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From tribalism to cohesion, and the Israeli cultural war


Political Zionism has achieved its goals more successfully than any other national movement of the last century. In objective, measurable terms, the State of Israel is a dazzling success.

Still, Israelis are far from satisfied with the way in which their national life is conducted. A persistent asperity hovers over our lives. The source of the difficulty – the cup of poison we drink each day – is the sense that we are in the midst of a culture war between the major tribes that constitute Israeli society: the secular, the Arabs, the Haredim, and the religious.

The gloves have come off in the Israeli cultural war, and this is clearly reflected in the various indices included in the Jewish People Policy Institute’s 2021 Annual Assessment, which it about to be submitted to the Israeli government as it does every year. The current discord relates to various aspects of Israeli daily life, but at its root is the disagreement between the tribes regarding the state’s overarching goals, and about the correct interpretation of the entire Zionist enterprise:

Secular Zionism views the founding of the state – the establishment of Jewish sovereignty – as a historic revolution in Jewish destiny, a renunciation of exile and a return to history. David Ben-Gurion, the architect of the state, believed that the traditional-religious identity that had preserved Jewish uniqueness in exile was a weight around the neck of Zionism, and should be supplanted by a national identity. 

• The haredim, on the other hand, attach no importance to political Zionism. They are not interested in a revolution that would cut us off from the past. They seek the opposite: continuity. For the Chazon Ish, the great haredi leader of the 1950s, the State of Israel and Jewish sovereignty were not a goal, but only an instrument for rebuilding the Torah civilization destroyed in the Holocaust. The State of Israel delivers nothing new to Jewish identity.

• Religious Zionism, for its part, attributes religious value to the establishment of the state. For Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the group’s preeminent visionary, the return to Zion is not a continuation of exile in the Land of Israel (the haredi position), nor is it a new beginning detached from tradition (the secular ideological position), but a new floor above Jewish existence in exile, the first stage of a redemptive process. 

• The fourth community, Israel’s Arab citizens, would prefer the state to have a universal “egalitarian democratic” character, which would replace its current definition: “Jewish and democratic.” 

Although my main interest here is with Israeli society, it is important to emphasize the existence of a fifth group: Jewish people, members of the family, who are not part of Israeli society.

These are citizens of other countries, but who have the legal right to immigrate to Israel per the Law of Return. The State of Israel has even assumed a number of obligations toward them, as stated in the Basic Law: “Israel – the Nation-State of the Jewish People.” They disagree among themselves over the meaning to ascribe to the Jewish nation-state where they are not citizens. Their views span the spectrum of all four Israeli identity groups.

Tribalism takes a heavy toll on us: it weakens solidarity between the different segments of society, erodes our internal cohesion, and undermines national resilience. This danger takes on a new meaning when the legitimacy of Zionism itself, as a national movement, is under attack in various parts of the world. It is troubling to see how anti-Zionist positions are gaining momentum and taken for granted by some progressive segments of American society.

It is doubly sad to find that significant groups within the younger generation of American Jews – our flesh and blood – see Zionism as illegitimate. It must be acknowledged that “Zionism” is becoming a derogatory word on North American college campuses, and within some (albeit few) overseas Jewish communities.

In response, we must pull together and rise above the ideological divisions in order to formulate a common denominator that will proudly continue the Zionist march into the next generation.

A pro-Israel rally in New York in 2014 (credit: REUTERS)

Indeed, the controversy over vision should not be ignored, but it should not become the main story. Rather, we must act to strengthen the commonalities between us, on two levels: first, “Israeli cohesion”: forging areas of national consensus between all Israeli citizens, even on controversial issues, with a commitment to mutual tolerance. Each of us must forgo his or her maximalist positions and respect the sensitivities of the other.

The second level is “Jewish cohesion,” which entails reinforcing the bridge between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, while broadening the agenda of a shared peoplehood based on a common identity, despite specific disagreements over concrete issues. But is this even possible?

As regards Israeli cohesion, the data show that the conditions that will allow us to change our self-perception about the collective “we” and replace the destructive tribal discourse with a discourse of solidarity are becoming more and more fulfilled.

The worst of Israeli discord is behind us, and promising explorations of a pan-Israeli partnership are beginning. The groups do not surrender their dreams, but living together softens the stings of disagreement, and the common good is becoming clearer to many Israelis.

Indeed, the very existence of the current coalition, which spans right and left and includes an Arab party, is a positive and innovative development. It demonstrates a mature concept that views compromise and cooperation between movements and people with different visions as both a practical and moral value. This is the start of a process of rapprochement between the tribes – a process whose future lies ahead.

Secularism’s struggle against Jewish tradition has long since reached its peak. Many secular people feel uneasy or even distressed by their artificial break from the Jewish past, and are striving to make contemporary use of the treasures of experience, memory, and meaning of Jewish existence across the generations.

Most Jews in Israel happily embrace practices and features of their tradition: Jewish rituals, the Jewish calendar, Jewish symbols, and more. On Yom Kippur, Israeli roads are all but empty of cars; nearly everyone attends a Passover seder; 80% of Israeli Jews report that they believe in the existence of God. These facts and many others do not indicate a return to religion, but rather an end to the revolt against Jewish tradition. Secular people feel “at home” connecting with the customs of past generations, which are important in forming their identity as Jews – as individuals and as members of a people. An “Israeli Judaism” has been created here (as described by Shmuel Rosner and Camil Fuchs in their 2019 book, #IsraeliJudaism: Portrait of a Cultural Revolution).

Overall, there is a growing recognition among Israel’s secular public that an Israeli society without connection to the Jewish past, impoverished of the culture of previous generations, will also have no future. The identification of Judaism with religion, which secularists do not accept, is being replaced by the identification of Judaism as a cultural source, without which the unique Jewish identity might fade away.

The change is also detectable among the haredim. It is true that haredi rhetoric remains extreme, and espouses segregation and the preservation of a separate and distinct haredi existence “behind the walls of holiness.” Most haredi males still lack a basic general education and choose Torah study as their primary, or even sole, lifelong occupation. They still do not shoulder a significant share of the national burden – military, societal, or economic – and are enmeshed in a love-hate ambivalence with the Zionist project.

Yet beneath the surface, tectonic changes are simmering, signaling the beginnings of haredi society’s connection to Israeliness itself on all fronts: in the employment sphere, about half of haredi men and over two-thirds of haredi women work. What was once regarded as a “society of learners” has in recent years become a “society of learners and workers.” Despite some rabbis’ vehement cries that higher education is a “worse holocaust” than Auschwitz, haredi men and women in the thousands study in academic institutions.

Although they are far from internalizing liberal values, the Rubicon has been crossed: haredim are partners in national decision-making, and most of them identify, de facto, with the Zionist enterprise.

Despite the opposition of the rabbis, they are using the Internet, the information superhighway, thus opening themselves to previously unknown possibilities of personal choice, which leads to the democratization of their lives, even if limited at this stage. These beginnings indicate that the change has the potential to continue and allow the haredi voice to integrate more harmoniously into the Israeli identity space. A fusion between the haredim and the rest of the Israeli public should not be expected – the “holy walls” will not collapse – but some degree of mixing will exist.

As for religious Zionism: the Six Day War, which enabled Jews to return to the territories of the mythological House of David, was perceived by members of this group as clear proof that our generation is the generation of redemption. Anticipating a redemptive process, religious Zionists turned to its realization with messianic fervor. This was the ideological engine that led religious Zionists to settle in the territories of Judea and Samaria, and to take leadership roles in Israel’s public systems. 

Although the settlement enterprise in Judea-Samaria continues to this day, the primary motivating force behind it is no longer religious-messianic in nature, but based today on national, security, and economic considerations. The threat inherent in a redemptive agenda that does not look history or reality squarely in the eye has greatly diminished in recent years.

In general, it can be said that although religious Zionists for the most part share a uniformly right-wing worldview, they derive their positions and priorities from their assessment of actual reality, like any other group. This allows for a “normal” discourse – even if there are divergent interpretations of reality – between religious Zionists and other Israelis.

Finally, Israel’s Arab citizens: Although three-quarters of Arab Israelis do not agree that Israel has a right to be defined as the state of the Jewish people, there is a promising trend among them toward integration in Israeli society. The vast majority are optimistic or somewhat optimistic about Israel’s future, and most are also proud or somewhat proud to be Israeli. Their integration in the education and employment spheres is an intensifying process.

Interestingly, nearly all Arab Israelis support the position that if a Palestinian nation-state is established alongside Israel, it would be appropriate to recognize Israel as the national home of the Jewish people.

On the whole, those willing to dim the volume of the extremist voices that have taken over the Israeli echo chamber and listen to the mainstream voices of each of the four sectors of Israeli society will find reason to be optimistic about a shared Israeli future. The facts show that the sense of social and identity rupture is unjustified. On the contrary, the current overall direction is toward a softening of discord. The internal discourse of each sector is in the process of moderating toward the center. The centrifugal forces that distance Israelis from each other are decelerating and becoming less destructive.

It is true that there is no solution on the horizon that would free us from the dispute over the territories. This is a dark cloud hovering in our national sky, with no real possibility of being resolved in the foreseeable future. But Israel’s energies must not be held captive by this issue. 

Israeli cohesion is, very likely, the best remedy we can offer for reinforcing our relationship with our brethren overseas: Jewish cohesion. The increasing difficulty in relations between Israel and the Diaspora is also related to an ideological controversy. But just as Israeli cohesion can be based on a successful partnership between us in everyday life even in the absence of a consensus on vision, so too can Jewish cohesion be based on partnership in achieving realistic goals with those segments of Diaspora Jewry that are critical of us from an ideological perspective.

As noted, there is no intention here to obscure the importance of the controversy over vision within Israel or outside it. Rather, this is a call to refrain from basing our relationship solely on the lack of consensus. Partnership in everyday life is no less important, sometimes even more so, than ideological arm wrestling.

The process of moving toward the center, and toward compromise, is a fact that many – in sectoral politics, in the media, and in the world of ideas – are working hard to conceal. We need a leadership that will change our self-perception – the central story in which we live. That leadership will need to reveal the key voices in each of the sectors and celebrate the participatory potential inherent in them.

In his famous “four tribes” speech at the beginning of his tenure, President Rivlin asked: “Do we have a shared civil language, a shared ethos?” An effort is required of all of us now to advance a socio-cultural enterprise that will transform that question mark into a resounding exclamation point. The change of leadership at Beit HaNassi (the President’s House) – Isaac Herzog’s assumption of the distinguished representational office – is a sterling opportunity to rethink the narrative that frames our national life. The personality, experience, and status of the new president place him in a historically rare position to lead the work of healing the rifts that divide us. So may it be.

The writer is president of the Jewish People Policy Institute and a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University.





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