Is Israel as politically polarized as the US? - opinion

It feels like the mindset of two distinct camps is taking hold, but let's not forget we are diverse, scattered, and complicated, but still one.

 DEMONSTRATORS OPPOSING the government’s proposed judicial overhaul protest outside President Isaac Herzog’s home in Tel Aviv, last Friday. The large banner accuses the government of being the destroyer of the ‘Third temple’ (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
DEMONSTRATORS OPPOSING the government’s proposed judicial overhaul protest outside President Isaac Herzog’s home in Tel Aviv, last Friday. The large banner accuses the government of being the destroyer of the ‘Third temple’
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

Today, we find ourselves in a watershed moment in Israel’s 75 years of existence. Tensions haven’t run this high since the demonstrations against the disengagement from Gaza. There now seems to be a stacking of schisms that we haven’t seen before.

Ezra Klein, in Why We’re Polarized, argues that one of the challenges that US society faces is that the identities that make up the American people are often stacked in a way that compounds societal tensions. Voting Republican typically means that you belong to several groups, while voting Democrat means that you typically belong to others, according to Klein. As a result, every political and social debate feels monumental and personally threatening.

In Israel, in contrast to this vision of American polarization, different societal camps seem to crisscross. To give a simple example, your identity may be constructed from elements that might typically contrast – you can be religious and left-wing or secular and right-wing. It’s, of course, more complex, but the short of it, is that together with Israel’s limited geography and familial closeness, the overlapping of camps and identities makes for a more resilient society.

Is Israel divided?

However, if you open the papers or read the online debates, it would seem that today Israel is split into two distinct and opposing camps: Right/traditional vs Left/secular. This distinction makes things nice and tidy for the analysts and the cynics, but makes it very complicated and uncomfortable for most Israelis and Jews worldwide. We are forced to pick a side, but in doing so, we all lose.

The “us vs them” mentality is good for politics and the news cycle but very bad for communities and countries. Unfortunately, it feels like the mindset of two distinct camps is manifesting and taking hold.

 Israelis gather to protest the judicial reform at the Knesset (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) Israelis gather to protest the judicial reform at the Knesset (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

In Israel, we are seeing proponents of reform and the government celebrate gleefully and spitefully. While the elections were definitive, the winning majority does not have the ethical license to do as they please just because they can. Like any elected government, this one has a responsibility toward all inhabitants of the state.

Claiming that the majority rules and that is what democracy is, is an infantile proposition that belongs, at best, in the sandbox in the playground. What is their long-term plan? I don’t know, but it doesn’t look like it will end well.

ON THE other side, calls for military insubordination, divestment, and violence are also wrong. In a way, when some of the people speak against the reform, it sounds like they are in fact rejecting the results of the election – as if they were illegitimate despite the decisive outcome. Some of these calls have the energy of the rioters of the January 6th US Capitol insurrection.

Insubordination in the army, one of the most trusted state functions that still has the consensus of the people, is destructive. It was destructive and treated severely during the disengagement and should be treated as such today. Calls for divestment are shortsighted and layered with privilege. It is shocking that they are even being considered and acted upon. In what world is it productive to do so? We have been fighting for decades against BDS, and now we are leading the charge?

No turning back

Once we legitimize it, there is no turning back. It was illegitimate then, and it is certainly illegitimate now. As for the privilege element – while the hi-tech sector is indeed one of the main drivers of Israel’s GDP, the people driving it have the most social mobility and will not pay the price for their actions. What about all the people left behind? Who will assume responsibility for them?

If, and that is a big “if”, they indeed divest, what is their hope? That Israel becomes a failed state? How is that remotely better? But even if they do divest, nature and business abhor vacuums, so who do they think will fill the void when those calling to divest do so? We can be sure that it won’t be more moderating forces. Finally, do we really need to spend time explaining why violence is a bad option?

So what do we do? In the short term, people should continue to push for the changes they believe are necessary, but not at the expense of the whole project. We must continue to invest in Israel and its civil society. We need to continue to invest in Jewish revival wherever Jews live, inside and outside of Israel. We need to continue to strive for peace relentlessly.

Receding into our corners and picking sides is not an option. Have we not learned anything from our history? When the Temple was destroyed, Jewish extremists burned down the storehouses in the name of ideological purity, ultimately leading to the end of Jewish sovereignty.

This polarization is a threat to our ability to continue to build and perfect a country and society that has been the dream of our collective ancestors. We must break this cycle and reconnect with each other, reiterate our shared narrative of hope so that we can continue to work toward creating a better tomorrow.

While we are seeing some early promise of a compromise, the negative impact of the current discourse will continue to linger if we do not deal with it head-on. In fact, the divisions will only get worse in the next round.

The most important work we can do now is to engage with Israel and create spaces for us to figure things out. We need to continue to cultivate the ability to be in dialogue, nurture relationships, and hold each other accountable. We must not heed calls to pick a side.

While Ezra Klein’s assessment is accurate for the US polity, it fortunately, does not apply to Israel, Israelis, and Jews worldwide – at least, not yet. In true Purim spirit, we can quote Haman in his description of the Jewish people, in which he said two things that might seem contradictory and point to a weakness, but are, in truth, our strength.

Haman told Achashverosh that there is one people who are scattered among the nations. Indeed, we are diverse, scattered, and complicated, but we are still one people. We cannot forget that.

The writer, a rabbi, was raised in Jerusalem, ordained in New York, and now lives in Palo Alto, where he is director of the Z3 Project, an initiative of the Oshman Family JCC aimed at strengthening the relationship between Diaspora Jews and Israel.