My Word: Preventing the polarization process

The country is undergoing a process of being polarized. Divisions are being increased, not shrunk, as part of the political process.

DIVERSITY IN MOTION on Jerusalem’s Jaffa Street during the pandemic (Illustrative). (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
DIVERSITY IN MOTION on Jerusalem’s Jaffa Street during the pandemic (Illustrative).
It’s an occupational hazard of a weekly columnist. Sometimes I start preparing material for a piece but then more urgent topics get in the way, like a disaster, war or political upheaval – or in this particular case, all three. The frenetic pace of the Israeli news cycle means that a story that was postponed for the Mount Meron disaster, in which 45 people were killed some six weeks ago, was similarly delayed last month by the mini-war Operation Guardian of the Walls, during which Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad launched some 4,000 rockets and mortars on Israel and Arab-Israelis rioted in several cities. 
The column also was shuffled to a later date as politicking made it unclear whether there would be a new government or a fifth round of elections within two years – and who would lead and be included in that government. At time of writing, Yamina leader Naftali Bennett and Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid seem set to be sworn in on Sunday as prime ministers in rotation – replacing Benjamin Netanyahu, although I no longer rule out any last-minute surprises. Fires are raging throughout the Jerusalem Corridor (possibly the result of arson) and what will be with this year’s Jerusalem Flag March – rerouted and then canceled on Jerusalem Day last month when Hamas started the war – is also still unclear. Some voices are saying that the march could act as a provocation and kick off another round of rockets and riots, others point out the dangers of letting Hamas determine when, where and whether Israelis can celebrate the reunification of the capital in the Six Day War.
Given the intensity and rate of these news stories and those that preceded them – Israelis barely remember the coronavirus pandemic; almost all restrictions will have been lifted by midweek next week – it’s no wonder that severe social splits occasionally become evident. Every war, disaster, disease and political upset creates “an enemy,” someone to blame.
“Have Israelis ever been more divided?” I was asked a few weeks ago. The question came from someone old enough to remember the chasm created around the Disengagement from Gaza in 2005, which was so wrenching that some of those opposed to the pullout stopped saying the prayers for the State of Israel and for the safety of IDF forces during Shabbat services.
The question also ignored the splits that developed around the Oslo Process of the 1990s, the territorial withdrawals and the accompanying wave of terror. No Israeli above a certain age can forget where they were on November 4, 1995, when prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated and the heartbreak that surrounded that event. Some choose to ignore the impact of the Palestinian terror attacks that preceded Rabin’s murder and focus solely on the perceived incitement by rabbis and right-wing as being responsible for that deadly atmosphere.
Rabin’s assassination came very much to mind this week when Nadav Argaman, the head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), released a statement warning that the political incitement surrounding the likely formation of the next government had reached similarly dangerous levels. I do not belittle his fears, but I do wonder at the wisdom of his publishing such a statement rather than, in his capacity of security chief, warning those in danger and investigating those he believes are a threat.
It seems to be part of a trend. The country is undergoing a process of being polarized. Divisions are being increased, not shrunk, as part of the political process. The “we’ve never been so divided” mantra is a Catch-22 situation: Argue against it, and you’ll seem to prove the disunity point but by accepting it, you’re helping promote the divisions. 
In April, roughly the same time I was asked about the splits in Israeli society, Israel Hayom business and finance editor Eran Bar-Tal wrote a column about the need to shed some common negative images. He included a clause titled “We have never been so divided.” 
“It’s the exact opposite,” opined Bar-Tal. “We have never known each other better, we have never accepted each other more. When adults employ this claim, they are mainly showing signs of confusion. They are forgetting the terrible wars of the kibbutznikim among themselves, they’re forgetting the terrible frustration that led to the birth of the Black Panthers movement and the [political] upheaval of 1977 [when Menachem Begin came to power]. They’re forgetting the darkest periods as expressed in one of the heights of divisiveness with the Altalena affair [when David Ben-Gurion ordered the nascent IDF forces to open fire on the ship carrying weapons acquired by the Irgun movement.]”
Ben-Gurion would not have politically survived such an incident today.
Incidentally, the once-huge divide between Ashkenazim and Sephardim in Israel has all but disappeared. Ashkenazi and Sephardi families intermarry (or joke about “marrying out”) providing fodder for sitcoms and satires. 
There is no excuse for the rhetoric coming from haredi (ultra-Orthodox) MKs this week accusing Bennett of being “evil.” Nonetheless, today more haredim are volunteering for civil national service projects or are involved in voluntary organizations for the benefit of all, the number of those doing military service is going up, and haredim are increasingly involved in the work place. The ultra-Orthodox parties recognize the state and want to be a part of it.
The diverse nature of the incoming government makes it hard to define – it includes Bennett and Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope on the Right, Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White in the Center, Labor and Meretz on the Left and far-Left and Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, which is especially hard to pin down given Liberman’s wild swings from side to side. (Of all the problems I can predict for the future government, appointing Liberman finance minister is one of the biggest.) And then, of course, there’s Ra’am, the United Arab List, led by Mansour Abbas. Abbas was one of the few Israeli-Arab leaders who called for calm during the recent rioting and stuck to his goal of trying to improve the situation of his community rather than focusing on Palestinian issues. I.e., Mansour Abbas wants to see more involvement in Israeli society, even as a minority. There are several topics on which his Islamist list agree with the religious parties more than with the ultra-liberal MKs. 
Things are not black and white. Those who want more stores open and public transport on Shabbat, for example, will find opposition not only from the religious but also from those whose social principles want to prevent a situation in which small store owners find themselves struggling even more against the big chains. 
Fortunately, during both the pandemic and the mini-war, we saw that islands of coexistence did continue to survive in places like hospitals, where both the staff and patients come from all sectors. Following the Meron disaster, there were Arab towns that offered help and hospitality to the (mainly) ultra-Orthodox Jews fleeing the site. During the riots, Arabs risked their lives trying to protect the burning property of their Jewish neighbors; Jewish residents of Acre have both horror stories of being attacked by Arabs and of being saved by Arabs from mob attacks.
It’s too early to say whether the so-called “unity government” will be worthy of its name, but we can each choose how to respond to it. While we can’t control the political events and security threats that affect us, we can control our own speech, deeds and social media posts. In emergencies, we are still capable of coming together. The challenge is to remain united when there are not disasters forcing us to cooperate. It’s time to recognize that diversity and divided are not the same thing.