For several months now, when I, along with many other Israeli citizens, are asked how we are doing, we often respond: “Personally, I’m fine, but nationally – less so.”
“I’m doing as well as my people,” poet Haim Gouri used to say. That’s exactly the feeling.
As the Israel Director of an NGO that promotes social cohesion within Israeli society, I am well acquainted with the challenges posed by the war of narratives and identities within our society. Since 2017, ADL has engaged in tracking and assessing the state of social cohesion in Israel, and our recent assessment reveals a decline in the overall sense of cohesion.
While there have long been tensions and divides across Israeli society, they have, in recent months, further deepened and intensified as a result of the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul plan. The plan, which began as a political initiative, has morphed into a fundamental disagreement over the image of Israeli society, its core values and, most importantly, its future.
The political controversy of recent months has not only brought to light disagreements on specific issues, but also highlighted the absence of effective social and political mechanisms to address and manage these disputes. It is crucial to recognize that the State of Israel is a relatively young country that, in its 75 years of existence, has encountered numerous challenges. Our social contract has never been legally enshrined in a constitution, primarily due to the inability to reach a consensus on core issues such as religion and state, the treatment of minorities, and, more generally, between Israel’s Jewish and democratic identities.
Last week’s legislation marked a significant watershed moment that disappointed many segments of the Israeli public and millions around the world, including ADL. The following day, major newspapers across Israel showed an all-black front-page ad to reflect the sense of darkness that resonated with certain individuals and groups in the country.
But we must not view what happened solely as a matter of victory or defeat for either side. I do not believe, despite these challenging moments, that we can allow ourselves to succumb to despair. On the contrary, I firmly believe that it is our responsibility to resist despair. The inspiring social and democratic activism displayed by hundreds of thousands of citizens in Israel offers encouragement and hope. Moreover, we – as citizens and members of civil society – have the ability to operate above and beyond the political realm. When politics reaches its limits, civil activism can continue, generating not only meaningful discourse but also fostering authentic connections that have the potential to surpass expectations.
Undoubtably, the citizens of the State of Israel hold diverse worldviews, which inevitably leads to different visions. Certainly, every group in Israeli society carries its own historical baggage, and regrettably, there is also a sense of competition over pain, legitimacy, and control. All these are indeed challenges, but they are challenges that can and should be addressed and met.
Is it not possible to create an overriding social vision in the context of which individuals can express themselves individually and within their communities, with the state serving as a meta-framework for all the different groups in society? I actually think it is possible.
In this vision, Israel, as a Jewish state, should strive towards a broad sense of belonging and desire for engagement among all its citizens, including the 20 percent who are not Jewish. Under this kind of framework, Israeli democracy would flourish, because it would grant individuals more opportunities to express themselves freely, and more importantly, it would help prevent antagonism among those who currently feel that a lack of significant religious pluralism excludes them.
Of course, these arrangements necessitate thorough processes of investigation and agreement. However, the benefits of such processes would extend to future generations. If we seek a better life and future for our country, and if we fully grasp the weight of responsibility – we must not only acknowledge the diversity of views in Israel, but also harness this diversity as a tool to effectively address the challenges it poses. Based on my experience with educational and social processes over the years, I firmly believe that changing opinions, accepting differing viewpoints and reaching agreements – even the most challenging – is still possible.
And in the spirit of the Jewish month of Av, if the nation of Israel was rebuilt after the destruction of the Temple, we too can rebuild and overcome the present challenges we face.