Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Contemporary Israel: Back to the 12 Tribes

“Political Culture” can last for a long time – sometimes a VERY long time… Contemporary Israeli politics and society might seem to be light years away from the biblical era, but that’s an optical illusion. If anything, from a societal (and “political”) standpoint, modern Israel has long been reverting to its biblical pattern, perhaps never having completely lost its connection to yesteryear.

To recapitulate: the Jewish People started out as the 12 sons of Jacob, sibling rivalry galore with some pretty dramatic twists and turns. Later in the desert, the tribes became so obstreperous that God called them a “stiff-necked people”, occasionally even fighting and killing each other (e.g., the Golden Calf episode). Two and half tribes decided to settle across the Jordan River, self-separating themselves from the rest. Civil war broke out between most of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin over the senseless murder of a concubine. And once the monarchy was established, it lasted no more than a century before breaking up into two “kingdoms” – ultimately ten tribes “disappearing” into Assyrian exile. Centuries later the Second Temple was destroyed, and Jewish sovereignty ended by the Romans because the various Jewish sects – Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, Sicari (Assassins), and others – couldn’t get along (understatement!). And from there the Jews spread out over the world, gradually distancing from each other ethnically, socially, politically, and even halakhically.

Is it any wonder, then, that when Herzl convened the First World Zionist Congress in 1897, numerous “sectors” showed up, each with their own “Zionist” ideology/theology? By the time the Zionist Movement in Palestine held its first local elections (Assembly of Representatives in 1920), the only option to maintain some sort of inclusivity among all the factions was to establish a system of total proportional representation. And they outdid even the bible: NINETEEN “parties” were elected!

And so it has gone ever since, with the number of parties garnering enough votes for a seat in the Knesset (post-1949) usually fluctuating between ten and fifteen – this, among thirty to forty parties that try to get elected. In short, Israel’s contemporary electoral muddle is not something new, but rather a continuation – some new wine in very old bottles – of the Jewish People’s political culture and Zionism’s institutional structure from the very start of both.

Pundits tend to decry this “balagan” (mess) and seek solutions. One of these has been to raise the vote threshold for election – from 1% to 3.25%; that has been only a very mild success, as the number of elected parties still remains at around ten (not coincidentally, the Jewish “minyan” required for communal prayer). Another “solution” tried and quite quickly abandoned in the 1990s and early 2000s was direct election of the prime minister – the double ballot led to further fracturing of the parties! In any event, these are band-aids on a serious wound: Israeli social cleavages are not some passing phenomenon, but rather endemic differences – not only of “opinions” but of ways of life and perceptions as to how Israeli society should work: from anti-democratic, Jewish-theocratic all the way to non-Jewish, liberal-universalistic, with many shades of Jewish/Democracy combinations in the middle.

And as if this were not enough, there’s another central aspect to Jewish political culture going all the way back to biblical times: non-Jews! Jacob “purchasing” Esau’s birthright; Simeon and Levi slaughtering Shechem for raping Dinah; 80% of those leaving Egypt were non-Jews (“erev rav”); the seven “Canaanite” nations that had to be conquered; Saul and Amalek; Baal worship throughout the era of Judges and Kings; Ezra forcing the Jews who did not go into Babylonian exile to divorce their Gentile wives; Hellenization (the Maccabees against the pro-Seleucids); mass Jewish conversion to Christianity; and so on.

Which brings us to this week’s headlines: Mansour Abbas’s speech (in Hebrew!) to the Israeli public, calling for “unity” between the Jewish and Arab sectors in Israeli society and politics – and the bewildering reactions: right-wing PM Netanyahu trying to bring Abbas’s RAAM party into the coalition; Bibi’s erstwhile allies (even more extremely right-wing) Smotrich and Ben-Gvir emphatically nixing such a coalition; the center-left parties inviting RAAM to form a coalition with them, after having refused to do so after the previous election. Such confusion is also a reflection of Jewish history’s inconsistent approach to Gentile, cultural-political “approachability threats”.

Mark Twain was supposed to have opined (he didn’t): “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure rhymes…”. Current Israeli politics is an excellent example of this – unprecedented and very familiar at one and the same time. As the French are wont to say: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – what goes around, comes around. Around 3000+ years to be exact.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) presently serves as Academic Head of the Communications Department at the Peres Academic Center (Rehovot). Previously, he taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published five books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see:
Related Topics
Related Posts