On the country's 70th anniversary (according to the Hebrew calendar), it's appropriate to ask, once again, Why so much attention to this little place?

 
And why so much emotion involved in wanting to change how it operates?
 
It may be the spirituality associated with Israel, its prominence in everyone's media, or the excitement of politicized Muslims, Christians, and Jews.
 
Much operates by formal rule. Or by informal rules that are accepted ways of doing things.
 
Lesson #1 concerns the people of Israel.
 
About half derive from European backgrounds, and there are few of those families without stories about the Holocaust.
 
The other half comes from Middle Eastern backgrounds, with family stories of persecution by Muslims.
 
There's increasing mixture between the descendants of Europeans and Middle Easterners, with the result that kids grow up hearing about the Holocaust and Muslim persecution.
 
So it should be no surprise that Israelis tend not to trust anybody else to care for them.
 
Increasingly, there are signs of discord and distrust even between Israelis and overseas Jews.
 
The largest group of them, in America, are several generations from their European roots. They are assimilated and intermarried. Many are more American than Jewish. 
 
So a drifting apart, and increased antagonism should be no surprise.
 
Lesson #2 concerns the natures of Judaisms, and how they impact on Israeli politics.
 
Note the plurality. 
 
We've been a contentious and multi-faceted people since deciding that we were a people. Re-read the stories of rebellion against Moses and Ezra's problems with intermarriage. Dip into a Talmud and note the congestion of arguments among the rabbis. All that was well established before the tired expression about almost as many synagogues as Jews.
 
We can argue if the various congregations of the ultra-Orthodox, Orthodox, or non-Orthodox represent segments of one religion or several. The religious among us are hardly more united in faith and practice than Roman Catholics, Orthodox, or Protestants among the Christians.
 
And remember that Jews are a people, while Judaism is a religion. Close to a majority of Israeli Jews do not consider themselves religious.
 
Lesson #3 derives from Lesson #2, and concerns the principal divisions among Israeli Jews and their political parties.
 
None of the major groups has anything close to a majority. Coalition is imperative, but they are contentious and often a tick away from crisis.
  • Secular liberals or leftists divide themselves among the Labor Party currently morphed into "Zionist Union," and Meretz.
  • Religious Zionists/Settlers (many of whom are secular) are at the core of Jewish Home
  • Russians and others with a tough posture toward Arabs support Avigdor Lieberman and his Israel our Home.
  • Ultra-Orthodox divide themselves between the Ashkenazim, currently in Torah Judaism but with several contentious factions, and the Sephardim in SHAS, with their own clashes among rabbinical personalities
  • Likud, with its components of nationalism, opposition to socialism, and Middle Easterners' suspicion of Ashkenazim is currently the largest party, polling at about one-quarter of the electorate
  • A fluid collection of parties seeking a foothold somewhere in the center of the classic split between Labor and Likud. Currently Yair Lapid's There is a Future is in the lead, with Moshe Kahlon's All of Us a distant second.
Lesson #4 is that respect for law, along with dispute as to what it is and what it implies, is prominent among the elements that make up the religions and cultures of the Jews.
 
Law and its Judaic roots are also prominent in the struggle of those charged with enforcing it against allegations of corruption. 
 
Courts operate entirely under the control of professional judges.
 
The length of proceedings and judges' demands for proof confuse our overseas cousins who are familiar with speedy trials and decisions by amateur juries reacting to the rhetorical skills as much as to the evidence presented by prosecutors and defense counsel.
 
Lesson #5 is the pervasive importance of the Palestinian issue.
 
It's been with Israelis since before there was an Israel, and has moved from a dominant role played by Arab governments to a situation where the Palestinians speak for themselves, and into the prominence of conflict among Palestinians and their inability to reach agreement with one another or with Israel.
 
While many Israeli Jews and Palestinians/Israeli Arabs get along and work together, the distrust involving communities and their leaderships continues at a high level. The intifada of 2000-2005 and several bouts with Gaza have reinforced the distrust.
 
That distrust also goes a long way to explain the continued support of right-of-center parties, and the weakness of Labor and Meretz, tainted with their demands that Israel make greater efforts to reach agreement with the Palestinians.
 
Lesson #6 concerns Israel's skill, not always comprehensible or pretty in the eyes of foreigners (or Israelis), to cope with the complexities of its international relations.
 
Israel manages delicate relations with Russia, now having a major focus avoiding conflict between Russian and Israeli forces in Syria. Connected with this, Israel has upset the British Foreign Ministry for its refusal to join the chorus of condemnation about that poisoning in Britain.
 
Israelis also enjoy the expressions coming from Donald Trump and John Bolton, despite their being on the outs with the bulk of liberal Jewish Democrats in the United States and several foreign governments.
 
Lesson #7 is the overriding role of the IDF 
 
It is not only a matter of national defense, but of sacrifice and the wisdom apparent in its upper reaches. More than 23,000 soldiers and other security personnel and several thousand civilians have been killed since 1948 in wars and terror. Proportionally to population, that's about 20 times the number of Americans killed in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. 
 
Israel's Memorial Day is not an occasion for shopping or joyous picnics. Estimates range above one million Israelis (one-sixth of the Jewish population) visiting the graves of family members or friends in military cemeteries..
 
The skill and wisdom in  the upper echelons of the IDF and other security forces appears not only in the capacity of intelligence gathering and operations, but in the restraints applied against the demands of politicians to do something grand, heroic, and final against the complexities of the West Bank, Gaza, and elsewhere.
 
All told, this is a complex little place, riven by conflict, but with impressive growth and development over the course of 70 years. 
 
Comments welcome
-- 
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem


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