Sometimes philosophical queries peep out of the news, just beneath straightforward reporting. I began reading in Haaratz (an Israeli newspaper) expecting only news and the usual political rancor. But something philosophical or conceptual crept in, the issue of Israeli identity—not unlike the question of personal identity.
Haaretz reported a conference presentation by Israel’s President Reuvin Rivlin. Although he’s assessing his country’s long-term prospects, it’s neither a campaign speech nor an obvious part of ongoing debates. It is curiously detached, yet the gist is not optimistic. Israel is no longer the Israel of Ben Gurion, a melting pot, but a land of tribes, quarrelsome enclaves having very little in common.
Israel’s first grade classes today are 38% secular Jews, 15% religious Zionist settler Jews, 21% Ultra Orthodox Haredim, and 24% Arab (excluding Arabs in Gaza and the West Bank). Religious Jews and Arabs are increasing while the number of secular Jews is decreasing. If current trends continue, in 40 years no tribe will comprise more than 30% of the population. What will be the face of the real Israel? Unlike the past half century, it will no longer be the face of a secular Zionist.
Can a hodgepodge without unifying loyalties be a country? If Rivlin is correct, the paradigm of a President or Prime Minister presiding over democratic majorities and loyal minorities, over lefties and righties, over secularists and religionists, is no longer credible. These labels have no traction when the reality is tribal squabble. Of course a strong man may take over, forging unity by coercion, fear, and distractions.
The Israel of the early Eastern European secular settlers and Holocaust refugees is not the Israel of most secularists today, and not the Israel of the Arabs who remained in the territory after 1967. The Israel of the illegal West Bank settlers is not the Israel of the Ultra-Orthodox or the Arabs or the secularists. Even the army is no longer a dependable homogenizer. Discounting Arabs and Haredim who are largely exempt, automatic participation by others who are age-eligible is becoming a thing of the past.
On the President’s own account it matters little whether he is Likud or Labor, Right or Left, Conservative or Liberal, of the Majority or of the Minority. These terms are failing to grip any more. The restless instability Rivlin finds in these demographics flames out in many directions, often with deadly consequence. It raises a host of puzzles, both political and philosophical, about governance, trust, and respect among those who have little in common. The horizon hardly looks promising.
What if Hamas rockets or Syria or ISIS or Iran are ultimately responsible for whatever minimal cooperation these tribes can muster? There are no common dreams or aspirations that hold together Haredim, Arabs, Secular Jews, and Zionist settlers. To be Israeli means something different to each.
Yet an Israeli colleague, in a hopeful if wistful mood, reminds me that Switzerland is sovereign over four tribes, over four languages, over four peoples with roots in countries that have been the bitterest of enemies. How do the Swiss nurture trust and good will among their divergent factions? Of course it helps that no one canton imposes a military occupation on another. And there are always the sober lessons of Yugoslavia.
— Ed Mooney, Zeteo Contributor
Citations: “Reuven Rivlin’s radical speech to the Herzliya Conference,” Asher Schechter, in Haaretz,
June 9, 2015, http://www.haaretz.com/news/israel/1.660417 ; the photos were found on-line, through Google Images, searching “Israeli Jews,” “Israeli women,” and “Israeli Arabs.”