There is something of a spirit that Israelis and Americans share, or at least have a fair amount of overlap, with each other. Both nations were not founded, as most nations are, by some group of people settling or originating and coming together over many centuries and conflicts in one particular area, often by accident and without purpose until far later in time. Yet America and Israel were each founded, in 1776 and 1948, by an exceptional generation of leaders, statesmen, diplomats and thinkers. Each set of leaders consciously decided and planned to create a state out of choice, and chose for the state not to simply be an ethno-nationalist state (though that would certainly describe Israel) but as a state founded on a core set of values.
Both were founded on hope, optimism for the future, and even ideas of redemption: from the horrors of the past, whether tyrannical monarchies or even the Holocaust itself. Part of what it meant to be Israeli or American was dreaming big.
Though Israel is far younger, both nations have been through many ups and down. But those early, hopeful first years of each seem such a distant memory, in part because of their current states of affairs. And both are finding their societies and political systems in moments of crisis, almost or as divided (perhaps even more divided) than any other time in their histories. Compared to their more hopeful, accomplished foundings, both America and Israel find themselves today characterized by sicknesses, and I am not just referring to the novel coronavirus.
Throughout the Cold War, Democrats and Republicans maintained a certain level of cooperation, as did Labor and Likud in Israel while their Arab neighbors were a major threat and not at peace with the Jewish state or largely subdued but had hostile, professional armies ready to attack. There is a quotation which illustrates this perfectly:
The pattern of routine partisanship and factionalism, and, as a result, of all other vicious practices had arisen…It was the result of peace and an abundance of those things that mortals consider most important. I say this, because, before the destruction of…[our chief rival power], mutual consideration and restraint between the people and the…[governing elites] characterized the government…Fear of a foreign enemy preserved good political practices. But when that fear was no longer on their minds, self-indulgence and arrogance, attitudes that prosperity loves, took over. As a result the tranquility they had longed for in difficult times proved, when they got it, to be more cruel and bitter than adversity…every man acted on his own behalf, stealing, robbing, plundering. In this way all political life was torn apart between two parties, and [our political system], which had been our common ground, was mutilated…And so, joined with power, greed without moderation or measure invaded, polluted, and devastated everything, considered nothing valuable or sacred, until it brought about its own collapse.
The funny thing is, this quotation is not about America or Israel, but the ancient Roman Republic in the time of Caesar, written by the Roman historian Sallust, a contemporary of the fall of the Republic and a participant in the tumult of that era on Caesar’s side, though a remarkably objective commentator in spite of that. For Rome, once Carthage was defeated, the “mutual consideration and restraint” that characterized Rome’s politics relative to his own era melted away after that threat disappeared. And an era of brinksmanship began, with the stakes and outrages becoming ever more intense.
The problem for both America and Israel today is that we are descending into the same kinds of “routine partisanship and factionalism” that destroyed the consensus politics of the Roman Republic along with its society and its very republic in light. For America and Israel, the defeat of the Soviet Union in the Cold War and the political and de facto neutralizing of Israel’s main threats from Arab state armies on its border, respectively, produced a similar “more cruel and bitter result than adversity.” Both nations seemed to have taken plunges in the same year, too, in 1995. In Israel, there was the horrific assassination of Israel’s hawk-turned-peacemaker Yitzhak Rabin by a far-Right Jewish extremist at the height of his premiership.
In the run-up to this assassination, the man who is now Israel’s current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, engaged in a campaign of rhetoric against Rabin and the peace accords Rabin had worked out with the Palestinians that were pushed by then-President Bill Clinton. Netanyahu failed to condemn, let alone distance himself from, the growing extremism on Israel’s Right while he led the opposition conservative Likud Party, and has never taken responsibility for adding fuel to the fire.
Despite the assassination, within a year Netanyahu would ride the anger over Rabin’s deal with the Palestinians into power himself, becoming prime minister in 1996. Labor would make a comeback in 1999 but would lose power in 2001, not long after the eruption of the Second Intifada in late 2000.
2001 would be last the time Labor or any leftist party governed Israel, and Likud and its center-Right offshoots have dominated the government since then. Ever since, in the face of the Second Intifada and an increasingly extremist Israeli population flocking to rightist parties, both the Arab-Israeli peace process and the Israeli Left collapsed and Netanyahu would return to power after years of fomenting division and harnessing Israel’s far-Right.
“Bibi” (as he is often referred to in Israel) even bragged about derailing the Oslo peace process with the Palestinians, a task at which, by any standard, he was wildly successful, and he is, I believe, more responsible than any other person for stoking violence in recent years between Israelis and Palestinians (though elements of both societies surely do their part).
A less elegant version of Netanyahu, to a degree, would help destroy American politics starting in 1995. In opposition to President Clinton’s ambitious agenda and in response to a radicalizing Right, Republican Congressman Newt Gingrich would ride a wave of consolidated far-Right discontent to power in what has been called the Gingrich Revolution, becoming the powerful Speaker of the House of Representatives in 1995. George Packer’s piercing portrayal of Gingrich in his 2013 book, The Unwinding, is fittingly titled “Total War.” Early in his career, Gingrich defined himself by limitless ambition and in his use of extremist rhetoric, personal attacks, and the media to reach American voters directly, feeding them his extremism. Of Gingrich, Packer wrote: “He gave them mustard gas, and they used it on every conceivable enemy, including him.”
While Gingrich never rose to the heights of power that Netanyahu did, running a rather pitiful failed campaign for president in 2012 and then becoming one of the earliest major endorsers of Trump in 2016, his impact is undeniable. Still, there were other trends in motion, too, that have brought America to where it is now – notably the Tea Party and Sarah Palin as a “pre-Trump,” forces which laid the groundwork for the 2015-2016 Trump takeover of the Republican Party and its transformation into a far-Right, extremist cult. But we cannot imagine the Tea Party arising when it did without the scorched-earth politics Gingrich did more than anyone else to normalize.
As Packer wrote for The New Yorker in 2013, “The Gingrich Revolution turned out to be a prelude to what the Republican Party has become.” And to quote the title of one Atlantic article, “Newt Gingrich destroyed American politics.”
Gingrich’s spirit dominates the Republican Party today because it is another form of Trump’s animating energies, and Netanyahu – now Israel’s longest-serving prime minister who has survived three electoral attempts to oust him in the last two years – has remade Israeli politics in his own image. Furthermore, Netanyahu and Trump have fed each other’s negative tendencies throughout Trump’s presidency, as the increasingly radical Likud and Republican parties started to do during Obama’s presidency, with both parties and leaders tending to bring out the worst in each other and even copying each other.
The predicaments of both parties and leaders are also remarkably similar, with Trump having faced impeachment and possibly post-presidential prosecution and Netanyahu facing various criminal charges while still in office.
While the American Left is not nearly as extreme as the American Right – with first Hillary Clinton and then Biden each easily fending off a Bernie Sanders-led democratic socialist takeover-attempt of the Democratic Party – the rise of extremism on the American far- Left and major media outlets (including The New York Times) as well as a growing sliver of the Democratic Party is still a thing and a worrisome development that is intensifying.
The increases in extremism, regardless of which side began this or is worse, feed into increasing radicalism on the other side. And, indeed, such dynamics, which are commonplace in the Middle East (including between Israelis and Palestinians) seem to be becoming more and more a thing in America. That begets a depressing cycle of dehumanization, which, as I noted in The Jerusalem Post over four years ago, became the norm between Israelis and Palestinians.
America seems if not more divided than ever, more divided than at any time since the Civil War era, as many developments, including multiple reputable polls, have shown for years. A lot of this has to do with partisan media and selective, partisan consumption of the media. This reflects the reality that Americans of differing political views and races are living further apart, socializing and dating less (as a single man, I see many liberal city-dwellers writing “Trump supporters swipe left” on dating apps) as political self-segregation rules the day and the two sides seem to live in different realities.
In short, we are not talking much to each other or at all, we are not hearing each other out, and we sure do not understand each other. We see each other as the enemy. Hell, even the coronavirus and masks have become a partisan issue, with COVID-19 exposing how divided we are and even dividing us further.
It seems the same dynamics are happening in Israel, and public rage is at such a level that protesters are willing to risk a degree of exposure during the pandemic to let their rage be known, as has been the case in the US. Street violence has actually been a thing in both countries in this summer of our discontent.
For Israel, too, is a deeply divided society. The obvious thought for many is the division between Jews and Arab citizens and residents of Israel as well as Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem (seen by most governments around the world, apart from the Trump administration, as Palestine). In my dozen or so trips to Israel from the US, in almost every situation, Arabs and Jews live in completely different neighborhoods and avoid each other as much as is conveniently possible and increasingly so.
Mixed neighborhoods like those in Jaffa and in Haifa are refreshing and beautiful, but extremely rare. Even many of the most liberal Israelis have few Arabs friends, though anecdotally I found a sizable chunk of liberal Arabs in Israel who did have Jewish friends. Working class waiters and service-industry folks, who work side-by-side, seemed the most likely to be friends. West Bank and East Jerusalem Palestinians, like most Israeli Jews, have virtually no social contact with the other side. To these trends, I personally did find some refreshing exceptions, even (mostly secret) romances between Arabs and Jews (check out the hilarious and not mal-intentioned DAM music video, “I’m in Love with a Jew”), but such things were quite rare. The reality is that Arabs and Jews are ever-increasingly separated physically, emotionally and socially, living in different realities and consuming different realities like Americans of different political persuasions.
And yet, there are far more divisions that just this: Ashkenazi and Mizrahim/Sephardim are deeply divided, Ethiopian-Jewish Israelis are angry with their treatment by their government, secular leftists and the ultra-Orthodox seem to have almost no relationship or agreement with each other, elements of the Israeli Right hate each other, and the opposition to Netanyahu and the Right has been consistently divided and ineffective (I was fortunate to stay with one very liberal, pioneering Israeli rabbi, Susan Silverman who suffered from being called an “AshkeNazi” by some fellow Israeli Jews).
It seems, on too many levels, that Israeli society is not only incapable of coming together but is increasingly fractured. Both countries appear to be in a huge mess, mired in a status quo stalemate exacerbated by a historic pandemic of which there seems little hope of transcending and moving either society forward. Short-term, last-minute solutions taking each society to the brink of political chaos or government shutdowns are now the norm (something that also plagued the Roman Republic before it collapsed).
In both countries, systems that appeared quite stable a few decades ago are not being brought down by terrorist threats from al-Qaeda or Hamas, but from internal divisions that go far beyond politics. In both nations, the two spectrums of the political divide hate each other and the moderates and zealots within each side hate each other in turn, blaming their inability to unite and defeat the other ideological end of the spectrum on each other. Those compromising to reach deals are often called traitors or lose in reelection bids.
The old canard that most people are good – it is just the big, bad leaders leading good people astray that is the problem – seems increasingly disproven as in many instances, voters reward, rather than punish, extremism, with Trump and Netanyahu embodying such toxic tribalism, an increasingly global trend that keeps empowering those leaning towards fascism rather than those on the Left.
The HBO/Keshet miniseries, Our Boys, is essential viewing for both Israelis and Americans. Even though the show is about extremism in Israel, I felt as if I got a deeply personal look at the dynamics at work within the US, too: social media becoming an echo chamber and radicalization tool for angry populations isolated from those with different views, all with dangerous outcomes. It is searingly real and emotional, mixing in real footage with dramatic recreations, produced to be fair and sensitive to all involved. It is, essentially, a deep, dark look into the human souls being radicalized in modern society and the dark side of this society.
Is there a way out? Maybe, maybe not.
JOE BIDEN’s victory – as long as the Supreme Court and Republican state legislatures do not thwart clear election results and, thus, the will of the people – is a welcome ray of sunshine in dark and stormy times, a departure from the misery of the status quo. In fact, as someone who watched the Arab Spring from afar and studied the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, those are the two things that come to mind as comparisons to Trump’s defeat when it was announced on November 7, in the celebrations I saw in person in front of the White House in Washington and on television throughout America.
While Israelis are happy with Trump on the specific, material benefits of his clearly favoring Israel over the Palestinians as well as the concessions and rewards to Israel that he provided (apparently for his own domestic political purposes), they are myopically indifferent to or ignorant of his bigotry and relationship with antisemitism acutely felt overall by the majority of American Jews who actually live under Trump.
These Americans Jews have been shown in poll after poll to have an intense dislike and distrust of Trump, a strong preference for Biden and the Democrats, and an increasing anxiety about rising antisemitism for which they see Trump and the Republicans as more responsible than the likes of Ilhan Omar and far-Left Democrats.
American Jews know Trump best among the Jews of the world, so their Israeli counterparts would do well not to view the rise of Biden as a cause for concern but to see it as a good thing, a chance for America to break through division and hatred – what Biden has pledged to overcome but on which Trump has fueled his one-term presidency. And, as both societies are so similar in their internal divisions, perhaps the rise of Biden will help inspire Israelis to overcome their own divisive trends and politicians.
A sliver of hope also comes from within Israel: the intense popularity of the Israeli show Fauda, which actually humanizes Palestinians in conflict with Israel (even members of Hamas), may be opening many Jewish eyes to the pain of Palestinians that would not normally be exposed to it. Of particular note is the performance of the singular Laëtitia Eïdo, who plays a Palestinian doctor tragically caught up in the conflict. Of mixed Lebanese and French descent herself, Eïdo has taken on throughout her career more than just about any other prominent actress gender- and culture-defying roles that seek to bridge gaps of understanding, to overcome hate and division, and to help people from different cultures appreciate each other in intensely personal performances that, time and time again, break molds in unlikely ways.
Besides her most famous role in Fauda, she was a major role and supporting actor in a pair of unlikely comedies, Holy Air and Tel Aviv on Fire, both Arab-and-Jewish jointly produced films that offer glimpses into different perspectives and views while making you laugh.
While Holy Air is darker, Tel Aviv on Fire is downright inspiring, an ode to everyone’s desire to be liked and understood, and I watched its premiere in Haifa in a mixed audience of Arabs and Jews both laughing hysterically throughout at the exact same things.
It is possible to come together, though it obviously will not be easy. Whether through new leaders such as Joe Biden and Kamala Harris or via other means such as movies and grassroots movements, both Israelis and Americans still need to find ways large and small to tone down their political and societal divisions. After a disastrous 2020, let us hope 2021 can be a time that can begin healing for all of us. Brian E. Frydenborg is an American freelance writer, analyst and consultant who lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, hails from the New York City area and has spent the last two decades studying, writing about or working in policy, politics, international development and humanitarian aid. He spent over five years living in the Middle East from 2014 to 2019 and says he is now just trying to get through the insanity of our present like the rest of us. You can follow him on Twitter (@bfry1981) and see much of his work on his news website,realcontextnews.com