel has to, it will stand alone.

GREENE: Well, looking at the broader context as we head towards this election that's very important to him. You've reported the economy is a big issue but also, you know, how Israel balances its Jewish character with its democratic values. I mean, it occupies territory where Palestinians live; it has a million Arabs within its borders. And I know you have been speaking to people and put together a report with two voices. Tell us about it.

HARRIS: I've been talking to a lot of different Israelis around the political spectrum and we're going to hear from two people this morning. The first one up is a woman named Daniella Weiss. She is 68 years old, and she is very busy.

DANIELLA WEISS: My name is Daniella Weiss. I'm mother of four daughters, four married daughters. I have 18 grandchildren. My husband is a businessman. We are very active in settling the hills of Judea and Samaria that are known in the Western world as the West Bank. These are the biblical hills of the land of Israel, the areas from where our tradition, our religion, our history, our culture stem.

HARRIS: It's land Israel captured in the 1967 war and land Palestinians claim for a future state of their own. Weiss moved from Tel Aviv to help start the settlement of Kedumim 40 years ago.

WEISS: I came to an area where there were no Jews. There were Arabs in villages. We were the first 10 families in Samaria. There were only two kids who needed school-teaching. I mean, they were in the first grade. And now there are 900 students in one school. So I say, God, thank you for everything you let me see, a dream becoming a reality.

HARRIS: Twenty-four-year-old Hagai Efrat has a different dream. I met him on this busy campus of an Israeli center that promotes coexistence, shortly before his Arabic language class.

HAGAI EFRAT: So I'm Hagai Efrat. I grew up in a town called Neve Sharett Sion (ph) - it's a suburb of Jerusalem - to a secular family. I usually keep the traditions of the holidays. I light candles on Hanukkah. I fast on Yom Kippur, even though my family doesn't fast on Yom Kippur. I'm the only one from my family who does that. What brought me the decision of studying Arabic is that I live in a country that 20 percent of it is Arabic-speaking, that the people that my country is occupying is also Arabic-speaking. I think that in order to get to situation of equality, both people need to speak both languages.

HARRIS: Efrat noticed inequality between Jews and Arabs when he was young.

EFRAT: I remember sometime as a child, I think it was at a tour in a mixed Arab-Jewish city, wondering why only the Star of David is on our flag and not also other religious symbols.

HARRIS: Weiss says there are some things not worth wondering about.

WEISS: Like you don't have to really explain to every single soldier that he's being mobilized to the army and to defend his nation.

HARRIS: Efrat recently finished his required three-year service as an Israeli soldier.

EFRAT: I went into the army and I don't regret it. I feel that it is our obligation, as difficult as it may be. I think the army in a democratic country follows the orders of the government. But I think that what the government demands the army to do now is wrong.

HARRIS: Weiss criticizes Israel's government for other reasons.

WEISS: I think that Israel leaders, with all their ability and greatness, don't have the guts, don't have the courage to stand up in front of the world and say, I will not let any Democratic technicality harm the basis of our life as a nation. This is above democracy.

HARRIS: Here's what she wants.

WEISS: The leaders of Israel and the people of Israel should make it clear that the state of Israel is a state of Jews.

EFRAT: I'm saying that the people that are already here should have the rights that they deserve, making sure that this country stays true to a certain ethnicity. Saying that Jewish people here have more rights than Arab people, that is not a democratic thing to say.

GREENE: Two very different views of Israel there from two Israelis. Those voices brought to us from NPR's Emily Harris, who's still on the line with us. And, Emily, I wonder, did they tell you who they're voting for in two weeks?

HARRIS: We did talk about that. Daniella Weiss was, at first, going back and forth between Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett, who is to the right of Netanyahu and interested in potentially annexing part of the West Bank, making it formally part of Israel, not under military occupation. She's landed on Netanyahu, she says. Efrat, however, wants the occupation to end, and he is going to vote for the leftist parties. He thinks that this election coming up is the first real chance, for a while in Israel, to change the direction of the country.

GREENE: Just two voices, I know, but that makes it sound like there's a lot at stake here.

HARRIS: There is a lot at stake potentially. The outcome of these elections could affect how Israel relates to the Palestinians. The peace talks are stalled right now. And the Palestinian officials are preparing a challenge to Israel in the International Criminal Court. This issue of Jewish versus democracy balance in Israel could be affected as well the economy, and, of course, there's Iran and relations with the White House.

GREENE: All right. That's NPR's Emily Harris in Jerusalem, speaking to us two weeks before elections in that country. Emily, thanks a lot.

HARRIS: Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

International Correspondent Emily Harris is based in Jerusalem as part of NPR's Mideast team. Her post covers news related to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. She began this role in March of 2013.