There are attractions in the Jewish State, but also problems. Given its location and population, no surprise that they are the problems of living with Jews, and Arabs.
They aren't the same problems, and it isn't obvious which are the most serious, or threatening.
Arab citizens are some 20 percent of Israel's population, with most in East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights being permanent residents who have not chosen Israeli citizenship. Surrounding Israel, near and far, are most of the world's Muslims, not all of them Arabs, per se, and many of them hostile to Israel.
The history of Israel's relations with near and distant Arabs and Muslims includes several wars, lesser uprisings, and near daily efforts of individuals to kill Israeli civilians or security personnel (police, military, et al), usually with greater harm to those making the effort.
Since the Second Intifada petered out about 2005, Israelis' annual suffering from Arab violence has been substantially less than the incidence of traffic fatalities. That doesn't erase the tensions associated with the possibility of violence, but it does put it in proportion.
Israeli Jews' relations among themselves are problematic in different ways. Violence is rare, except for the kinds of criminality and family violence that pretty much resemble what occurs in other western societies.
The prominent issues among Jews are between those who are secular (close to 50 percent of the Jewish population), ultra-Orthodox (about 10 percent of the Jewish population but with high birthrates) and the Orthodox with another 10 percent. The boundaries are not all that fixed. Secular Jews are likely to celebrate national holidays whose origins are religious, and may enjoy participation in the rituals. Orthodox Jews are more or less observant, with some of them close to the ultra-Orthodox. There is also a population vaguely defined as "Traditional," which means somewhat observant. Most of these are Middle Eastern Jews. Men may cover their heads, families may keep kosher at home, individuals kiss the mezuzah when entering a room, but they may violate the Sabbath by driving to a football game or lighting a fire for a family cookout.
Outside of these categories are small numbers of Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jews, mostly of American origin.
The problems among Jews are both ideological and religious. Ideologies resemble those in other western societies. The issues and labels include liberals, conservatives, socialists, free market, environmentalism, animal rights, feminism.
The political process operates as in other democracies with respect to the demands of activists for one or another cause derived from citizens' self interests or ideologies.
Israeli officials have also developed routines for dealing with violence or threats of violence from Arab citizens. Arab claims of inequality in rights and public services reflect issues of security in some cases, and elsewhere reflect problems similar to minorities in other cultures. Israeli Arabs get less than a fair share, but not, arguably, less than minorities elsewhere.
More open-ended, unresolved, and problematic are the issues of religion that pit various categories of Jews against one another.
One set of issues is associated with the ultra-Orthodox. This is not one community but many. A principal division is between the Sephardi and Ashkenazi. And among the Ashkenazi are dozens of congregations, each with distinctive history, dress, traditions, and a revered rabbi as spiritual and political leader. Occasional disputes about territory or practice may reach limited and usually ineffectual dust ups among gangs of yeshiva students with no military experience.
The list of ultra-Orthodox demands includes
- Independence of education, with the most extreme refusing to teach their young people anything other than religious texts
- Financial benefits for the sake of their large families, including subsidized housing, water, electricity, exemptions or special rates on local taxes, along with child support payments and payments for men studying in yeshivot, perhaps extending throughout their lives.
- Exemption from military service for men studying in yeshivot
- Separation of men and women in the IDF and other public arenas, including the absence of female speakers or singers at gatherings that include men
- Concern for the sanctity of Sabbath and religious holidays, which entail the absence of work, shopping, and public transportation
Orthodox Jews have, for the most part, chosen their political issue as support for settlement in the West Bank. There are some 800,000 Jews living beyond the 1967 lines, with about half of those in East Jerusalem and the rest in the West Bank. There, Israelis and others quarrel about a number of major settlement blocs and a meandering wall, settlements beyond the wall, and those labeled "illegal." by one conception or another.
Israelis and others argue as to whether
- The settlements and their supporters are among the major barriers to a solution for the Israeli-Palestinian/Arab conflict
- Settlement throughout the Biblical Land of Israel (complicated by conflict geographical definitions in Torah) is an entitlement of Jews
Largely but not entirely outside these conflicts are demands from non-Orthodox religious Jews for rights that include
- Providing status to their rabbis (women as well as men) to perform weddings and officiate at divorce proceedings
- Allow mixed prayer for men and women at the Western Wall
- Government support for schools and synagogues, equivalent to the support provided to other religious groups
Non-Orthodox religious Jews suffer from their lack of representation in the Knesset. Against them are two ultra-Orthodox parties and one Orthodox party usually in the government, whose spokesmen are likely to declare that non-Orthodox beliefs and rituals are beyond what they recognize as Judaism.
The strength of the non-Orthodox lies in Diaspora communities, mostly the United States, where they are a majority of the Jewish population. Overseas advocates are politically active, often with the help of ranking US politicians, against what they describe as religious discrimination in Israel. This assures local and visiting non-Orthodox religious Jews a listening from the Prime Minister and other officials outside of the religious parties, even while the strength of the religious parties assures a limited response to their demands.
The latest on this front is a suspension--at the insistence of ultra-Orthodox parties--of refurbishing a portion of the Western Wall for the sake of mixed prayers by non-Orthodox Jews.
Israeli pessimists worry about the high birth rates of ultra-Orthodox Jews, the growing presence of Orthodox Jews among the IDF officer corps, the growing percentage of beginning pupils who are ultra-Orthodox and not destined for learning likely to make them self-supporting.
Optimists see increasing numbers of ultra-Orthodox willing to learn useful professions and accepting service in the IDF. Individuals quarrel, none with reliable data, about the incidence of Jews joining or leaving ultra-Orthodox or Orthodox communities.
Arab citizens suffer from the limited Arab representation in the Knesset, and further from the chronic opposition of the largely Arab parties. They haven't learned the lesson of American minorities, whose politicians play the game of trading support for community benefits.
Secular Jews suffer from their adversaries' political power. Religious communities (of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox) are strong enough to have a bloc in the Knesset large enough to be an element in just about every calculation of who will be in the government. Knesset Members affiliated with political parties having a largely religious agenda are currently in key roles as Ministers of Education, Health, Justice and Interior.
With both Arabs and Jews, Israeli governments employ a combination of carrots and sticks. Given the imbalances of power and the probabilities of violence, the stick is more prominent with respect to Arabs, especially Palestinians living outside of Israel, while the carrot is more prominent in dealing with the demands of religious Jews. Cynics describe police actions against ultra-Orthodox demonstrations, including the burning of trash dumpsters and the throwing of stones, as employing sticks wielded gently by hands in kid gloves.
And many Israelis yawn at all of the above, and see it as among the side effects, or noises, having to be tolerated along with the pleasures of living in a Jewish state, whatever those pleasures might be.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem