Israel at 69 — Not What You Think

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When Israelis are asked how they are doing, the most common answer is “Personally, I’m fine.” This has a twofold meaning, conveying both the respondent’s individual situation and, by implication, that of the body politic at large. Indeed, the 2016 Israeli Democracy Index found that three-fourths of Israelis report that their personal situation is “good,” while only a third think the country’s situation is good. Moreover, almost two-thirds of the survey's respondents believe the country’s situation is “so-so” or even “bad.”

There is a pervading sense that our collective existence in Israel is “stuck” and that the public sphere is damaged in some fundamental way. For years, sadness has been in the air, tinged with sourness, discouragement, a lack of fulfillment, and self-criticism. The Zionist project seems to have run out of steam. This intuition is not only a characteristic of the Israeli Left but the mainstream majority, as well as many who are firmly on the political Right.

As such, Independence Day is a fitting moment to consider this sense of crisis and ask: Do the facts support it?

At first glance, the answer is no.

From a security perspective, we have never been better off. Israel is a military power, whose traditional enemies no longer pose an existential threat. Its economy is strong and stable. Israel withstood the crises that afflicted Europe and the United States. It excels in the information-based industries of the future, and has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world.

Similarly, things are looking up on the diplomatic stage. The prime minister only recently met with the leaders of the world's three superpowers—the United States, Russia, and China. Even the skies above the United Nations are clearing up.

We seem to be moving ahead, with a momentum that should project optimism. So why the doom and gloom?

Our Achilles’ Heel is a fundamental disagreement over the Israeli vision. In our early years of sovereignty we dealt with existential issues: security, settlement, immigrant absorption, and economic development. We worked together on the basis of a covenant of fate that was self-evident - given the challenges of those years. However, we could not take the time needed to define the goal of that covenant—the purpose of Israeli sovereignty.

Then in 1967, still a stripling of 19, the beautiful young State of Israel was struck by a spell. Like the pinprick that felled Sleeping Beauty, making contact with the territories of the ancient homeland thrust Israeli civil society into a deep slumber. The question of the future of the territories became a black hole that sucked up the entire Israeli civil discourse. Subsequently, the central issue with which we have dealt with for 50 years is the question of where the country’s borders will be drawn, rather than what type of country and society will exist within them.

As a result of this deep sleep, harsh and loud voices, proud to fan the discord, are reverberating around the fringes of Israeli society. They are trumpeted by the hardened ideologues among us, who, in the absence of a serious discussion about a shared Israeli vision, devote their energies to championing a single and inflexible meaning behind the national journey. They include people like Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, the extreme ultra-Orthodox leader, as well as Arab Knesset member Hanin Zoabi. Impelled by their religious or nationalist visions, both see the country as the epitome of evil. They also include journalist Yossi Klein, who writes for the Hebrew daily Haaretz, and Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, one of the heads of the pre-military academy in Eli. Each of them, zealous for his/her own vision, does not hesitate to hurl venomous language against the visionaries of the other party.

What all four people have in common is an ideological fundamentalism that leads them to see the other as the devil incarnate. Their extreme devotion to a particular vision has made them willing to bury the idea of an all-inclusive Israeliness. The general public is then seduced into perceiving that the extremism of these four (and others like them) is representative of the entire sector to which they belong. This atmosphere of all-out war between camps that label one another as illegitimate is what underlies the sense of crisis in which we have found ourselves in recent years.

But if we are willing to turn down the volume of the extreme voices and listen instead to the mainstream representatives in each of the four sectors, we will find cause for optimism about the shared Israeli future. No, I do not mean to say that there is a prince on the horizon whose kiss will produce a perfect solution that absolves us from having to debate about the territories and awakens us from our civic slumber. Alas, there is no realistic chance for such a fairy-tale ending in the near future. Nevertheless, it does appear that the internal discourse in each sector is shifting toward the center and that the swirling centrifuges that push us apart are slowing down.

Although this conclusion is not generally shared, it is based on facts:

Case in point: Haredim are increasingly integrating into Israeli society. For example, about half of haredi men and more than two-thirds of haredi women have joined the workforce. Despite the rabbis’ cries that higher education is a spiritual holocaust, “worse than Auschwitz,” haredim by the thousands are flocking to colleges and universities. The Nachshons among them—the bold pioneers—are already deep in the water, and the rest are getting ready to dive in over the next few years. They still prefer social seclusion, do not serve in the military, and are far from internalizing liberal values, but the Rubicon has been crossed. Haredim are now involved in the making of national decisions, participate in the Zionist project, and are feeling the touch of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” which within a generation will raise this group out of poverty and into the middle class. We should not expect a complete intermingling of haredim and other Israelis, the “walls of holiness” will not fall, but the gates in these walls are not hermetically closed.

The ultra-Orthodox are not what you think.

The typical positions of Israel’s Arab citizens regarding the state are very different from the confrontational stance of their political leadership. According to the Democracy Index, most Israeli Arabs (55%) are “proud” or “very proud” to be Israeli. When asked which identity is most important to them, they mainly choose their religious (29%), Israeli (25%!), or Arab (24%) identity. Only a small minority of Israeli Arabs—one-eighth—claim “Palestinian” is their most important identity.

True, Arab Israelis do not accept Israel’s definition as the state of the Jewish people and only 40 percent of them feel they are part of the country and its problems “to a great extent.” Nonetheless, a third of this population group expresses confidence in the IDF.

Israeli Arabs are not what you think.

The National Religious, which for the last generation has been a main source of ferment in the central disputes of our public life, now holds a disproportionate share of key leadership positions in the country. For years, the group’s ideological engine ran mainly on messianic energy that came out of influential National-Ultra-Orthodox yeshivas. But the threat posed by a messianic agenda ignorant of the realities of history has lessened in recent years. National Ultra-Orthodoxy has lost power, both in numbers (it accounts for only 6% of the National Religious camp) and in its influence over the rest of the National Religious sector. Today's National Religious Right derives its outlook and policy preferences from a realistic analysis of events, just like every other group. The unconcealed desire of the leaders of the Jewish Home party for a divorce from the Tkuma faction is a powerful expression of the decreasing strength of messianic National Ultra-Orthodoxy.

A comprehensive study by IDI's Prof. Tamar Hermann found that, contrary to common belief, there is a substantial overlap between the National Religious camp’s attitude toward democracy and that of the Israeli public as a whole. The group’s satisfaction with the functioning of Israeli democracy is greater than that of the rest of the public. Religious Zionists hold an almost monolithic Rightist stance, but display a plurality of views on questions of religion and state. A clear majority is opposed to religious legislation, for example. And the frequent statements by members of this sector that they will refuse to obey military orders should there be a withdrawal from the territories, while grave in and of themselves, are not backed by a real desire to set off an explosion. The Gaza Disengagement proved that.

The National Religious are not what you think.

Finally, the vast majority of the Israeli political Left is very far from the unpatriotic stereotype that the Right would attach to it. According to the Democracy Index, even though leftists are more pessimistic than others about the future of the country, a solid majority—about two-thirds—report that they are proud of their Israeliness; four out of five feel part of the country and its problems. Considering the length of time that the Right has maintained political power, and the depth of the disagreement about the country’s borders, these are impressive numbers and express the Left’s deep commitment to the shared Israeli project.

The Left is not what you think.

All in all, it appears that a realistic assessment of Israel produces a more positive picture than the image we have of ourselves. There are many shadows in our national life, and I certainly would not minimize their severity. But the facts show that this sense of crisis regarding Israel’s identity and solidarity is unfounded. Rather, as opposed to the screaming headlines we have become accustomed to, the general trend is of a softening of our domestic disagreements.

In the context of the current crisis of democracy in the West, Israelis can be proud of this fact: 85 percent of Israelis believe that in order to deal with the challenges facing us we must hold fast to the state’s democratic character.
Israel is not what you think.