Eli Birnbaum
Rabbi, writer, educator, dreamer, millennial, closet anthropologist

After We Cure Coronavirus, Let’s Cure Israel’s Societal Sickness

Decades of bitterness and distrust mean that Israel's greatest existential threat is now internal division. (Pixabay)

“Victory in the battle between us means losing the war of existence. It is a greater threat than nuclear bombs or terrorism; greater than the enemies who seek our destruction. The threat of internal division will always be the greatest threat of all.”

                                   —President Reuven Rivlin, Oct 2018.

I arrived in Israel a fresh-faced high school graduate in the summer of 2005 to scenes of national unrest and widespread protests. I departed years later with a family and slightly more generous waistline in tow. One thing remained unchanged: the country was again gripped by national unrest and widespread protests. But the nature and underlying reasons of those two protests couldn’t have been more different.

In 2005 Israel’s unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip dominated the airwaves. I got a blunt if not unexpected inculcation into the spiraling madness when the cab driver who picked me up from Ben-Gurion Airport asked me by way of an introductory ‘welcome to Israel!’: “Are you blue or orange?”. “I don’t know”, I responded earnestly, making a quick mental note of the orange ribbon fluttering in the breeze behind his wing-mirror.

Fast forward to 2013. I stood on a side street in the commercial nerve-center of the Ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood of Geulah, watching chaos unfolding around me. This time, the focus of the crowd’s ire was the imminent expiration of the ‘Tal Law’, and with it the end of exemption from military service enjoyed by Ultra-Orthodox Talmudic students since the State’s formation.

If a week is a long time in politics and an absurdly long time in the middle-east, then eight years in Israeli politics is a lifetime. Let’s be honest: a lot happened. The end of the Second Intifada, Sharon’s stroke, Olmert’s indictment, Netanyahu’s return to the spotlight, Operations Cast Lead and Pillar of Defense, the Arab Spring and the Syrian Civil War.

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Protests from a bygone era? Mass demonstration in Rabin Square against Ehud Barak’s proposed territorial concessions, 2000. 

The protest that greeted me in 2005 was one that went to the very core of what I had been brought up to believe was the country’s central dilemma. Sharon’s Gaza elicited a public response much in the fashion of the vast demonstrations that greeted Rabin’s Oslo and Barak’s Golan. Those debates from what feels like a bygone era all boiled down to one existential question:  Which path is the surer guarantee to Israel’s long-term security from its considerable external threats?

This question used to be the benchmark of an Israeli politician’s manifesto. It dominated chatter in barbershops, restaurants, cafes and cabs. And of course, the cab driver always knew best.

This question matters less now than ever before.

Irrespective of how many times advocacy movements say otherwise. Irrespective of how many times Bibi whips out his trusty whiteboard and CD collection at the United Nations. It doesn’t change the reality that Israel’s reality is changing. Rapidly and drastically. So much so that it has been the case for years now that President Rivlin’s warning was truly prophetic: Israel’s greatest existential threat lies not without, but within.

The nations that not long ago massed at Israel’s borders sworn to drive her utterly and mercilessly into the sea have changed too. Rapidly and drastically. Syria is a monstrous mess of a place; a broken shell of the country that played a key role in the Lebanese conflict of 1982. Egypt and Jordan are bound by peace treaties. Iraq, ravaged by the Coalition of the Willing and then by ISIS, simply doesn’t bear mentioning anymore. The Palestinians are probably irreversibly divided, ruled by a corrupt and directionless leadership. And even Iran, that belligerent bogeyman of international politics, has ironically thus far only served to push the Saudis and their numerous Sunni satellites closer to Israel than ever before.

Zoom out further, and the upcoming presidential elections in the United States may yet grant Israel another four years of effective political carte blanche. Meanwhile, a European Union preoccupied with COVID-19 fallout and Brexit populism simply isn’t the robust (if oftentimes myopic) anti-Israel voice it once was. The BDS movement has made barely a dent in Israel’s economy (estimated losses are in the region of 0.004%). More countries blacklist Hezbollah with each passing year.

This is certainly not to ignore the perilous situation facing the communities in the north and south of the country. Nor is it meant to downplay the threat posed by Iran. (Although it is worth mentioning that former Mossad Chief Tamir Pardo, who sits on the advisory board for the NGO ‘United Against Nuclear Iran’, nevertheless agrees with Rivlin’s outlook.) Nor is it to pass judgement on the Trump Administration or the ability of the EU to handle multiple crises simultaneously. It is however an honest and sincere call to stop brushing the new existential question under the carpet. If Israel’s external headaches are dominoes falling one by one, its internal one is now a migraine crying out for a cure.

So what is Israel’s new existential crisis?

Some commentators opine: To enlist or not to enlist, that is the question!

Except it isn’t. The most recent IDF report (published by the Jerusalem Post in January) showed that close to 47% of those who received draft exemptions over the past two years were secular Israelis. What isn’t clear is how many of this approximately 2300-strong demographic received an exemption on the basis of ‘conscientious objection’ – a reason practically synonymous with that given by the majority of the Ultra-orthodox students who received a similar exemption. As much as Lapid and Lieberman insist otherwise, enlisting Ultra-Orthodox youngsters to the army was only ever a pantomime villain. A smokescreen. A convenient, easily emotive stick with which Punch can beat Judy to thunderous applause and plentiful votes. But it fails to address the real issue.

Doom-mongers hearken back to the enemy-at-the-gates era of the last century and bemoan the understaffed state of an army that cannot hope to wage war on four fronts when (notice: not ‘if’) that era returns to haunt us again. But let’s be honest: the presence of a couple of thousand bespectacled, vitamin-D deprived Yeshiva students on the battlefield probably won’t swing a war in Israel’s favour. Nor for that matter will an army of any size make one iota of difference if God forbid the doom-monger group’s oft-evoked nightmare of a nuclear Iran becomes a reality. They fail to address the real issue.

Liberal academics who routinely lament the entrenched lack of secular education throughout the Ultra-Orthodox camp may appear to have a point, but at the same time miss the point entirely: Vilify and patronize this group at your peril. Every forced intervention will simply lead to deeper and more extreme insulation and more violent acts of self-defense. The great malaise of Israel’s Left is that its grandiose statements rarely, if ever, come from a place of heartfelt reconciliation and altruism and so it too fails to address the real issue.

For others, catharsis is found in pontificating about Haredi birth rates versus relative income and how that critical mass will cripple the economy and democracy. But Haredim aren’t going to read the article, and if they do it won’t change their value system. Meanwhile no sane government (is there even such a thing anymore?) will pass legislation to curb Jewish population growth when the selfsame politicians caution about burgeoning populations among Israeli-Arabs. You can’t have your cake and eat it. And besides, Hilonim won’t eat it unless it is strictly organic and Haredim won’t eat it unless it is strictly kosher.

As King Solomon once said, there is nothing new under the sun in any of these arguments – valid though they are. We must ask of ourselves to stop focusing on the problems, and instead work on a lasting solution.

And what would I ask of the Haredim themselves? Try to stop seeing enemies lurking in every shadow. Try to accept the fact that not all Jews are able to zealously pursue every tenet of Judaism, but still wish to proudly identify as Jewish. Try to accept the fact that those people are your fellow Jews, and treat them accordingly. Try to accept the fact that in an era bereft of true prophecy, even the most scrupulous and scholarly can make mistakes. Try not to be scared to learn from those mistakes. Try to not be scared of difference. Try to be aware that there is an issue to address at all.

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A bitter divide too late to cure? Israeli police forces detain Ultra Orthodox Jewish men as they enforce a partial Coronavirus lockdown on March 31st, 2020 in Jerusalem, Israel.

The furor over the Tal Law masks one frankly petrifying fact: As, by the grace of God, Israel’s ensemble of external enemies drifts ever closer to either permanent irrelevance or even formal diplomatic relations, the country has had a lot more time and cause – most recently fueled by the coronavirus crisis – to turn its gaze inward. And it can’t have liked what it saw. Israeli society is now a gunpowder barrel, never further than a single social spark away from full-blown implosion.

I don’t think it is fair to point fingers when blame so obviously falls on both sides of the great divide. Haredi cartoons demonize secular soldiers as SS guards. Hiloni (secular) cartoons denigrate Yeshiva students as traitorous parasites. The mutual hatred, bile and distrust has built up – entirely and frankly unforgivably unchecked – for decades. As long as ‘the enemy’ stood at our borders, poised and ready to pounce from without, this unbridled internal apocalypse was by necessity ignored and pinned on the ‘to-do list’. Recent clashes over the resistance to lockdown in Ultra-orthodox areas were just the latest examples in a long and unpleasant list of warning signs that Israeli society has been confined to a self-afflicted sickbed of heartbreaking internal division for far too long.

So who should make the first move? One side claims enlightenment through the doctrines of advanced, liberal modernity. The other claims enlightenment through the doctrines of God and tradition. Both refuse to blink.

Because the real issue isn’t as small as conscription, nor the economy, nor democracy, nor taxes, nor birth rates. It transcends all of those, informing them in its wake, fusing itself into the cultural crossroads of a country not old and yet no longer quite so young: What does it mean to be an Israeli? To be a Jew? As the COVID-19 virus opened fresh wounds, ravaging thousands across the country, it became clear that it had opened old wounds too. It is high time we move to heal those wounds. Permanently.

One thing remains clear and chronically underestimated. Israel’s true ‘sickness’ is its inability to look at itself in the mirror. Secular and ultra-Orthodox camps are locked on a collision course and both currently lack the guidance and in all likelihood the willpower to grab the wheel and swerve. As Diaspora Jews whose financial and even political contributions to Israel wane in strength and importance with each passing global crisis and the fall of each external enemy, perhaps we should consider making this our next great contribution to the betterment of our remarkable homeland. To pioneer channels of honest, unconditional dialogue. To launch grassroots initiatives to bridge the chasm-like split between the two camps. To heal the great divide. And perhaps we might learn a thing or two about achdut (unity) along the way.

COVID-19 has done more than anything in living memory to bring people together. Let us not, as Abba Eban famously put it, make this a story of never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

About the Author
Born and raised in London, England. I spent six years in Talmudic College before studying for Rabbinic ordination in Jerusalem. I hold a BSc in Criminology & Social Psychology. I am fascinated by pretty much everything, but nothing more so than exploring current affairs through the kaleidoscope of Jewish continuity in the 21st century. I currently oversee Aish UK's educational and published content. (All views expressed are my own, and do not necessarily represent those of Aish UK).
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