Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews: getting ‘inside’ Israel’s lost tribes

President Reuven Rivlin has repeatedly warned about the “tribalization” of Israeli society and politics for good reason.

PRESIDENT REUVEN Rivlin has repeatedly warned about the ‘tribalization’ of Israeli society and politics and for good reason. (photo credit: REUTERS)
PRESIDENT REUVEN Rivlin has repeatedly warned about the ‘tribalization’ of Israeli society and politics and for good reason.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel is holding its second parliamentary election within the span of less than five months today. It has been an ugly campaign, short on substance and long on social media-fueled personal attacks. Underlying this election, however, are real and existential issues which will determine the future character of the country. Most Israelis are less concerned today about the status of a possible future two-state solution – to what everyone here calls “the conflict” – and more concerned about the increasingly divisive internal schisms within society.
President Reuven Rivlin has repeatedly warned about the “tribalization” of Israeli society and politics for good reason – voting patterns are remarkably aligned with ethnic and religious identity, and the discourse between the various “tribes” has become increasingly verbally violent. When one adds the future impact of demographic shifts, it is not difficult to imagine a future Israel in which a majority of citizens (Israeli-Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews) will not be Zionist by definition and, as importantly, may not be invested in the state, its governing institutions and their obligation to play a constructive role in maintaining a society in which everyone plays by the same rules.
Israelis have always managed to unite in the face of existential external threats over the decades. This is still the case, for example, regarding the real threat of Iranian and Iranian-sponsored missiles and unconventional weapons. Today, however, many of Israel’s leaders (including much of the IDF’s top echelon) consider domestic societal fragmentation and the potential civil unrest it may engender as a more significant threat to the future of the country.
Over the past two years, a cross-section of current and former top Israeli political and military leaders, business executives and social activists have formed a working group and fashioned a uniquely Israeli “inside out” response to the threat of societal fragmentation. The common animus of the group, which was founded by former education minister Shai Piron, is an understanding that repeatedly in the past – such as the dissolution of the independent Hasmonean Jewish state; the sacking of Jerusalem by Roman legions in the year 70 CE; and the death of over half a million Jews at the hands of Emperor Hadrian’s legions during the second great revolt in 132 CE – the demise of Israel has resulted partially from internal strife between communities of Jews that could not find sufficient common ground, as well as the resulting hijacking of the national agenda by extremist elements, who then placed an independent Jewish state in direct and ultimately fatal conflict with the great powers of the day.
The working group – called “Pnima,” meaning “within us” and taken from the Israeli national anthem “Hatikva” – aims to create a centrist and inclusive national dialogue of reconciliation. The Pnima founders, recognizing the limitations of working within a society without a constitution, take their inspiration directly from the Israeli Declaration of Independence, which states that Israel “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”
ISRAEL’S DECLARATION of Independence was written over 70 years ago, and the country’s founding generation has passed from the scene. It is critical to note, however, that several of the founders of Pnima both personally knew and worked with Israel’s founders. Given the absence of the type of institutional codices that protect other democracies and provide a bulwark of stability in times of turmoil and uncertainty, those personal recollections and bonds are the invisible glue that still exist in Israel and provide the inspiration for a new generation of responsible leaders.
The first issue that Pnima has chosen to tackle revolves around national service. Generations of Israelis have served in the military since the founding of Israel, and it has been an informal melting pot where sons and daughters of Ashkenazi, Sephardi, secular and religious Jews have met, trained, fought and gained an understanding of other sectors within society. Importantly and unfortunately, both the Israeli-Arabs and ultra-Orthodox populations – which now total almost a third of the population – have for different reasons been exempt from military or any national service.
Israeli society already pays a high price for the alienation or relative absence of these communities from both public discourse and nation building. The percentage of Israeli-Arabs voting in the last election was 49% versus 67% for the overall population. Israeli-Arabs have made impressive gains in the areas of higher education and economic achievement but are in many cases alienated from Israeli society and what they perceive as unequal opportunities.
While the ultra-Orthodox vote in large numbers (and almost entirely for their own sectoral political parties), the percentage of ultra-Orthodox families living below the poverty line stands at over 40% versus 10% for the overall population. Demographic trends indicate that by 2040, overall population will rise 50% from today’s 8.7 million to 13 million, but the ultra-Orthodox portion will double from 11% today to 22%. It doesn’t take rocket science to reach fairly dystopian predictions on the impact all of this could have on Israel’s social cohesion, economic prospects and ultimately its national security.
Pnima calls for the creation of a new and broad set of service programs which are not limited to the military but also include civil national service options (already available but utilized by only a small number of draft-age Israelis) as well as community service options which would be aimed at minorities – Arab Israelis and ultra-Orthodox Jews – who have legitimate reservations about serving in the military.
Pnima’s plan is to link the type, intensity and duration of each service option available to both compensation as well as university-level credits. The clarion cry of the envisaged service program – coined by former chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi and one of the founders of Pnima – is “from mandatory [military] service to an obligation to serve.”
If Pnima’s vision is realized in the next Israeli government, it holds the promise of creating a new social compact in which disparate Jewish and non-Jewish communities with very different ideas of what kind of nation Israel should be can more effectively cohabit as – and contribute to building – a common enterprise. Americans should hope that Pnima succeeds, not only because of the positive impact on Israel, but because of the example that such success can provide for other increasingly “tribalized” societies, including the United States.
The writer is an investor, founder of the Shlomo Argov Fellows Program for Diplomacy at IDC Herzliya and a board member of Pnima.