A sad 75th birthday for Israel

A sad 75th birthday for Israel Israelis wave national flags at a rally against the judicial overhaul, outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

‘Jewish national unity’ has always been a myth. The question is whether there is enough glue to hold Israel together. Op-ed published in The Times of Israel

Independence Day is typically the most joyous day on the Israeli calendar. It’s a chance to appreciate all that the country has achieved and revel in the Jewish people’s triumphant return to their biblical homeland after 2,000 years in exile.

But for many Israelis, there will be little to celebrate this year. On its 75th birthday, Israel is at perhaps its most perilous point, with large chunks of the country questioning its viability as a Jewish and democratic nation.

Despite a historic sense of siege and with enemies at its doorstep, the gravest risk to Israel has often been internal. The events of recent months surrounding the government’s judicial overhaul plan have only reinforced that.

The truth is that even with all its various conflicts Israel hasn’t faced a credible threat to its being in the 50 years since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. None truly exists today, in part, because Israel possesses an undeclared, but globally acknowledged, arsenal of nuclear weapons. Iran’s warnings of wiping Israel off the map amount to mere bluster.

Israel’s only real existential danger lies in its demography and its divisions.

The concept of Jewish national unity has always been a myth. The first and second Jewish kingdoms collapsed because of internal strife, both around their 80-year mark (a statistic Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah is particularly fond of citing). Even at the direst moments in Jewish history, like during the Warsaw ghetto uprising, opposing factions were bitterly divided. Early Israel nearly collapsed just as it began, with the sinking of the Altalena ship a month into its existence.

Ultimately, the external dangers and a sense of a shared destiny allowed for a basic level of cohesion to prevail. But the question for modern Israel today is whether there is still enough glue to keep holding it together.

It’s gotten to the point where bereaved parents are pleading with politicians to stay away from cemeteries on Memorial Day to prevent the sacred day from being sullied by confrontations.

Israel’s sad state this Independence Day is also symbolized by perhaps its foremost paragon of  Sabra “Israeliness,” iconic singer Shlomo Artzi, refusing to accept the Israel Prize, the country’s highest honor. The “Israeli Bruce Springsteen” says he is simply too pained over the country’s deep divisions.

In 2015, then-President Reuven Rivlin famously delivered his “four tribes” speech, warning of the primary schism between Arabs, ultra-Orthodox, national religious and secular that threatens Israel’s future.

His diagnosis remains true today. These disparate groups must find some way to live together, either through a written constitution or some other social contract. Failure to do that will raise the risk of Israel disintegrating into fiefdoms unable to coexist.

For many of the Ashkenazi, secular elite that established the state and has since mostly dominated its economic and cultural life, there is an impending sense of doom that the idealistic Zionist project their ancestors created is rapidly slipping away. The recent passing of two of its most prominent symbols, Meir Shalev and Yonatan Geffen, provided the emotional expression of that.

That Israel’s demographics have shifted is a given and some of the grievances of the previously marginalized sectors are legitimate. But the ascendant national religious and ultra-Orthodox camps would be wise to temper their antagonism.

The simple truth is that Israel’s standing as a first world, thriving economic and military power rests disproportionality on the shoulders of its shrinking secular majority. As Dan Ben-David so eloquently detailed in his five-part series exploring Israel’s gravest challenges, there are fewer than 400,000 individuals who are responsible for keeping Israel in the developed world.

“If a critical mass of them decide to leave, the consequences for Israel will be catastrophic,” he warned.

If this devastating brain drain were to occur, it would most likely be the result of the continued trends of the ultra-Orthodox community.

The internal Israeli-Arab conflict is by no means over. But Arabs are having fewer children and in many cases seeking to integrate. With the Palestinian issue shelved for now and Israel making inroads in the larger Arab world, there is at least a prospect of a calmer backdrop that could allow moderate voices like those of Mansour Abbas to take center stage.

Despite the best efforts of cynical Likud and Shas politicians to perpetuate it, the Ashkenazi-Mizrachi divide is now mostly a relic of the past. Most Israeli families today are ethnically mixed and while the legacy of historic discrimination remains, it rarely manifests itself in everyday life.

That leaves the religious divide as the most severe and intractable of Israel’s internal problems.

Most of the attention given to the segregated lifestyle of the ultra-Orthodox tends to revolve around their much-resented military draft exemptions. But the real issue is whether they can become full contributing members of a modern society when they continue to rely on disproportionate state subsidies and attend state-funded schools that teach very little math, science and English.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself tried to rectify this during his brief stint as finance minister in the early 2000s, when he cut child allowances and introduced other policies aimed at encouraging ultra-Orthodox labor force participation. But that kind of political courage doesn’t exist in him anymore.

Even so, there still exist plenty of proposals for progress, including non-military national service options for the ultra-Orthodox and various catered educational and employment tracks. What’s clear is that continuing the current path jeopardizes the country’s long-term well-being.

None of these problems will be easily resolved. But at a minimum, Israel urgently needs a new set of rules that define the identity of the state, provide basic rights for all its citizens and find a delicate balance between its Jewish and democratic values.

Former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s proposal for a long-term centrist government that shelves the most ideological conflicts in favor of ruling according to the majority of issues in consensus is a prudent way to keep the peace and perhaps the antidote Israel needs to calm these tense times.

But the foundation of the state can’t be up for debate and the looming dangers cannot be ignored. It’s time to recommit to the principles of Israel’s Declaration of Independence as a basis for a future life together.