My paternal great grandparents arrived in Ottoman-ruled Jerusalem from Yemen via Port Said in Egypt. Sometimes I look at my children and I wonder what their great grandparents would think if they could see them today. Israeli children are galaxies away from the Ottoman and later the British patrols, curfews, food and fuel shortages past generations endured. We are free from foreign rule and the hatred it engenders.
But freedom is a relative term and hatred is not confined to foreign rule, not even in Israel. That’s never been as obvious as it is for me today, after twenty years of living here. It’s painful for me to admit that in my adopted hometown of Beit Shemsh, every year I’m a little less free. As recently as 2006, the only public route I had to Bar Ilan University was a privately run, women-at-the-back bus. I used to laugh at the absurdity of my reality. Twice weekly, I sat in the back half of a bus for twenty minutes while the driver simultaneously puffed away and filled up with illegal gas from a pump that seemingly arose out of the ground. I spent the time imagining all of us (modestly) blowing sky high.
I don’t know when I realized it, but at some point I understood that this behavior was not something marginal but rather a force that wished to wind its way into every facet of my life with a desire to expand. And, slowly, it has.
In 2011 I whimsically chose then-journalist Yair Lapid as the prime minister I wanted to make a cameo appearance in my satiric novel “King of the Class,” which takes the country’s deep internal divisions to their logical dystopian conclusion. I remember my first readers’ puzzled expressions: Who is Yair Lapid? No one’s asking that question anymore. Last year a government sans Haredim (whether you think it’s a good or bad thing) was unimaginable. Today, it’s obvious that the last coalition negotiations were based on keeping the Haredim out of the government for the first time ever.
“King of the Class” is set in the near future in a post-civil war Israel that is split into two states, the religious fundamentalist state of Shalem and the militant secular state of Israel. When I wrote my novel a Jewish civil war was a fringe idea. Today, the possibility of such a scenario is an all too common refrain in Israeli media. We are getting closer to a place my great grandparents never imagined living in, a place where the real enemy is not without, but within.
In my neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh it’s easy to feel Yom Haatzmaut celebrations must be hidden. Without anyone passing a law, Independence Day observance is confined to a minority of select streets. The flags are kept to a minimum and there are few additional decorations, especially in comparison to other cities. On the other hand, I once had my hat flung off of my head at the beach by a secular Israeli woman. Before I knew it, she exclaimed about the shtuyot (nonsense) I no longer needed on my head and I watched helplessly as my head covering sank into the Mediterranean.
The tension is not confined to religious vs. secular or even Zionist vs. anti-Zionist. Not long ago there was a demonstration outside of our sport hall which to any outsider appeared to be Haredim vs. Haredim, but a closer look revealed the two groups shrieking at one another: “Let us work. We are not shnorrers!” while the second group screamed: “You are destroying the Jewish family.” It was not long before the sirens of ambulances and police cars could be heard. Observing this I considered how close we are coming to living in clans who will do anything to protect our own.
The point of my satire is that in many ways a Jewish civil war in Israel has already happened and I sometimes wonder if anyone has noticed – the separation in public discourse could not be wider if we were divided into two groups who already lived across hostile borders. Unlike my great grandparents, we are free from foreign rule, but we still have a way to go to free ourselves from hatred.
Read an excerpt of Gila Green’s novel, King of the Class