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Israeli tribalism will be the death of us

The politicians must unite, and work together in a professional, serious manner that leaves no room for rifts and divisiveness in the war against the coronavirus
Israeli police officers seen in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Mea Shearim, as they close shops and disperse public gatherings following the government decisions in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus. March 22, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)
Israeli police officers seen in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Mea Shearim, as they close shops and disperse public gatherings following the government decisions in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus. March 22, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

“In those days, there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Book of Judges). Based on current events in Israel, we seem to be reverting back to the period of the biblical judges, with each tribe fighting against the other, in an atmosphere of complete chaos. This would be bad enough in normal times; during the current epidemic, it translates into loss of life. While a coronavirus vaccine will eventually be found, Israeli tribalism will not just disappear. If Israeli society cannot rise above the tribal identities of its diverse population groups and find a common ground on which the State of Israel can stand firm, it will simply fall apart.

At the beginning of his term of office, President Rivlin noted the existence of several tribes in Israeli society: secular, religious, ultra-Orthodox, and Arab. This description has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as tribalism has only grown more and more fierce. Israel has shifted from a state with a deep-seated and fundamental sense of solidarity and mutual responsibility to a state in which the interests of one’s own tribe come first, followed (if at all) by the interests of the rest of the country’s citizens and their respective tribes.

This tribalism, expressed in Israeli politics is growing stronger from day to day. The map of political parties in Israel mirrors a map of tribal interests. This is clearly seen in the existence of the sectorial parties — ultra-Orthodox, Arab, and National-Religious. These make no pretense of caring about Israel’s citizens as a whole; their own sector comes first, and all others come last, if at all. The problem is that the other parties are also becoming increasingly sectorial, claiming to represent either residents of metropolitan Tel Aviv (often regarded as the country’s elite) or residents of Israel’s geographic and social periphery, and even the largest parties are mainly concerned with representing only their base of support.

The recent controversies over the “traffic light” plan for ranking cities according to local COVID-19 infection rates and imposing restrictions accordingly, have bared the perils of this tribalism. Israel currently has the highest per-capita infection rate in the world. Deaths are rising rapidly, and the forecast is that hospitals will soon be unable to cope with the numbers of patients. The experts appointed by the government, led by the coronavirus czar, Prof. Ronni Gamzu, have recommended various steps based on uniform health parameters in order to save the country from another painful lockdown, but all these proposals have crashed on the rocks of tribalism.

Each of Israel’s tribes is trying to duck any responsibility for the collective, and to take care only of its members. Everyone — the ultra-Orthodox, the Arabs, and the demonstrators against the prime minister — is concerned first and foremost about their tribe, and only second — about public health. The same is true of politicians. Instead of rational decision-making processes aimed at cutting back infection rates, the ministerial coronavirus committee has become a mud-wrestling ring. Politicians of all stripes — with the ultra-Orthodox at their helm — apply serious pressure to exempt their tribespeople from restrictions that may be inconvenient, but are designed to improve the situation of Israel as a whole, and save it from impending disaster. Decision-makers zigzag according to which way they feel the political wind is blowing, and shift policies accordingly. And above all, there have been declarations by mayors, Knesset members, and even senior government ministers that they will simply not respect professional decisions. Back to: “every man does what is right in his own eyes.”

The challenge of the coronavirus, which according to expert assessments will be with us for at least several more months, and may well deteriorate in the winter, might also carry with it an opportunity. True, the public atmosphere is ugly and the feeling is sometimes one of civil war, but it is still not too late for change. The responsibility lies first and foremost with the leaders and the politicians. They must wake up, unite, and work together in a professional and serious manner. They have to make it clear to Israel’s tribes that, today, there is no room for rifts and divisiveness As is the case in wars against enemies from without, the war against the coronavirus demands unity from within.

The damage wrought by tribalism is a proven fact. Throughout history, it has torn apart the Jewish people and led to disaster and destruction. Despite the current challenges, Israel will eventually overcome the severe impact of the coronavirus on the country’s health and economy. But even after the epidemic is over, Israeli tribalism will not simply disappear of its own accord. Without a concerted effort of all segments of Israeli society to find a common ground for the state’s continued existence-even after a period of “threescore and 10 years of quiet,” the danger of chaos and internal destruction will continue to hang over our heads.

About the Author
Dr. Shuki Friedman is director of the Center for Religion, Nation and State at the Israel Democracy Institute and a lecturer in law at the Peres Academic Center.
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