How Stable is Israel?

Photograph Source: Effib at Hebrew Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.5

It is time to ask the question: just how stable is Zionist Israel? Is it possible that the Jewish population of Israel constitutes an inherently unstable society by virtue of deeply rooted divisions? Are these divisions so deeply rooted that they are irreconcilable? As Lloyd Green put it in a recent article in the Daily Beast, “Decades-old grudges have now morphed into pitched political battles. Antipathies of the old world are now playing out in what was thought to be a high-tech Hebrew-speaking Mecca.”

In the West, the potential for this upheaval has long gone unnoticed because of Zionism’s constant emphasis on the alleged threat of extermination at the hands of the Palestinians. Coincidentally, it has been the Zionist determination to dispossess all Palestinians that has allowed them to put off confronting their own internal problems.

Now, all of a sudden, it may well be time to pay the piper. Despite the current rightwing coalition’s attempt to delay intra-Zionist confrontation by pulverizing the Gaza population, the moment of political Zionism’s disintegration may well be at hand.

The accelerated expression of these internal problems, the one that has seen tens of thousands of mostly secular, upper class Ashkenazi Jews protesting in the streets of Israel, was triggered by a rightwing government’s efforts to destroy the independent status of the nation’s courts—particularly the Supreme Court. The reason this move was seen to warrant massive protests is because when it comes to the culture of Jewish Israel, as goes the judiciary, so goes the nation. To date the courts have been seen as a bulwark for secular society. Destroy that bulwark, and Israeli Jewish civil liberties become vulnerable to reactionary religious pressures. Here are some of the issues that court decisions have influenced in a liberal way: (1) Who is a Jew? The courts have recognized Conservative and Reform Judaism (the latter sect being the largest Jewish group in the United States) as legitimately Jewish, and any conversions made under their auspices as legal. The ultra Orthodox (Haredim) see this as a direct challenge to their influence over Israeli “Jewishness.” They insist that their form of Judaism is the only legitimate form. (2) What commercial activities should be allowed on the Jewish sabbath (Saturday)?  Should the stores open? Should the buses run? When and if they do operate, should they (and all other public facilities) be gender segregated? (3) Should ultra-orthodox men be exempted from otherwise compulsory military service? The courts have sometimes ruled against a blanket exemption for the ultra orthodox communities. And, to what extent should public monies go to support an ultra orthodox subgroup of males who do not serve and do not work (they just study the Torah) within the national economy? In terms of these last exemptions from military service and a subsidized excuse to avoid economic employment, much of secular Israel sees the ultra-orthodox as parasites.

This is, of course, only one half of the story. The Haredim see themselves as the only “real” Jews, and therefore the fight to preserve and extend their rights is seen as a fight to preserve Jewish Israel itself. Under these circumstances, Israeli judges who tend to support secularism are  “wicked judges,” and their decisions are “antisemitic.” They and those who support the predominance of secular life in Israel are seen as heretics.

Soon after the formation of the so-called left-leaning Bennett-Lapid government (2021-2022), negotiations began seeking a political alliance between Israel’s rightwing parties, both religious and secular. It should be noted that there is a secular right and it is made up mostly of the more traditional and observant Sephardic Jews whose origins are not European. The Sephardim constitute much of the voting power of Netanyahu’s Likud party. The aim of this rightwing alliance is a coalition government that would emphasize “the exclusive nature of Judaism in the State of Israel.” That “nature” is to be compatible with orthodox religious tenets.

These negotiations were successful and led to the present coalition government led by Benjamin Netanyahu. This government’s rapid move to implement into law their version of a religiously inspired Zionism, initially through a “reform” of Israel’s judiciary, has triggered a confrontation with a frightened and angry secular community that seems capable of, and willing to, shut down the country’s economy before it will go along with religious right’s plans. These secular  protests have, in turn, angered at least some of the voters who helped put the present rightwing government in office—“people who are fed up being outsiders even after they’d won in the democratic game.” The frustration caused by a “recognition that you may be the ruling party but you’re not ruling” has led to recent counter demonstrations organized by the rightwing parties. Thus we have a confrontational environment wherein intra-Israeli Jewish differences come to the surface.

All of this was enough to throw the president of Israel, Isaac Herzog, into a panic. After his mid-March compromise proposal for changes in the judiciary was rejected by Netanyahu and his rightist government, Herzog warned “Israel is in the throes of a profound crisis. Anyone who thinks that a real civil war, of human life, is a line that we will not reach has no idea. The abyss is within touching distance.”

You get a sense of this “abyss” when you translate “civil war” into Hebrew. It comes out as “brothers’ war.” The fraternity has always been fragile and as a piece in the Middle East Eye puts it, “for many Israelis that fraternal feeling has now gone and has been openly replaced by hate, contempt, and plain horror.”

Such a destabilizing situation cannot help but erode the Israeli economy. And, it has done so by lowering the value of the shekel on currency markets, lowering the country’s credit rating, causing a drop in property values and unsettling the Israeli stock market. There are signs of both a flight of bank deposits and businesses abroad.

Worse yet, for a country that imagines itself under constant threat, elements of the military reserve have been critically alienated by the government’s actions and threaten to refuse to serve under the evolving new regime. These threats sent prime minister Netanyahu into as big a panic as Herzog’s. In an address to the nation on 28 March 2023, he declared, “The State of Israel cannot exist without the IDF and the IDF cannot exist with refusal to serve. … Refusal to serve is the end of our country. Therefore, I demand that the heads of the security services and of the army vigorously oppose the phenomenon of refusal to serve, not contain it, not understand it, not accept it – but put a stop to it.”

By the end of his speech Netanyahu had shown that he had replaced the prospect of compromise with a rather empty concept of dialog. “I – as Prime Minister – will take a time-out for dialogue.” But then came the declaration that “We insist on the need to enact the necessary changes in the judicial system … . Our path is just. Today, the great majority of the public recognizes the urgency of democratic reform of the judicial system. We will not allow anyone to rob the people of its free choice. While we will not give up on the path for which we were elected.” So what is there to dialog about?

There is an old adage which goes, ‘if you have internal problems that defy solutions, then start a war and force unity onto the country.’ This is exactly what Netanyahu and his rightwing coalition have attempted to do. It was a simple and obvious path to take given that the Palestinians are an always available whipping boy for the Israelis. What is surprising is that the press seems not to have recognized the gambit.

Google the proposition of diversion through war and you find the most recognition of this maneuver on leftist “outsider” sites: (1) a World Socialist Website article on the Israeli government’s provocation of the Palestinians. “As Netanyahu doubtless calculated when he started the military operation in Gaza, the opposition leaders dutifully fell in line. … They proved their unity … with Netanyahu and the far-right, above all in relation to the oppression of the Palestinians.” (2) The joint Israeli-Palestinian web site +972. “It was only a matter of time before Jewish Israelis — socially disintegrated, politically divided, economically sinking, and diplomatically entangled — would once again gather around the common denominator under which they can all embrace: the slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza.” (3) Also, the liberal Israeli news site Haaretz, which has recently expressed concern over the impending vote on a budget that would transfer large amounts of government resources to the ultra orthodox religious communities. The paper has called for renewed demonstrations. “We must not capitulate to the Netanyahu government’s distractions or spin. The protest must go one and even intensify.”

The problem with this tactic of shifting attention to an outside threat is that it will not work in the present circumstances. For one thing, the Palestinian “threat” is seen as perennial. More importantly, regardless of that threat, the unity of Netanyahu’s coalition demands a relentless process of realizing the demands of the religious parties in the form of new laws. Under such circumstances, the religious-secular contradictions must soon approach the breaking point. Think of it this way: (1) the envisioned new laws at once threaten Israel’s secular culture while at the same time (2) hold the ruling rightwing coalition together. Renewing the process of passing these laws is imminent, and so is some variation on Israel’s “brothers’ war.”

Back in 2016, former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo expressed the opinion that “the internal threat must worry us more than the external threat.” He followed this up with a prediction, “If a divided society goes beyond a certain point, you can end up, in extreme circumstances, with phenomena like civil war. To my regret, the distance [until we reach that point] is shrinking. I fear that we are going in that direction,” Perhaps the Zionists have now arrived at that certain point.

Lawrence Davidson is a retired professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.