Hillel Portugais-de Almeida

Israel at a crossroads: Breaking the tribal mold

Police officers stand guard while Israelis demonstrate against the Prime Minister's wife Sara Netanyahu, outside a hair salon in Tel Aviv.
Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90

Yesterday’s incident, in which protestors against judicial reform obstructed Sara Netanyahu inside her hair salon on Kikar HaMedina in Tel Aviv, is much more than the latest example of Israel’s profound political divisions; it symbolizes a true turning point in the protest movement. The political situation is becoming more clannish and polarizing, with both sides taking growingly extreme positions. We, as a society cannot afford a schism in a society that is constantly under assault both internally as well as externally. Besides that, it is incorrect to believe that the current political crisis in Israel will cease with a pause of the judicial reform pushed by Binyamin Netanyahu; the last day of protest evidenced how deep the division could be. Divisions that we all preferred to ignore, incorrectly believing that our security relied on it, are now proving to be far more dangerous than any outside disruption attempt. That is why, now more than ever, we need to define ourselves, define our powers and limits, and decide whether we will do it as a Nation or tear ourselves apart.

As inheritors of the Torah, we should remember the story of the lost tribes and the violent partition of the Kingdom of Israel into the two states of Juda and Israel as a result of a profound disagreement between brothers. Either the destruction of the Second Temple due to free-hatred is one of the most poignant reminders of the destructive power of division in our legacy and history. It would be pathetic if, after all of our suffering over the last 2,000 years, we fail to overcome our division, frustration, and differences and return to fratricidal wars. That this is what Israeli society most desperately necessitates is a constitution, not just a Basic Law or some reforms, but a clear definition that outlines our identity beyond political affiliations. A constitution that will be voted on by the entire population, regardless of affiliation; a project to live together; a project to accept ourselves as a nation. In the absence of such a framework, the country’s institutions remain unaccountable to its citizens, and Israelis are left to fend for themselves in an increasingly tribal and divisive political landscape, as the political instability of the past few years has demonstrated.

To move forward, Israelis must be willing to set aside their tribal affiliations, regardless of whether they are religious, secular, Sephardi, Mizrahi, LGBTQ, Ethiopian, rich, poor, single, or married, and engage in a process of collective self-examination. This requires redefining our national identity based on the shared values and principles that we all inherited from two millennia of exile and adopting a vision of collective individualism that prioritizes the needs and aspirations of individuals over those of political parties or tribes. According to the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, democracy cannot be fully realized through groups and tribes, but only through the addition of every individual’s will. In other words, we Israelis must find a way to unite, rather than relying on the juxtaposition of tribes as we have for the past 75 years. It is critical that we take a brave step toward solving the current crisis. Including, above all, listening to and comprehending the perspectives and demands of all citizens, especially those with whom we disagree. And God only knows how often Jews disagree especially with themselves.

But we cannot passively engage in dialogue. As citizens of our only nation, we must act immediately to establish a society that reflects our values and principles. Again, values inherited from the Thora, from our exile, and all the individual and collective suffering we have endured. Yes, creating a democratic Jewish society must also allows everyone to live freely, regardless of religion, sexual orientation, or ethnicity. A society in which secular and religious Jews can coexist, the LGBTQ+ community is regarded with respect and dignity, and Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews are equally valued.

Therefore, we must concede that this process will not be simple, but that doesn’t mean we should retaliate in any way. To build a society that reflects our values and principles, we must, on the contrary, be willing to exert effort. To establish a more just and equitable society, we will need to confront difficult truths about ourselves and our society and be willing to open ourselves sometimes to other beliefs and behaviours.

The stakes are too high for Israelis to continue down the current path of societal division and political conflict. Consequently, we need a constitution that explicitly defines Israeli identity and values. Not because we should imitate other nations, and not because it will miraculously solve our issues, but because it will be the starting point for our critical self-examination and prevent us all from repeating past failures. As in the past, the path that Israel is currently following will lead to a tribal split. By adopting democratic Jewish values, we, can create a stronger, more united, and more prosperous future for ourselves and future generations. This is the Zionist project, this is our self-determination project, not the division of the Jewish people but its unity. Our unity. Religious and political division will continue to exist, which is natural, but we must constantly remind ourselves that there is a distinction between healthy disagreements among brothers to build a better future and profound division that corrupts any discussion towards a united future.

About the Author
Hillel Portugais - de Almeida, consultant in public policy and influence strategy, graduated in Political Science from the University of Paris 1 - Panthéon Sorbonne and from IDC Herzliya in Homeland Security & Cyber-Security.
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