How we love to hate

It’s time for Israelis to stop despising the world and one another. Israel’s fabric is decomposing, along with its democracy and tolerance. The tribal psyche must be curbed and a new, common narrative formed.

casspi fan israel flag 512 ap (photo credit: AP)
casspi fan israel flag 512 ap
(photo credit: AP)
So you think everything is OK, don’t you? No terror, no real US pressure, a by and large oblivious world, a relatively stable economy, newfound gas reservoirs, a hollow and dysfunctional but fairly innocuous political system. You’re thinking: Why worry? You perused a book called “Start-Up Nation” and you actually convinced yourself that it’s about you. Not bad, right?
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If that’s what you think you probably don’t really care about the state of what is historically referred to as the “peace process.” You imagine that “Palestinians” are Klingons who reside in a far-away galaxy, you live in denial over Israel’s abject and increasingly worsening isolation in the world (you probably blame either Netanyahu or the Left anyway), you think Israel is a model democracy and that Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic, David Remnick at The New Yorker and Thomas Friedman at The New York Times just don’t get it. To top it all off, you believe deep down Iran is terrified of us.
If you limit your civil and intellectual curiosity to the reading of the economic and financial dailies, you’d be tempted to think that this is a normal place. But if you do bother to take a serious look at Israel circa January 2011, you’d better think again.
Israel as a nation, Israeli democracy and the sense of Israeli hope and optimism have never been so endangered. The thing is, unlike the past 63 and a half years, the potentially destructive peril is internal and seems painfully self-inflicted.
Ever wonder where the vitriol, the virulence, the incivility, the gutter language of the political system and the absolutist pontificating tones of our public discourse originate? Are all right-wingers rabid fascists funded by Brooklyn? Are all left-wingers Arab-loving, Torah-hating European expatriates funded by Norway? Are all Russian women prostitutes? Are all Shasniks primitive relics of the middle-ages? Are all Arabs disloyal and potential terrorists? Are all settlers messianic and lawless freaks who don’t understand the 21st century? Are all Tel Avivians hedonistic self-absorbed bums who think they live in Amsterdam? The answer is a resounding “sure” to each category if you just ask the others.
A conventional academic analysis of Israel portrays it as an “illiberal democracy.” This is largely due to its demographic, the geographical origins of its population and its cultural attributes. Understandably, this state of affairs has been compounded by the country’s permanent state of war.
But that is only a partial explanation. Israel has never been truly monolithic except for two or three decades preceding the Independence. The1967 and 1973 wars proved to be major unifying moments, but they were responses to major crises and concealed the direction Israeli society was inching towards. Since the eighties and nineties, Israel slowly but inexorably turned into a heterogeneous and splintered society. This trend did not develop into an enriching expression of diversity, but rather into a socially segmented and culturally clustered collection of mutually-despising groups, each feeling threatened by and despising the other. Each group claimed to own the narrative of what Israel and “Israeliness” are, all the while dismissing and detesting the other. The one melting pot, the IDF, was increasingly relegated to a lower level in the socialization process.
The tribes of contemporary Israel may reside within hundreds of meters or several kilometers from each other, but they conspicuously lack cultural overlaps. They include the old elite of secular Ashkenazim, the 1.2 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union, the haredim, 1.3 million Arabs, the settlers, the lower-middle class and lower class Sephardi Jews (both the Shas and the non-Shas constituencies), the periphery, the financial-elite and the toiling and crumbling middle classes.
Gone are the days when Israel was characterized by four well-defined cleavages: Secular-Religious; Rich-poor; Ashkenazi-Sephardi and Arab-Jew. The Israeli “Mosaic” turned into a 7.6 million-piece jigsaw puzzle.
What is it that unites these tribes? An overarching resentment towards the world, a fear of a nuclear Iran and an understandable yet paralyzing distrust of Arabs.  These are negatives, not positives.
What are the common denominators of the groups “Israeli identity?” Do they all subscribe to the traditional tenets of Zionism? Do they even care? Is the siren on Memorial Day every May, the most sacred of sacred days in Israel’s calendar, observed the way it used to be?
But that’s not the whole story. Not agreeing on a uniform narrative and incessantly arguing about self-image and identity is a natural evolution for a nation still in the building process. But hating each other’s guts and projecting every conceivable national, socio-political or personal malaise onto other groups is not natural. Israel’s fabric is dangerously decomposing, and the hapless victims are democracy, tolerance, liberal values of live-and-let-live and basic comity. As a result, the sense of national purpose steadily erodes. At least, that’s what post-Zionists want you to believe. The problem is, Israel is still under severe external threats and cannot afford this post-Zionist approach to replace Zionism. Zionism remains the raison d’etre of Israel.
In our habitual collective whining we frequently evoke the era of the Second Temple, selectively citing the Talmud’s version of the fall of Jerusalem. Jerusalem, so goes the conventional wisdom, fell because of internecine tendencies, vain brotherly hatred and a civil-war atmosphere. The Talmud goes back 40 years before the destruction of the Temple, to circa 30AD, in describing the fratricidal nature of Jewish politics under Roman occupation.
Historical analogies are rarely perfect and seldom provide a practical prescription for action. Yet there is an inescapable quality to this particular analogy. We are not under Roman occupation, but we are surrounded by hostility and intolerance to our presence here. Unlike 70AD, in 2011 we are a sovereign nation, but the factionalism of back then has been multiplied manifold. If there is one striking parallel that should worry us, it is the abysmal quality of political leadership. In fact, even the word “leadership” is a gross exaggeration of what we have here, left, right and center alike.
It is leadership that needs to delineate a rewriting of a coherent national narrative, set common goals and define objectives that transcend “the world is against us.” It needs to go far beyond vegetable VAT reforms or the fluctuating freezing of settlements. Differences and debate are healthy; But when racism, bigotry, hatred and innuendo creep from the extremes directly into the mainstream of the political system, and when that system willfully and deliberately exacerbates differences and widens schisms for short-term expediency, you know that even with all the gas in the world, things are not OK.
The writer is an Israeli diplomat, who most recently served as Consul General of Israel in the United States.