As an American expatriate living in Israel for the last three decades, I’ve watched with increasing concern as America’s political discourse has come to increasingly resemble that of Israel’s during our worst moments of divisiveness.
Ironically, though, even as the ideological schism deepens in America to the point of threatening the very ability of the government to function, Israeli society has gone a long way toward managing — if hardly overcoming – its own internal schisms.
The notion of Israel as a model of social cohesion may seem far-fetched. After all, Israeli society is a bewildering ingathering of ideological and ethnic diversity, containing Jews from a hundred countries – to say nothing of a large and growing minority of Arab citizens who feel excluded from the country’s Jewish ethos. Few democratic societies are so riven by ideological arguments over peace and territory and security, and over state and religion and identity – debates not merely over policy but survival.
Yet in recent years, a sober majority has emerged that seeks social compromise and accommodation in place of ideological warfare.
Take Israel’s most bitter internal divide, over the future of the territories won in the 1967 Six-Day War. For left-wing Israelis, the greatest threat to the long-term viability of the Jewish State is the settlement of the West Bank and annexation of its large Palestinian population, endangering Israel’s Jewish majority and democratic soul. For right-wing Israelis, the greatest threat is withdrawal from the West Bank and the creation of a hostile Palestinian state in the hills overlooking the Israeli coast, where the Israeli population and infrastructure are largely concentrated.
That divide has been so intense that it led, in 1995, to the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, at the hands of a far-right Israeli Jew who opposed Rabin’s negotiations with the Palestinians.
Yet after nearly four decades of bitter debate, the victor between left and right is – the center. The politics of most Israelis today are a convergence of left-wing and right-wing insights. A majority agrees with the left about the dangers of occupying another people. And that same majority agrees with the right about the dangers of trying to make peace with a Palestinian national movement that doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state in any borders.
The result is that most Israelis want to be doves, but feel compelled by reality to be hawks.
The emergence of a centrist majority has transformed the Israeli debate over the country’s future borders. Twenty years ago, the left-wing Labor Party opposed a Palestinian state. Today, the right-wing Likud Party accepts the premise of a two-state solution.
Prompted by the failure of the right to bring security and of the left to bring peace, many Israelis have abandoned their ideological certainties and adopt positions from across the political spectrum.
A similar process is happening culturally, too. The old dichotomy between a secular majority and an Orthodox minority is giving way to the creation of a new centrist cultural camp. This camp is composed of secularists who want more spiritual meaning and a deepening of Jewish identity in their lives, along with moderate Orthodox Jews who want to be part of modern Israel. While this cultural center is still in its formative stages, it embodies the longing among many Israelis for a new relationship between religion and state.
Still, Israel’s schisms remain deep and perhaps insoluble. Fringe elements in the settlement movement have become increasingly violent, targeting Palestinians and even attacking Israeli soldiers. And if the Israeli government decides to withdraw from parts of the West Bank, that violence will intensify.
No less worrying for Israel’s long-term cohesion, the country’s two fastest growing populations — Arab citizens and ultra-Orthodox Jews – happen to be the two sectors most alienated from its identity as a Jewish, democratic state.
Israel’s greatest domestic challenge is to begin integrating ultra-Orthodox and Arab citizens into the mainstream. That process has now begun, at least with the ultra-Orthodox community. A new policy that will gradually end the wholesale military deferment of ultra-Orthodox young men, will bring many of them into that most mainstream Israeli institution – the Israel Defense Forces. Many in the ultra-Orthodox community will resist – some violently. But many others will quietly go along, and some will be grateful for the chance to break out of their community’s self-imposed isolation.
The analogies between American and Israeli societies are surely limited. Israel’s hard-won centrism over the Palestinian issue largely resulted from traumatic security threats of which which American society has been largely spared. And the key role played by the military in unifying Israeli society cannot be replicated in today’s America.
Still, there is something in the Israeli experience of learning to mistrust ideological certainties that could help America manage its own schisms. The alternative, as we learned in Israel, is a social abyss.