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Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

National Viability and Vitality: The Israeli Case (3) – Unified National Identity

Last week, I discussed in-depth the first of seven factors – Ambition and Will – underlying national competitiveness and dynamism – to evaluate what lies in store for Israel in the coming decades. Here I will look in-depth at the second factor: Unified National Identity.

It’s a truism that the more homogeneous a country, the less social turmoil it will suffer. The downside of complete homogeneity is stasis; such countries usually aren’t very dynamic because of cultural “groupthink.” Thus, the task of each country is to try and find some “sweet spot” between a unified national identity (based on some common history, culture, ethnicity, religion, or “race”) and some admixture of various mindsets. If the former leads to over-conservatism, the latter can lead to social breakdown and even civil war when taken to an extreme.

Where does Israel fall on this spectrum? Not an easy question to answer simply. Indeed, one can easily provide two convincing – but contradictory – arguments in this regard (something quite Jewish, for as the Talmud states: “this opinion and that opinion are both the words of God!”).

The positive scenario: Israel is a “Mosaic Society” many times over. First, from a national-ethnic standpoint, the country has Jews, Moslem-Arabs (mainstream and Bedouin), Druze, and Christian-Arabs (and several other very low number ethnicities). Then among the numerically dominant Jewish-Israelis (about 75% of the country), there are Jews from virtually every country in the world – nominally called Ashkenazim (from Europe and Russia), Edot Ha’Mizrakh (from Arab countries), Anglo-Saxons (from English-speaking countries), Ethiopim (Ethiopians), and “others” (mostly from South and Central America) – each with a distinct cultural flavor, based on centuries living in their respective areas of the world. However, these “categories” are themselves viewed by many as overly generalized. For instance, there is a world of cultural difference between an Israeli of Moroccan parentage and one of Iraqi provenance; between former Americans and Brits (or Aussies); and certainly between those who immigrated from the former (authoritarian) Soviet Union and the democratic west.

This is not a “melting pot” society as the early Zionists hoped where everyone assimilates into a gigantic cultural “goulash,” but rather a “mosaic” society in which each culture offers something else to the collectivity but also absorbs influences from other groups e.g., Arabic words (and foods!) entering mainstream Israeli culture – and vice versa. The overall result: a cultural and economic flourishing far beyond what Herzl and Ben-Gurion could have imagined.

So much for the good news. The bad news is the obverse side of this coin. Several cleavages in Israeli society are deep and a few are getting deeper. The current five elections in three years, with no clear victory in sight for either “camp,” is an expression of Israel’s political paralysis with the country very evenly (and determinedly) split along ideological lines that contain several “overlapping cleavages”: Two States vs. Greater Israel; secularism vs religiosity; Gush Dan vs the “periphery”.

As if these weren’t enough of an “identity crisis,” another growing split is widening between Jewish “nationalists” and Jewish “universalists.” The former is clear: Israel is a Jewish State, so that Jewish particularism (read: “heritage,” broadly defined) should take precedence over other values. The latter group almost sounds like an oxymoron, but it does have some historical logic, focusing on the universal human rights found in Judaism: social justice and the like. Although these are really two sides of the same Jewish coin, there is an inherent tension between the two when it comes to policy-making e.g., should Israel enable all Ukrainian refugees (mostly non-Jewish) into the country during the current war even if it could potentially “dilute” the state’s Jewish character? Or should the latter take precedence, leading to a maximal quota of war refugee ingathering?

If there is one thing holding back these serious divisions from becoming violent and socially destructive it is historical remembrance. The Jewish People have a long, collective memory and have not forgotten their self-inflicted disasters of yesteryear. Indeed, the most famous expression regarding this issue is brought into the public discourse whenever matters seem to be getting too “hot”: “We have to ensure that the Third House [a metaphor for contemporary State of Israel – wordplay on the two previous destroyed Temples] is not destroyed.”

On the other hand, if one is to go by the Jewish historical pattern, then the future is less than sanguine. The Israelites started off with twelve tribes (even civil war broke out among some of them!), and have periodically split: the post-Solomon, Judean vs the Northern Kingdom; Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes, fighting one another; Samaritans and Karaites splitting off from normative Judaism; scholarly Mitnagdim vs spirited Hassidim at loggerheads in Eastern Europe; Reform and Conservative vs. Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox with little social intercourse between them in the later modern era. And most recently we are finding a growing “political” gap between Israelis and many overseas Jews raising the fundamental “national identity” question: is Israel the center of the Jewish world (as Zionism has always claimed) or merely one important Jewish hub among others around the world?

In sum, Israel’s multifarious society has given it great economic and cultural strength. Unfortunately, it also has seriously divided the country politically – along national, ethnic, and ideological lines. Some of these have been somewhat ameliorated over the decades (Edot Ha’Mizrakh vs. Ashkenazim with increasing “intermarriage” between them; Arabs assimilating into the Israeli economy, and to a lesser extent, its society), some have remained relatively constant (ultra-Orthodox vs secular, each still pushing to have less or more religion in public life), and a few divisions have worsened (Greater Israel vs Peace Now).

What does this bode for the future? The answer lies in Israeli politics. If the country’s leaders are able to lower the flame and seek election based not on “fear” but on an attempt to find common ground, then the country’s economic, cultural, and social strengths will carry it upwards and forwards into the foreseeable future. Conversely, if Israeli politics continues its current vituperative and schismatic path, none of its other strengths will be of much avail over the long term.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) 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 three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book is VIRTUALITY AND HUMANITY: VIRTUAL PRACTICE AND ITS EVOLUTION FROM PRE-HISTORY TO THE 21ST CENTURY (Springer Nature, Dec. 2021): The book's description, substantive Preface and full Table of Contents can be freely accessed here: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-981-16-6526-4#toc. For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com

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