Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He is author of Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor and is working on a book about the meaning of Jewish survival.
The official ceremony marking Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers, the most solemn date on the civic calendar, is an occasion for the nation’s leaders to reaffirm their steadfastness against external threat. But at last year’s ceremony, then prime minister Naftali Bennett turned his attention to the threat within.
Referring to the two periods of Jewish sovereignty in ancient times, Mr. Bennett warned: “My brothers and sisters, there won’t be another chance. We are now in the eighth decade of the state, the decade beyond which we never succeeded in remaining a united people. We’ve been given the opportunity to repair the sin of our ancestors, of hatred between brothers, and heal ourselves of the tendency toward schism that destroyed our people.”
With the emergence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right and ultra-Orthodox coalition, Mr. Bennett’s warning seems prophetic. Public debate, routinely passionate in a besieged nation where any threat can seem existential, has turned apocalyptic, with growing talk of civil war. Opponents of the Netanyahu government accuse it of trying to destroy Israeli democracy, transforming the Jewish state into the next Hungary or Poland, and are threatening mass acts of civil disobedience. Some call his government “the coalition of hurban,” a word that means destruction and invokes the fate of ancient Israel.
On Jan. 14, tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered in Tel Aviv in pouring rain to protest the proposed judicial changes. Protesters waved hundreds of large Israeli flags they had brought from home, a response to Mr. Netanyahu’s attempt to delegitimize anti-government demonstrations by amplifying the handful of Palestinian flags displayed by far-left protesters. Young people beat drums and chanted, “De-mo-kratia!” Nearby an older woman held up a small sign, “Shame Is Dead.”
Netanyahu supporters accuse the opposition of fomenting anarchy, seeking to overturn the results of a democratic election. One far-right Knesset member called for arresting leaders of the parliamentary opposition – including two former IDF chiefs of staff – for treason. Mr. Netanyahu condemned the comment, but his real ire was directed against the opposition, whom he accused of inciting insurrection.
As the nation approaches its 75th anniversary this May, an ancient question is haunting Israelis: Can we hold together?
The fear of schism runs deep. In Jewish memory, loss of national sovereignty is invariably preceded by internal disintegration. At the peak of ancient Israel’s power, just after King Solomon’s death, the nation split into two, weakening both entities and leading to the destruction, by Assyria, of the northern Israelite kingdom in 722 BCE and of the southern Judean kingdom, by Babylonia, in 586 BCE. Reconstituted Judea was destroyed by Rome in 70 CE; during the siege of Jerusalem, as the city starved, rival factions burned each other’s granaries.
The dread of repeating a fatal, self-inflicted wound is a powerful undercurrent in Israeli discourse. One indication was the improbable success of a recent film, Legend of Destruction, which told the story of the Jerusalem siege through still paintings.
What makes this moment especially fraught is that, for the first time in Israel’s history, a governing coalition is attempting to simultaneously transform the meaning of the nation’s two foundational identities, as a Jewish and a democratic state. The result is a society more divided than at any time since the bitter debate around the Oslo peace process of the early 1990s, culminating in the assassination by a far-right activist of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
All of this is happening against the backdrop of escalating Palestinian-Israeli tensions. On Jan. 27, a Palestinian gunman killed seven Israeli Jews outside a synagogue. Three days earlier, the Israeli army killed eight Palestinian gunmen, members of the Islamic Jihad, whom it said were planning a terror attack inside Israel. A Palestinian woman was also killed in the crossfire. But even as Israelis mourned their dead, the vehement debate over the future of Israeli democracy continued, with tens of thousands demonstrating every Saturday night around the country against the government.
The immediate trigger for the unrest is the Netanyahu government’s plan to drastically reduce the power of the courts, including an “override clause” that would allow a simple parliamentary majority to overrule Supreme Court decisions. Depending on one’s politics, the plan is either a much-needed corrective for perhaps the world’s most activist court, or the end of Israel’s fragile system of checks and balances.
While even some of the court’s defenders acknowledge that its activism has gone too far, alienating large parts of Israeli society, they fear that the proposed cure will be far worse than the illness. Rather than seeking dialogue and compromise, the government intends to rush through far-reaching judicial changes. Given the absence of a constitution, with only a single legislative house controlled by the coalition’s majority, those changes would effectively grant sole control of governance to the prime minister.
That the judicial overhaul is being initiated by a Prime Minister on trial for three counts of corruption is especially galling to the opposition, which points out that Mr. Netanyahu has embraced the very changes he rejected in the past in order to extricate himself from his legal troubles.
“I believe that a strong, independent court allows for the existence of all other institutions in a democracy,” Mr. Netanyahu says in a 2012 clip that has gone viral on Israeli social media. “I ask that you show me one dictatorship, one undemocratic society, where a strong, independent court exists. There’s no such thing.”
In an essay published in the right-wing newspaper, Makor Rishon, the writer and political philosopher Micah Goodman appealed to the government to seek consensus: “These are the two principles of reform that are both nationalist and conservative: It is done through agreement and it is done with caution.” By tearing apart the nation and rushing through judicial changes, he warned, the government is squandering the opportunity to balance judicial overreach with overreach of its own: “The opposition is so wide and so great, that it nearly guarantees that those will be cancelled by a future change in government.”
For the Netanyahu coalition, judicial overhaul is only part of the program. Along with redefining key elements of Israeli democracy, the government is planning profound changes in the state’s Jewish identity.
Israelis are divided over the meaning of a Jewish state. For many traditionalist Jews, only an Israel governed by rabbinic law – a state of Judaism – can be authentically Jewish. Zionism, though, intended Israel to be the state of the Jewish people: It recognized that shared faith, which once united Jews through centuries of dispersion, had become, in the era of modernity, their primary source of division. Zionism, then, offered a more basic identity to hold Jews together: membership in the Jewish people.
Still, the borders between the “state of Judaism” and the “state of the Jewish people” have always been permeable. Responding in part to coalition pressures, the political system has gone far to accommodate the former. Most notably, the Orthodox chief rabbinate controls issues of personal status.
But previous governments, including those headed by Mr. Netanyahu, also upheld Israel’s identity as the state of the Jews.
In 1996, during his first term as prime minister, the government created a mechanism, the Ne’eman Commission, that gave Reform and Conservative rabbis some input in the conversion process. And in 2016, during his fourth term, the government granted control to non-Orthodox denominations of a part of the Western Wall. Though both concessions were revoked after Orthodox pressure, they affirmed the principle of Zionist inclusiveness.
Now the Netanyahu coalition is imposing strict Orthodox standards on expressions of Jewish identity outside the reach of the chief rabbinate – cancelling alternative kosher supervision of restaurants and funding for secular cultural programs on the Sabbath. The coalition will likely ban organized women’s prayer services at the Western Wall that are counter to ultra-Orthodox norms. Some cabinet ministers seek to curtail the role of women in the army and promote anti-LGBTQ education in secular schools.
The ultimate target is the Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to any diaspora Jew seeking to become Israeli – the most potent expression of Israel’s identity as the state of the Jewish people rather than of Judaism. Crucially, the law defines eligibility for citizenship not only to those who are Jewish according to Halakhah or rabbinic law, but to anyone with a single Jewish grandparent or a convert to Judaism through any Jewish denomination, including non-Orthodox streams. Under the so-called “grandchild clause,” tens of thousands of immigrants of partial Jewish origin are currently immigrating to Israel from Ukraine and Russia.
The ultra-Orthodox and ultra-nationalist parties are intent on cancelling the grandchild clause, whose real significance is symbolic. The clause was enacted in response to the Nazi racial laws, which persecuted anyone with a single Jewish grandparent. In extending citizenship to those who could be persecuted as a Jew, Israel expanded the principle of Jewish solidarity to include those whom rabbinic law excluded.
Changing the law would not only block future “grandchild” immigrants, but cause a deep rift between Israel and the diaspora. And while the proposed change would still presumably allow citizenship for those with only a Jewish father – whom rabbinic law doesn’t recognize as Jews – the message would be unmistakable. It would further tilt the delicate balance in Israel’s Jewish identity away from the state of the Jews and toward the state of Orthodox Judaism.
From its inception, deep divisions accompanied the Jewish return to Zion. The prestate Zionist movement was torn over whether to build the national home through socialism or capitalism, expel the British from Palestine through terrorism or diplomacy, oppose territorial compromise or accept the UN’s proposal for minimalist borders for a Jewish state.
At times, internal conflict led to violence – as when, in 1948, Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, ordered the Israeli army to fire on the Altalena, a weapons ship of the right-wing Irgun moored off the coast of Tel Aviv, killing 16 Irgunists, many of them Holocaust survivors. That unresolved wound is once again being invoked in right-wing polemics against the liberal camp – just as liberals are resurrecting the Rabin assassination against the right. In Israel, traumas tend to linger, a price Jews pay for their fealty to historical memory.
With the mass immigration of Jews from around the world, ethnic and religious tensions overlapped with the prestate divide. Immigrants brought with them the contradictory sensibilities of their varied experiences – from the medieval piety of Yemen to the skepticism of 19th-century Germany. Inevitably, they imposed their ambitious and opposing notions of Jewishness on this small, besieged strip of land. Would Israel be an exceptional society, a “light to the nations,” as the socialist kibbutzniks envisioned, or a “normal” nation among nations, as Tel Aviv aspired to be? Would the modern state resurrect the religious glory of ancient Israel, or would its glory lie in upholding secular democracy under conditions of war, terrorism and siege?
Israel’s coalition system is an attempt to accommodate those contradictory aspirations, managing the messy, essential compromises that define our national life. Some compromises – such as applying Sabbath restrictions on commerce but not on entertainment – likely reflect majority sentiment. Others – such as forbidding civil marriages within the state while recognizing those performed a half-hour’s flight away in Cyprus – may seem absurd.
Thanks in part to that spirit of compromise, Israeli society has been remarkably effective in creating a shared national identity. In addition, military service continues to play a crucial role in bringing Jews of disparate backgrounds together. Once unusual, marriages between Jews from European and Middle Eastern backgrounds have become routine. Israeli culture, formerly dominated by a secular European elite, is now the meeting point between East and West – from a hybrid Israeli cuisine to a fusion of rock music with the prayers of Jews from Morocco and Iraq.
Two communities remain outside the circle of this shared identity: Arab Israelis and ultra-Orthodox Jews are either indifferent or opposed to the Zionist ethos that defines Israel as both Jewish and democratic. For the ultra-Orthodox, democracy threatens Israel’s Jewish identity, while for Arab citizens, the state’s Jewish identity undermines its democratic promise. With few exceptions, neither community participates in military service. These populations – together nearly 35 per cent of society and its fastest-growing communities – pose the greatest long-term challenge to Israeli cohesiveness.
To address that challenge, Israel must maintain its role as mediator between the contradictory aspirations of the Jews. And it must accommodate an Arab minority, many of whose members regard the very founding of the state as a historical injustice and a threat to their own national identity. Either challenge would be daunting; together, they strain Israel’s capacity for inclusiveness to the breaking point.
Drawing Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews closer to the mainstream requires a combination of firmness and largesse. The massive government subsidies to the ultra-Orthodox need to be replaced with incentives for its young men to leave their full-time religious studies and enter the work force. At the same time, mainstream Israelis need to acknowledge the idealism of the ultra-Orthodox, who endure voluntary poverty for the sake of Torah study. Meanwhile, government allocations for the Arab sector need to be equalized with budgets for Jewish municipalities and schools, even as anti-Zionist pronouncements by Arab Israeli politicians – including support for attacks against Israeli soldiers – are treated as beyond the pale.
The previous coalition was the first in Israel’s history to include an Arab party, Ra’am, and begin the process of jointly addressing inequities in society. No one could have predicted that the first party to break the Arab taboo against joining a “Zionist” government would be Islamist. Party leader Mansour Abbas went a step further, declaring the right of the Jewish majority to define Israel as a Jewish state – the first leading Arab Israeli politician to accept the legitimacy of the country’s identity. In treating an Arab party as a partner, the former government encouraged reciprocity.
The Netanyahu government’s policies toward both the Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox undermine the process of drawing the two outlier communities closer to the mainstream. It has drastically increased subsidies for the ultra-Orthodox, strengthening their separatist state-within-a-state, and undoing the previous coalition’s attempts to compel ultra-Orthodox schools to teach subjects such as math and English to equip students for the modern work force.
The Netanyahu coalition has also rejected the previous government’s historic breakthrough of including an Arab party at the table. Right-wing politicians treat Mr. Abbas as a pariah, falsely accusing him of supporting terrorism. Rather than acknowledging the leader’s courage, they are signalling to the Arab community that gestures of goodwill are futile.
Given the difficulty of absorbing Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews into the mainstream, maintaining the nation’s intactness depends on strengthening minimal consensus within the Zionist majority, from moderate left to moderate right. Yet it is precisely this core population that Mr. Netanyahu has torn apart. Rather than seeking dialogue over conflicting interpretations of Israel’s Jewish and democratic identities, he is encouraging schism. The most homogeneous coalition in Israel’s history has little interest in fostering the spirit of compromise essential to Israeli cohesiveness.
Some insist that a broad political consensus over defining Israel’s Jewish and democratic identity is still viable. In the past, centrist parties have joined with Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party in forming a coalition that excluded the far right. But antipathy toward him runs so deep within the centrist opposition that, so long as he remains in power, it is unlikely to join a coalition with the Likud. The healing process, then, must await the post-Netanyahu era.
Meanwhile, protests are spreading around the country: “The state of Israel was established so that there would be one place in the world where the Jewish person, the Jewish people, would feel at home,” novelist David Grossman told one demonstration. “But if so many Israelis feel like exiles in their own country, then clearly something is going wrong.”
Whither Israel? More on The Decibel
What does the far-right Israeli government have planned for the judiciary, and who would be most affected? The Decibel asks Josef Federman, news director of the Associated Press for Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan. Subscribe for more episodes.