Shuki Friedman

Civil war is not a luxury we can afford

Given the many threats Israel faces, social fracturing could bring catastrophic loss of life and infrastructural collapse
Anti-government protestors burn tires near Beit Yanai, Israel, March 27, 2023.(AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Anti-government protestors burn tires near Beit Yanai, Israel, March 27, 2023.(AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

France recently celebrated Bastille Day, when the fortress of the ancien régime was toppled in a determined and fierce civil war for liberty, equality, and fraternity. Three weeks ago, the United States, which went through a brutal civil war of its own, celebrated its Independence Day. Many other nations, now free and prosperous, were forged in the crucible of a civil war.

In Israel, unfortunately, talk of a civil war, while not to be welcomed, is nevertheless met with indifference. “What’s good for the Gentiles,” so the reasoning seems to go, “might be good for the Jews.” But there is a vast difference. While for many other countries civil war was a “bearable” disaster, for Israel, with its unique challenges, there is no margin for error. Such a war could be our ruin.

Many Western nations that are now well-established and thriving went through civil wars earlier in their history. Some of these wars were waged over the nature of the political regime and led to its fall or replacement, as with, for example, France and Spain. Others were waged over values, as with the bloody civil war over slavery in the United States. Still others, such as the struggle that led to the dissolution of Yugoslavia, were ethnic conflicts. In all of these cases, as well as the various civil wars being fought in the Middle East today, the immediate result was years of paralysis, severe infrastructure damage, disruption of daily life, and, in a few cases, Syria and Libya for example, near-total destruction of the country.

Even in distant history, civil wars were cataclysmic spectacles mostly fought over the consolidation of power in the hands of a monarchical faction, or the result of national-religious fanaticism. We Jews are well acquainted with this kind of war from our own history: from the civil wars in the era of the Judges, through the division of the kingdom after the glory days of David and Solomon, to the wars of the Zealots late in the Second Temple period, which ultimately led to the destruction of Jerusalem and of the Temple. 

Anyone who has read or watched Les Misérables, or studied American history, will picture gunfire around barricades in the streets, or cavalry regiments charging each other. I hope we never get to that. But a civil war can look different. It may be characterized by isolated violent events that take their toll of bodily injury or, worse, death. It can be a war of violent altercations at demonstrations or protest events it can be a minor but violent “attack” against the “other side”.. It is my fear that we may find ourselves in this kind of civil war. And if, Heaven forbid, it comes to that, who knows where the slippery slope will lead us.

And that would be a disaster. The external and internal threats facing the State of Israel are too numerous to list here. Hundreds of thousands of rockets and missiles are aimed at us from the north and south. The Iranians are on the brink of producing a nuclear bomb. Criminal violence within the state is rampant. The economic situation is unstable even without the judicial revolution; governance and governmental enforcement capabilities are eroding more and more each day. All of these challenges require significant government and civil resources. It is doubtful whether we can withstand the external challenges without the cohesion and cooperation of the entire Israeli society. In their absence, we could face a catastrophic abyss of lost lives and infrastructural collapse. In the face of all these challenges, there is no room for error. 

The tensions between the different identity sectors of Israeli society today are unprecedented. The risk of degenerating into civil strife, even civil war, has probably never been greater. But unlike other nations, we have no chance of emerging from such a war strengthened. On the contrary, if civil war erupts, God forbid, it will constitute the gravest of existential threats. These days of bein hametzarim or “between the straits” – the three weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av – are precisely meant to remind us of this. They call upon us to reflect on our history and realize that in none of the earlier instances did we survive a civil war intact. The responsibility for preventing such a war lies first and foremost with our leaders, but it also rests on the shoulders of each and every one of us.

About the Author
Dr. Shuki Friedman is the vice president of the Jewish People Policy Institute and a lecturer of law at the Peres Academic Center. His book, 'Being a Nation-State in the Twenty-First Century: Between State and “Synagogue” in Modern Israel' was recently published by Academic Studies Press.
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