An assassin’s bitter legacy

In among the retrospectives and tributes timed for next week's 20th anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, there's a rather remarkable hour-long edition of the much-admired This American Life podcast. Despite the name, this programme focuses not on the US, but on Israel - and on one curious aspect of the fallout from that terrible day in November 1995 when a Jewish ultra-nationalist gunned down the only Israeli leader who has genuinely seemed both willing and able to solve the apparently endless conflict with the Palestinians.

It's become commonplace to compare Rabin's murder with the Kennedy assassination 32 years earlier - the shock, the public grieving, the candlelit vigils - but one aspect comes as a surprise. In Israel, there is a cottage industry of JFK-style conspiracy theories about the murder, claiming among other things that Yigal Amir fired blanks and that Rabin wanted to stage his own death to discredit the Israeli right. Even Rabin's own daughter was sufficiently puzzled by a hole on the front of her father's bloody shirt - odd, because Amir shot him in the back - that she handed the garment over to the programme's reporter for forensic testing in the US. (It turned out not to be a bullet-hole at all.)

I listened to all this intrigued, of course, but also with a sense of great sadness. It struck me that these theories - all of them absurd, on a moment's reflection - were not really about the mechanics of the 1995 shooting at all. They were instead the signs of a society that can't accept what happened 20 years ago, that on some level still refuses to believe it.

And who can blame Israel if that's so? For Yigal Amir was surely the most effective assassin in modern history. He wanted to destroy the peace process, then real and under way, and he did so. Oslo is a dead letter. The peace camp, as it used to be called, has shrunk with each passing year. Once mainstream, it is now confined to the margins. Of the 20 years since Rabin's murder, Rabin's Labour party has ruled for just over two. The dominant figure has been Benjamin Netanyahu, who Rabin's own widow always blamed for breathing oxygen into the ultra-right fire that eventually devoured her husband, and who will soon be the longest-ruling premier in the country's history.

It means that Israel is still paying the price for that killing. It has been left with a leader who is utterly visionless, a fact captured exquisitely by that photograph of him surveying the landscape with a pair of binoculars, the lenses still covered by rubber caps. A leader who has breezily ruled out the two-state solution, even though that path remains the only way out for a country faced with a future as either an apartheid state or a binational entity fated to never-ending inter-ethnic violence, of the kind so gruesomely previewed in the last few weeks of stabbings and shootings.

Before Rabin's death, a different kind of future seemed to beckon for Israel. Surely peace would come, just as it did in the 1990s for South Africa and Northern Ireland. Israel would come in from the cold. The two peoples would live side by side. Anything was possible. But once Rabin was gone, all that seemed like so much naivety. Today, Israel is isolated, shunned as a pariah this very week by legions of advert-signing academics. Tempting to dismiss such gestures, perhaps, but they might be a harbinger of the international isolation that is on its way.

So I understand why Israelis might lap up theories that say it wasn't so. They know that a lot more than one man was gunned down that bitter November night.

Friends who are enemies

Lots is uncertain in British politics just now, but here's one prediction you can bet on: if Labour goes into the next general election led by Jeremy Corbyn, the party will receive the lowest Jewish vote in its history.

Part of the explanation predates the new leader. Jewish affection for Labour, high during the Blair era, nudged downward under Gordon Brown and fell more steeply under Ed Miliband. But that downward trend will accelerate under Jeremy Corbyn. The most obvious cause is his position on the Middle East. Devoted supporters of Israel will take one look at his long record of vocal opposition to the country and decide he's no friend of theirs.

Still, that won't be the whole story. As we know, it's a minority of Jews in Britain (or the US for that matter) who cast their vote on the basis of policy towards Israel. No, what will push Jewish voters away is something more nebulous. At its simplest, it's the company the new leader keeps. Perhaps British Jews could overlook that one of his closest backers is Ken Livingstone or that George Galloway has vowed to rejoin a Corbyn-led Labour party - two men about whom the mainstream Jewish community made up its collective mind long ago.

Harder to dispel will be unease that the new leader of the opposition hosted representatives of Hamas and Hizbollah and greeted both as "friends". That he wrote a letter defending the notorious Rev Stephen Sizer, disciplined by the Church for spreading "clearly antisemitic material" online, including the claim that 9/11 was a Jewish conspiracy. That the self-described Holocaust denier Paul Eisen describes Corbyn as a constant and loyal ally, one who opened his cheque-book to back Eisen's Deir Yassin Remembered group. (A quick look at Eisen's website confirms its toxicity: there are musings on the supposed physical ugliness of ultra-Orthodox Jews and on whether the key political dividing line is not between left and right but between "Jew and gentile".)

Corbyn's backers have two lines of defence. The first is to brand his accusers McCarthyites, smearing him through guilt by association: surely a busy, campaigning MP cannot be held responsible for all the people he happens to have sat next to at public events. But Corbyn didn't just end up on a platform with these characters. Often he was hosting these meetings himself, inviting the guests. The letter defending Sizer was no accident: the words were Corbyn's and carefully chosen. As for Eisen, there has been no denial that Corbyn wrote a cheque; and there are photographs to prove he kept turning up at Eisen's events.

The second defence says yes, Corbyn met all kinds of extremists but he did so only in the cause of Middle East peace - out of the sincere belief that any resolution will depend on the participation of hardliners as well as moderates. That sounds like a legitimate line of argument - and for a diplomat or peace negotiator, it is. Except that's not the business Corbyn was in. The purpose of those Westminster meetings was not conducting diplomacy, but expressing solidarity. If Corbyn were truly a peacemaker, anxious to bring all sides into the process, he'd have regularly invited the militant Jewish settlers of the West Bank to meet him in the Commons - always greeting them as "friends." Yet, funnily enough, that never seems to have happened.

No one is suggesting Jeremy Corbyn is an antisemite. But his challenge now is to demonstrate that he's not alarmingly comfortable with those who are.

An invitation to go OTT

You know those disclaimers they put at the end of movies? "No animals were harmed in the making of this motion picture." Or, "Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental." Well, this is the JC equivalent. "None of the grotesquely over-the-top barmitzvah celebrations about to be mentioned in this column were attended by me personally."

I want to stress that point, lest any friends or relatives suspect - heaven forbid - that I am criticising them or the wonderful parties they threw to celebrate their equally wonderful children. The evidence I place before you today is, I'm happy to say, second-hand. But my sources are utterly reliable.

Let's begin with the invitations. I come from the era when a stiff slice of embossed card dropped through the doormat was about as OTT as it got. How quaint that seems now. Today's barmitzvah invitations are too heavy to be left to the mere Royal Mail. No, a courier arrives, sweat beading on his brow under the weight he has to carry. He hands you a parcel that is padded and requires a signature.

Inside is no mere card. I've seen one as thick as a book. It opened to reveal not a message, but a small TV screen - the same proportions as a smartphone - which instantly played a short, professionally produced film, starring the barmitzvah boy of course, summoning the recipient to his party. As it happens, that one landed in the hands of a friend in the advertising industry, who estimated that each invitation would have generated a "unit cost" of at least £40 - and that's before you reckon with the hernia-suffering courier.

More shocking, though, was the invitation that came via cost-free email. Written rather sweetly, it saw the barmitzvah boy invite seven or eight of his closest friends to join him on his family's private yacht for a week of Mediterranean fun. The boy's parents would not be there, but there was no need to worry: the children would be fed and entertained by the skipper and his 12-person crew, including personal chef.

But what of the parties themselves? YouTube offers ample evidence of the scale of the modern simcha. A video of a Dallas boy celebrated by a Las Vegas-style stage show involving a troupe of female dancers - culminating in the child being lowered from the heavens to join them - went viral a couple of years ago. But British Jewry is catching up.

The humble speech is now replaced by a lengthy film, often a music video, made to Hollywood standards. I've seen one involving actors, specially composed music, locations and costume that could not have come in for less than a six-figure budget.

You might think that if people have this much money, who really gets hurt if they spend it in this way? My anxiety is not that some of these parties - with their hired women, paid to dance semi-nakedly - suggest less a time-honoured Jewish tradition than the last days of the Roman empire.

Nor is my chief concern that an outburst of extravagant materialism is a jarring way to mark the passage to Jewish adulthood.

Don't get me wrong. I'm no killjoy. A party, with good food, good music and good company, is positively life-affirming. But I have a worry best described as ambassadorial. Several of the sources of the evidence set out above were non-Jews: friends who had been stunned by the display of sheer excess they had witnessed. For many of our fellow Britons, this will be the only Jewish ritual they will ever experience. What kind of face do we think we show the world when we show them this?

Shaken by a stunning racist

It's hardly made headlines here, but one striking feature of the new Israeli government is the presence of several vocal, forceful and trenchantly right-wing women.

The Minister of Culture is Miri Regev, who achieved notoriety in 2012 when she described Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel as "a cancer in our body." Under pressure, she later apologised - to cancer patients. It seems she felt bad for likening their disease to something as awful as African refugees.

Regev has given an early hint of how she sees the role of the Culture Ministry. In a meeting with writers and artists, she warned she would not hesitate to withhold funding from projects which she believed "disgrace the state of Israel." She cut off money for an Arabic-language theatre in Haifa and threatened to do the same to the much-admired Elmina Arab-Jewish children's theatre in Jaffa.

When challenged by the artists, she explained it was very simple. "We (Likud) got 30 seats, you only got 20," seemingly confusing the writers and directors before her with the Israeli Labour party.

Meanwhile, at the Foreign Ministry is Tzipi Hotovely, a 36-year old Orthodox Likudnik whose inaugural address to Israel's diplomats urged them to seek international recognition for West Bank settlements. She urged them to remind the world that God gave the land of Israel to the Jews. "This land is ours," she said. "All of it is ours." As a diplomatic approach, it's certainly novel.

But perhaps most attention has gone to Ayelet Shaked, the new Minister of Justice. Her views are as unbending as the others'. But that's not why she has stood out. For while she is an ultra-nationalist, one whose opinions have been described as "quasi-genocidal", she also has movie star good looks. She is both an extremist and extremely beautiful.

This has created a conundrum for the Israeli left. On the one hand, they want to stand against her for her vile views, denouncing her for, say, her reposting on Facebook during last year's Gaza conflict of an essay by a radical settler who urged Israel to fight a total war against the entire Palestinian people, killing not just terrorists but the mothers of terrorists: "They should go, as should the physical homes in which they raised the snakes. Otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there." That description of potential Palestinian children, including babies and even the unborn, as "little snakes" chills the blood.

And yet, any self-respecting feminist also wants to slam the appalling sexism that Shaked has attracted - starting with the former cabinet minister who drooled that at last Israel had a justice minister "worthy of being featured on calendars" hanging in car mechanics' garages. Or the gossip column that reported on Shaked's visit to a hotel pool and lamented that she had "remained clothed."

As a result, the leaders of Israel's leftist parties have had to take time out from condemning Shaked's sinister political positions - she helped dream up the bill that would downgrade Israel's democratic character, subordinating it to the Jewishness of the state - in order to defend her from such Neanderthal attitudes. And that has blunted their opposition.

But Shaked prompts a thought that goes deeper than politics. Hebrew has two words for beauty. Yoffee refers to external good looks, while chain speaks of inner beauty. It's possible to have one without the other.

Ayelet Shaked is a reminder of the great wisdom embedded in the Hebrew language. For she is blessed with an abundance of yoffee, yet is lacking in chain. She is simultaneously gorgeous and a racist; she is a stunning bigot. She has a beautiful face, but her soul is ugly.

Damned by his own words

Twice in 10 years, the British people have had the chance to elect a Jewish prime minister - and twice they've said no. Michael Howard took on Tony Blair in 2005 and failed. And, last week, Ed Miliband followed Howard into the pantheon of electoral losers.

Chances are the same factors that doomed the party with the wider UK public alienated it from the Jewish electorate: namely, anxiety over Labour's economic competence and the low estimation of the party leader. The two E's - the economy and Ed - would have resonated with Jews as much as they did other Britons.

Still, it seems likely Jews had reasons of their own to reject Miliband. Generally, Labour did well in London. Yet look at the constituencies of Hendon and Finchley and Golders Green, two strongly Jewish areas where the Labour candidates were popular with local Jewish communities. Labour were soundly defeated in both places, with a substantial swing to the Tories.

That suggests Jewish misgivings about Labour and its leader that even well-liked individuals could not overcome. This is the irony that I struggled to explain to curious observers from abroad: Labour's first Jewish leader had a Jewish problem. Jews liked him less than they had liked either of his predecessors. Why?

I suspect the problem went back to the beginning. Some have suggested that his run for the leadership against his older brother offended an ancient Jewish sensibility. I doubt that. You can make a decent case that, on the contrary, Judaism is the religion of the younger brother: think of how Jacob edged out Esau, how Moses took precedence over Aaron.

No, the die was cast within a few days of Ed's victory. In his first speech as leader, Ed mentioned only one foreign policy issue. Not Iraq, not Afghanistan, not Iran - but the Gaza flotilla affair. Even those who might have shared his criticism felt uncomfortable at the implied notion that Israel was the most troublesome trouble-spot in the world. They felt singled out. That worry deepened during his five years at the top.

Plenty of Jews didn't like the hard line Miliband took during Operation Protective Edge, Israel's 2014 offensive against Gaza. Others chafed when he whipped Labour MPs to vote for recognition of a Palestinian state in the same year. To many Jews, this felt like an unhappy contrast with the effusive pro-Zionism of both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

More deeply, I think many Jews saw in Ed Miliband a type they recognised and didn't much like: the leftie Jewish anti-Zionist. Never mind that Miliband himself insisted that he had a deep attachment to Israel, where he has close family, and even once described himself as a Zionist (though that statement was hastily walked back). Somehow, he made Jews suspicious that, when it came to Israel, his heart was not in the same place as theirs.

But I wonder if it went deeper still. Plenty of analysts say Ed's real problem was not that he was a geek, but that he seemed somehow fake, carrying himself and speaking in a way that suggested strenuous media training and which didn't quite ring true. I suspect Jews detected a version of that in Ed early on: that, Jewishly, he just didn't seem comfortable in his own skin.

That's hardly his fault: he's spoken about the limited Jewish upbringing his parents gave him. But it left an unexpected legacy. It meant he was never fully trusted - even by those who might have been expected to embrace one of their own.

Read our full Election 2015 coverage here

Damned by his own words

Twice in 10 years, the British people have had the chance to elect a Jewish prime minister - and twice they've said no. Michael Howard took on Tony Blair in 2005 and failed. And, last week, Ed Miliband followed Howard into the pantheon of electoral losers.

Chances are the same factors that doomed the party with the wider UK public alienated it from the Jewish electorate: namely, anxiety over Labour's economic competence and the low estimation of the party leader. The two E's - the economy and Ed - would have resonated with Jews as much as they did other Britons.

Still, it seems likely Jews had reasons of their own to reject Miliband. Generally, Labour did well in London. Yet look at the constituencies of Hendon and Finchley and Golders Green, two strongly Jewish areas where the Labour candidates were popular with local Jewish communities. Labour were soundly defeated in both places, with a substantial swing to the Tories.

That suggests Jewish misgivings about Labour and its leader that even well-liked individuals could not overcome. This is the irony that I struggled to explain to curious observers from abroad: Labour's first Jewish leader had a Jewish problem. Jews liked him less than they had liked either of his predecessors. Why?

I suspect the problem went back to the beginning. Some have suggested that his run for the leadership against his older brother offended an ancient Jewish sensibility. I doubt that. You can make a decent case that, on the contrary, Judaism is the religion of the younger brother: think of how Jacob edged out Esau, how Moses took precedence over Aaron.

No, the die was cast within a few days of Ed's victory. In his first speech as leader, Ed mentioned only one foreign policy issue. Not Iraq, not Afghanistan, not Iran - but the Gaza flotilla affair. Even those who might have shared his criticism felt uncomfortable at the implied notion that Israel was the most troublesome trouble-spot in the world. They felt singled out. That worry deepened during his five years at the top.

Plenty of Jews didn't like the hard line Miliband took during Operation Protective Edge, Israel's 2014 offensive against Gaza. Others chafed when he whipped Labour MPs to vote for recognition of a Palestinian state in the same year. To many Jews, this felt like an unhappy contrast with the effusive pro-Zionism of both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

More deeply, I think many Jews saw in Ed Miliband a type they recognised and didn't much like: the leftie Jewish anti-Zionist. Never mind that Miliband himself insisted that he had a deep attachment to Israel, where he has close family, and even once described himself as a Zionist (though that statement was hastily walked back). Somehow, he made Jews suspicious that, when it came to Israel, his heart was not in the same place as theirs.

But I wonder if it went deeper still. Plenty of analysts say Ed's real problem was not that he was a geek, but that he seemed somehow fake, carrying himself and speaking in a way that suggested strenuous media training and which didn't quite ring true. I suspect Jews detected a version of that in Ed early on: that, Jewishly, he just didn't seem comfortable in his own skin.

That's hardly his fault: he's spoken about the limited Jewish upbringing his parents gave him. But it left an unexpected legacy. It meant he was never fully trusted - even by those who might have been expected to embrace one of their own.

Read our full Election 2015 coverage here

Is solidarity still sensible?

What will the historians of the future make of the Jews of today? If all they have to go on are public statements and official declarations, they'll presume British Jews were almost stationary, our views of Israel unbending over the decades - no matter what happened in the country. They will look at the pronouncements of our leadership organisations and conclude there was almost nothing Israeli governments or politicians could say or do that would make the Jewish community wobble: our public support was unwavering and all but unconditional. Should those future chroniclers have access to the communal conversation in private, however, they'd tell a different story.

The aftermath of last month's Israeli election is a case in point. Publicly, Benjamin Netanyahu's victory was greeted with all the usual platitudes. In private, I know the reaction of many who lead our community was head-in-hands despair. Their angst was not so much that Bibi was back, it was the manner of his victory - and its likely consequences - that made them despondent.

Netanyahu's last-minute push for the votes of hawks who'd been flirting with parties of the further right has become notorious. He promised there'd be no Palestinian state on his watch. He posted a video warning that Palestinian citizens of Israel were heading to the polling stations "in droves" and that Likud voters needed to turn out if "the Arabs" were to be thwarted.

No wonder Jewish leaders were (privately) appalled. They were imagining how they would react if any other western leader had sought to boost his support by warning that a particular ethnic group was rushing to the polling booths. Had, say, a Hungarian or Polish prime minister fired up his base by issuing the alarm that "the Jews are voting", the condemnation would have been swift and grave.

What Netanyahu said about the one fifth of Israeli citizens who are Palestinian was no different. Among US Jews, it struck a deep and vexing chord. They are proud of their role campaigning for civil rights, fighting those who sought to keep black Americans from the ballot box.

The explicit disavowal of a Palestinian state was hardly less damaging. Diaspora Jewish leaders have long clung to the notion that, no matter how bad things look, Israel is sincere about peace - that, yes the occupation may now be nearly half a century old, but that's not by design. It's temporary, almost an accident, one that Israel would rapidly correct if only it had the chance. In this view, all the blame can safely be lodged with the other side: there's "no Palestinian partner for peace." If there was, Israel would do what has to be done.

Now Netanyahu has shattered that illusion. No longer can anyone trot out those tired but useful lines about Israel pursuing a two-state solution. We know, from the man at the top, that it is doing no such thing.

Where does that leave us? In the US, writer Peter Beinart and moral philosopher Michael Walzer among others suggest liberal Zionist Jews should get vocal: staging demonstrations, even lobbying for "personal sanctions", visa restrictions and foreign asset freezes, against ultra-rightists such as Naftali Bennett.

In the US, they've realised the old blanket solidarity no longer makes sense, not when Israel is abandoning the positions - and values - diaspora Jews hold dear. The glum truth is, Israel is changing, and so must we.

Leaders should calm fears

So now we understand how terrorism works. The clue is in the name. Its purpose is to spread terror - and the grim truth is, it's working.

Right now, very many Jews are terrified. I know it from my own conversations. After Paris and Copenhagen - after Brussels and Toulouse - parents of children at Jewish schools are seized by anxiety. There's nervousness about the most mundane Jewish activity: after Paris, buying candles and challah on a Friday afternoon feels like a grave risk.

In Denmark, a man is dead for doing no more than trying to protect a batmitzvah party. This week, one of the smartest, sanest men I know called to ask if he should attend an upcoming Jewish talk: no hysteric, he was scared.

Of course, this is not true of all Jews. One friend admits, guiltily, that he has no fear because he does not live a visibly Jewish life.

But that very reasoning only highlights why this situation is one most of us thought we would never know in our lifetimes. The notion that doing basic Jewish things - wearing a kippa, going to shul - might now entail a mortal risk: well, that was something we assumed belonged to the history books, in their darkest chapters.

In this climate, there are many things we need. One of them is security. No one likes to see guards or police outside a house of worship or learning. But for now, if that's what it takes, then that's what we must do. The alternative is worse.

We also need understanding. Thanks to Twitter, I probably see more of the outpourings of the hardcore anti-Zionist left than most. Perhaps naively, I assumed the torrent might subside - if only for a while - after the murders in Copenhagen. Not a bit of it. The haters carried on hating, adamant that antisemitism is exaggerated, a mere tool deployed by "the Zionists" to silence their critics. They tweeted that the killing of a Jew in Denmark was either a random coincidence or, as several hinted, a cunning "false flag" operation by Israel.

No compassion, no sympathy. Just the shouted insistence that all this fuss over Jews was designed to deflect attention from Islamophobia. I thought of pointing to the string of columns I've written over many years denouncing anti-Muslim hate or noting that the Community Security Trust, which monitors antisemitism, gives valued help and advice to its Muslim counterpart, Tell Mama. But the haters weren't listening.

Above all, we need somehow to remain calm. Benjamin Netanyahu's call for Europe's Jews to pack their bags and leave did not help. He made the same call after Paris and it was wrong then, too. It came too soon, before the dead had even been buried. It smacked of exploitation, turning a tragedy into a talking point for his own re-election campaign.

It also chafed against his earlier positions. Netanyahu now projects Israel as a place of safety, yet last summer he was telling the world that Israelis live in daily fear of a terror attack. Now he tells Jews the best response to a murderous threat is to run, yet a matter of weeks ago he was taunting his electoral opponents as weaklings who would "capitulate" to the terrorist enemy.

Little wonder that most Jewish leaders, including the Danish chief rabbi, rejected his call - saying that if Denmark's Jews moved to Israel it would be out of love, not fear.

This is a moment of grave anxiety. We need protection, empathy and above all calm, from leaders who will cool our fears - not fuel them.

Israel’s threat from within

The spring of 2015 will bring an election that features not just the traditional battle of left and right but a tangled contest of smaller parties, all jostling for seats and for a strong hand in the inevitable coalition horse-trading that will follow.

On the right stands the incumbent prime minister, reviled by some on his own side, under pressure from an army of insurgents who insist they alone truly stand up for the country - but grudgingly admired for his skill in retaining power.

The challenger on the left is from a distinguished political family, hothoused in the traditions of the Labour party that raised him, but somehow lacking the alpha qualities that mark out a leader: he wants to be prime minister but struggles to look the part. The campaign has only just begun and yet it already feels like a long haul.

That's the picture in Britain in the first weeks of 2015, where David Cameron and Ed Miliband prepare to do battle, both looking over their shoulders at the nationalist threat from UKIP and the Scottish National Party. But it also describes the situation in Israel this spring - with Benjamin Netanyahu in the Cameron role and Isaac Herzog playing the part of Miliband.

There are some obvious differences. The election here was unavoidable, the government having run its five-year course. The Israeli ballot is wholly unnecessary, triggered after just two years by the usual coalition shenanigans that are a permanent feature of Israeli life. Often an Israeli election differs from a British one in a more profound way, too: they are about matters of life and death.

While a British contest can turn on the marginal rate of tax, when Israelis go to the polls they're usually thinking about war and peace.

Superficially, 2015 is different. Yes, Netanyahu is humming the same, familiar tunes - issuing dire warnings about the threat of Hamas, Iran and Islamic State, accusing Herzog and his ally Tzipi Livni of being weak and desperate to "capitulate" to the enemy. But there is no peace plan on the table waiting for the voters' verdict, just as there is no immediate threat at the borders that has to be repelled. At first glance, it can seem as if the usual, existential questions that dominate an Israeli contest have receded.

But the Israeli writer Ari Shavit is surely right to say something just as large is at stake, that there is a menace that has to be defeated. The difference is that the current threat to Israel comes not from without but from within.

"The renewed alliance between the nationalist Likud and the messianic Habayit Hayehudi makes an almost apocalyptic horror scenario possible - Israel as Rhodesia, as South Africa, as a fortress of zealots," Shavit wrote recently. "In the balance lies the Jewish-democratic state."

His view, and it's echoed by many others, is that Israel has been lurching steadily rightward, in the grip of a surging intolerance and an aggressive form of messianic nationalism. These are the forces bent on deepening the occupation and enshrining in law inequality between Israel's Jewish and Arab citizens. If they remain in charge, Israel will never be what its founders intended: both Jewish and a democracy. In its determination to be the former, it would destroy the latter.

Even Israel's own president, the Likudnik Ruvi Rivlin, has warned that the country he loves is "sick" and in need of treatment. The March election is a chance for Israel to begin its recovery – or else sink deeper into the malaise.

Israel’s crumbling pillars

Like the opening of an old joke, I've got good news and bad news. Both come from Israel. I'll assume that, like me, you prefer to get the bad news out of the way first. So here goes.

Last weekend, the Israeli cabinet approved a bill that will officially define Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. The session was said to be rancorous, a third of the cabinet voting against the new law.

Why the controversy, given that surely everyone already thinks of Israel as a Jewish state? Because those opponents understand that this bill - intended to become part of Israel's Basic Law, its de facto constitution - will change something fundamental.

While the Declaration of Independ-ence affirmed Israel as both Jewish and democratic, with each attribute equal to the other, this new measure would place one above the other.

From now on, Israel would be Jewish before it would be democratic, the former officially more important than the latter.

That is no abstract concern. It would have an immediate and practical impact, not least on the one fifth of Israeli citizens who are not Jewish.

Indeed, the bill - and Benjamin Netanyahu - are explicit on this point. The Prime Minister said that, while under the new legislation everyone would continue to enjoy equal civil rights, "national rights" would be allowed to Jews alone. Lest there be any doubt, the new bill would demote Arabic from its current status as an official language of Israel.

Such a move could have been designed to antagonise Israel's Arab minority, who have long endured discrimination. Those who fear a third intifada is coming often predict that the difference next time will be the involvement of Israel's Palestinian minority, turning on the state of which they are citizens. This latest step makes that bleak scenario more likely.

And, of course, Netanyahu's decision will be seized on as vindication by those opponents of Zionism who have always said a Jewish, democratic state is an oxymoronic, logical impossibility, that Israel can either be one or the other but not both. By its vote, the Israeli cabinet has sided with anti-Zionists, agreeing that, yes, these two goals - enshrined and entwined so inseparably in the Declaration of Independence - are indeed at odds and one has to come first.

So what's the good news? It lies in the forces of opposition to this bill. They are not the usual suspects. One is Abraham Foxman of America's Anti-Defamation League, who as a diaspora Jew perhaps hears the obvious echo when a government declares that one minority is to be denied the full rights granted to everyone else.

The other, and much more important, is the new President of the State of Israel, Ruvi Rivlin. A Likud veteran, he has emerged as an improbable opponent of the racism and bigotry currently staining too much of Israeli public life.

He made an unprecedented visit recently to the village of Kfar Kassim, to apologise for the 1956 massacre there of 48 Palestinians, including children. He also denounced the surging mood of aggressive intolerance by telling a Jerusalem conference, "It is time to honestly admit that Israel is sick, and it is our duty to treat this illness."

In a stirring speech on Tuesday, Rivlin slammed the new bill. Israel's Jewishness and democracy were not at odds, he said. On the contrary, respecting the dignity of all human beings was the greatest Jewish value. He insisted that Israel rests on the twin pillars of nationhood and democracy: "The removal of one will bring the whole building down."

That warning is gloomy. The only crumb of comfort is that Israel currently has a president wise enough and brave enough to issue it.