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Israel: How It Has Changed

Humanistic Judaism, Vol 26, No 3, Summer 1998

Israel is fifty years old. In some respects it is the same state as in 1948. In many respects it is very different. 

There is an ethnic difference. Zionism was created by Ashkenazic Jews to solve the problem of European anti-Semitism. The first Zionist immigrants were Russian Jews. Until 1949 the new arrivals were overwhelmingly European. Like most European Ashkenazim, they had experienced the capitalist revolution and its secular aftermath. In 1949 new immigrants from the Eastern world began to arrive, the beginning of a large wave of Jewish immigrants from the Muslim world. They were the substitutes for the Russian Jews who could not come and the American Jews who would not come. Since they were dark and racially distinct from Ashkenazic Jews, they faced racial bigotry on the part of their European brothers and sisters. The pioneers and the new immigrants did not mix. Contempt and resentment kept them separate. In time the barriers broke down. Intermarriage grew. A blending of Ashkenazic and Eastern Jews began. Today that blending is turning into a new Jewish ethnicity. A unique Israeli gene pool is emerging. In time Ashkenazim and Sephardim will be absorbed into this new creation. Within fifty years most Israelis will be darker than Europeans and lighter than Iraqis and Moroccans. 

How else is Israel different? There is the economic difference. The Zionist pioneers who claimed the land and built the cities were overwhelmingly socialists. Some were romantic socialists, and some were Marxist socialists, but they were strong believers in collectivist economies. The kibbutz is a popular example of their creativity and success. At the beginning socialism worked. There were no grand capitalist investors. The labor unions had to develop their own industries, representing both management and workers. In time these industries became public, state-subsidized enterprises. 

But economic reality intervened. Socialism cannot produce a dynamic economy. The United States and Western Europe were setting the pace. The strengthening of the American alliance sealed the fate of socialist Israel. The Labor Party, the leftist party of the Ashkenazic pioneers, abandoned its socialist program and opened the economy to capitalist development. When the opposition Likud came to power in 1977, the capitalist culture arrived. Money and pleasure became Israeli goals, and the dichotomy between winners and losers sharpened. In time, even the welfare system was assaulted. Ironically, the chief beneficiaries of the new economy are the Ashkenazic elite, the supporters of the Labor party and the Russian immigrants who have tuned into high technology. The chief losers are the underskilled Sephardim, who are supporters of the Likud. Their patriotic agenda and their economic agenda do not coincide. Today, Israel is a first-world economic power with a big foot in the burgeoning high-tech industries. The agricultural sector is shrinking. The kibbutzim are turning into private corporations, which are becoming an intrinsic part of the Israeli way of life. 

How else is Israel different? There is a religious difference. The Zionist founders were overwhelmingly secular. They saw religion as a reactionary force inhibiting the progressive development of Jewish nationalism. The hostility to Zionism in most of the Orthodox world reinforced the Zionist disdain of religion. Zionists saw Hebrew nationalism as a vital alternative to religious identity. The first leaders of the Jewish state openly flouted Orthodox law and avoided yarmulkes as though they were the Arab enemy. The Six Day War changed everything. The victory won the allegiance of many Orthodox Jews, especially because the Israeli army had conquered the West Bank. This territory contained most of the holy sites of traditional Judaism, the most important of which was East Jerusalem. In time Orthodox immigration increased. The Lubavitcher rebbe publicly supported the Jewish state. A vast array of new yeshivas arose. Orthodox settlers organized new settlements in the West Bank. Aggressive missionary activity recruited thousands of Sephardim to fundamentalism and religious militancy. An alliance of convenience between Likud and Orthodoxy in the Knesset produced state subsidies for the yeshiva world and state support for religious intrusion. Yarmulkes were “in.” The state schools and the army were opened to Orthdodox indoctrination. 

The secular resistance to this development was paralyzed by smugness and the continuing diversion of war with the Arabs. A new majority was arising in Israel, an odd combination of ambivalent secularists, aggressive Orthodox, disgruntled Russian Jews, and angry Sephardim. Whatever religious opposition to Orthodoxy existed was ineffective. Reform and Conservative were dismissed as American imports. The only new grassroots religious development, the spirituality movement with its Judaism connection, had no political agenda. The Orthodox sector, reinforced by a mind-boggling birth rate, grows stronger and more demanding. Even if Netanyahu should fall from power, any subsequent government, even a Labor one, would have to make peace with the Orthodox. More and more of the Israeli urban environment and more and more of Israeli life is being religionized. Secular Jews are on the defensive. 

How else is Israel different? There is a military difference. The Israeli army is not what it used to be. Its former strength lay in pioneer idealism and a bold officer corps. This elite officer corps was drawn from the kibbutzim and other agricultural settlements. This source of leadership is now fading away. The present army rests on pampered recruits from the urban consumer culture.Their idealism and openness to sacrifice are no greater than those of their counterparts in America and Western Europe. Today, thousands of soldiers are Orthodox. The kippa has become a familiar part of military dress. The political agenda of Orthodox recruits is different from that of the old officer corps. The unity of the army is compromised by religious fanaticism. The Orthodox assassin of Rabin was a patriotic soldier. One of the reasons that the collapse of the peace process is dangerous is that the Israeli army is not prepared for another major war. 

What are the implications of all those changes for Israel’s future? 

If war does not come, Israel will emerge as a significant economic power. The sector of the economy that is high-tech will flourish, fueled by Israeli brainpower. There will be a continuing internal war between the secular and the religious. Many secularists will abandon Jerusalem for more secular Tel Aviv and Haifa. Political considerations will make it difficult for secularists to expel Orthodox influence from the centers of power. The new blending of Western and Eastern Jews will be less hostile to Orthodox intrusion than the old Ashkenazic establishment. Reform and Conservatism will remain on the periphery. New Age spirituality will flourish. 

Given the new majority, a true peace with the Arab world is unlikely. Israel will remain isolated in its region. It will function as a European island in a Muslim sea, defended by its continuing alliance with the United States and with enemies of the Arab world, such as Turkey and India. The next fifty years will be both similar to and very different from the first and fifty years. 

Israel after the Election

Humanistic Judaism, Vol 24, No 3, Summer 1996

The Israeli election is over, but the shock is not. If we are committed to the peace process, how do we live with a Likud victory? What does the election of Benjamin Netanyahu mean? What are the consequences we need to confront? What is an appropriate response? 

The election took place amid a peace effort that had been going on for more than three years. Agreements had been signed with the Palestianian Liberation Organization (PLO) and Jordan. Gaza had been evacuated. Six major urban areas and the the West Bank had been turned over to the Palestinian Authority. A Palestianian police force had been organized. An election for a Palestinian president and parliament had been held. Joint economic projects between Israel and Jordan had been launched. Dozens of Third World countries had ended their boycott of Israel. Investors were stimulating the economy. Israeli troops were about to depart from Hebron. 

The election took place amid still-fresh memories of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and even more vivid memories of fundamentalist terrorism. The militants were determined to undermine the peace process. Israel responded by striking massively at Lebanon. A tragic accident turned retaliation into a public relations disaster. 

The election featured an innovation. Until 1996 the choice of prime minister was up to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. The people elected members of the Knesset, and the Knesset, in turn, chose the head of the government. The prime minister was usually the leader of the largest party in the Knesset. This time there were two elections: one for the Knesset and one, American-style, for the head of the government. 

This change, which was intended to enhance the authority of the prime minister, should have been accompanied by an American- or British-style system of parliamentary constituencies. Such a move would have eliminated small parties, created a two-party system, and made the prime minister the leader of a majority party. But the small parties in the Knesset insisted on retaining proportional representation, and the result was a political monstrosity. As in the past, the victorious prime minister might end up as the leader of a minority party and would have to paste together a coalition of small parties in order to govern; but now, small parties would proliferate because the people’s vote for representatives in the Knesset was no longer connected to their preference for prime minister. 

That is exactly what happened. Netanyahu was elected prime minister, but his Likud party came in second in the parliamentary running, with only thirty-two members. Under the old system the Labor Party, with thirty-four members, would have been invited to organize the government, and the peace process would have continued. But Netanyahu is now the prime minister regardless of the size of his party in the Knesset. The election also enhanced the Orthodox representation because Orthodox Jews no longer had to vote Likud to get a Likud prime minister. The Orthodox vote in the Knesset is now at an all-time high of twenty-three. The Knesset is hopelessly fragmented. The new system is worse than the old. 

Furthermore, Netanyahu won by only one percentage point. While many observers point out that he won a clear majority of the Jewish vote, that observation illustrates the problemL the Arabs who voted for Peres are not regarded as “real” Israelis. This response, the closeness of the vote, and the rise of Orthodox political power have exacerbated the resentment and despair of supporters of the peace process. 

Certain realities seem clear. 

Israel is changing. The secular rein of the original Zionists is fading. The religious sector is growing in numbers and influence. The Oriental immigration and the Six Day War started a chain of consequences that undermined secular strength. Most Sephardic Jews are not pious, but they are religious by sentiment. And the acquisition of the West Bank, with its traditional shrines, brought the militant Orthodox to Israel. 

The Sephardic vote has returned to its familiar place on the Right. (In Israel, the rich vote liberal and the poor vote conservative; nationalism and religion are more important issues to many Israelis than economic ones.) Terrorism reawakened the historic distatse for and fear of Arabs among the Oriental Jews. The Shas party, the voice of the Sephardic Orthodox, jumped from six Knesset members to ten on the strength of sacred amulets and the promise of a better afterlife. 

The gulf between secular and religious Israel is widening. The secular want peace; the religious want land. The secular want personal freedom; the religious want conformity to traditional norms. The secular value science and democracy; the religious value faith and authority. In many ways Jewish fundamentalists are closer to Muslim fundamentalists then they are to Jewish secularists. The handing over of education and culture into Orthodox hands will aggravate the confrontation as secular Jews join forces against the revived power of militant Orthodoxy. 

Netanyahu does not believe in the peace process. But, because of external pressure, especially from the United States, he cannot avoid it. He has to publicly support peace, although he may privately oppose it. Without a Palestinian state there will be no peace. Netanyahu and his allies are unalterably opposed to such a state. No matter what is said, that reality undermines the peace process that Shimon Peres and Rabin began. Verbal courtesies will not be able to cover up the incompatibility of agendas. The Palestinians and the Arab world will not settle for cliches. 

The peace process will unravel. Hebron will not be fully evacuated. The “liberated” cities of the West Bank will become depressed ghettos surrounded and intimidated by Israeli troops. The departure of Orthodox settlers from the West Bank will stop, and new Orthodox settlements will be encouraged. The Palestinian economy will become the yo-yo of the Israeli government. The authority of Yasser Arafat will vanish. King Hussein of Jordan, fearful of his own Palestinians, will withdraw his enthusiasm for reconciliation. Arab moderates, unable to rely on Israeli cooperation, will turn back to militant Arab nationalists for safety, support, and solidarity. The confrontation in Lebanon will grow more intense. Likud will try to make a deal with the fundamentalist Hamas, exchanging access to Israeli jobs for an end to terrorism. Such an outrageous agreement would bring together two hard line opponents, which hate each other but are mutually opposed to the kind of Palestinian state that Arafat, Arab moderates, and Israeli “peaceniks” envision. 

Peace with Syria is out. It most likely would have been impossible even if Peres won. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad can justify his repressive government only by war with Israel. Peace would leave him exposed to the dangers of democracy and open borders. But now Assad will have a public justification of his confrontational position and his refusal to rein in the terrorist Shiites of Lebanon. He will also continue to cozy up to Arab moderates, who will become increasingly frustrated with the peace process, and he will simultaneously continue his liaison with Iran. 

Arab moderates will be in great danger. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek has to face a continuing civil war with fundamentalists. Hussein of Jordan has to contend with militant Palestinians. Maintaining their power will not be easy. They are very vulnerable to radical takeovers. One of the main reasons for Israeli support of the peace process has been to guarantee a friendly Egypt and a friendly Jordan. If they become hostile, no successful repression of the Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza can provide for Israeli security. Forty million Egyptians mobilized by fundamentalist propaganda would spell the end of the Jewish state. Only deluded Jewish militants imagine that an Israei atomic bomb will prove a deterrent. 

Terrorism will continue. Even if Likud and Hamas make a deal, the Hezbollah in Lebanon will continue its campaign, supported by Iran though not by public opinion. Likud will point to terrorism  as justfication of its reluctance to make concessions. And the refusal to make concessions will, in turn, fuel more terrorism. 

The Israeli economy, currently booming because of the peace process, will slow down. Foreign investors will grow afraid. Military expenditures will rise. Many Third World countries will gradually withdraw their support. Many Diaspora Jews, alienated by Orthodox control, will cease their financial subsidies. 

The United States remains the only real force that can restrain Netanyahu and his allies. The American alliance is not trivial. It is the only firm foreign connection that Israel possesses. Netanyahu knows that Clinton preferred Peres, but he also knows that he needs American good will and that American strategic interests in the Middle East dictate support of the peace process. The unraveling of peace would enhance the power of Muslim fundamentalists and threaten American access to oil. Still, there is no guarantee that American pressure can sustain the peace process. Netanyahu has to find a balance between American pressure and the demands of his own extremists. Foreign minister David Levy is a moderate, but Arik Sharon, who managed to enter the cabinet at the last minute, is not. 

The peace process began during the Bush administration through American pressure on a reluctant Shamir. To avoid the no-win results of continuing a war, such pressure is needed again. American Jews need to encourage their government to apply it.