Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

National Viability & Vitality (8): Israel’s Social Diversity & Pluralism

In evaluating a country’s future, the seventh and last important element is whether it has social diversity and pluralism – the focus of my analysis this week regarding Israel. (Next week, I’ll sum up my entire essay series of the past two months with an overall prognostication of Israel’s situation in the coming decades.)

To a certain extent, a nation’s social diversity is the obverse side of the second element discussed several weeks ago: “Unified National Identity.” In one sense they are obviously in conflict; in another, they are complementary. After all, for a country to retain some core identity, it can’t have too much social differentiation. The hubcaps on a car can all look different, but the wheels have to go in the same direction! On the other hand, too monolithic a perspective on national life will lead to conservative stasis and ultimately to decline. Only the give and take between people with different perspectives can ensure the continuation of dynamic creativity in all walks of life.

As I have already surveyed at length Israel’s “social diversity” ( I will concentrate here on pluralism, or more to the point, tolerance of pluralistic thinking and behavior. Diversity – whether ethnic or ideological – is not problematic in and of itself, if those of different persuasions are willing to accept and interact with the other groups. When such interaction leads to serious conflict (violent speech and action), then even if there are only two groups such a society won’t last long.

Within the Jewish community, the news on this front is not very good. Israeli society is highly pluralistic but has quite a low tolerance of “others.” This is evident on several fronts. Perhaps the most blatant: religion. The ultra-Orthodox (and to a large extent, the Orthodox as well) are highly intolerant of Reform and Conservative Jewish practice. The constant conflict at the Western Wall is but one expression of this. Even the ultra-Orthodox themselves are split into three camps: the Edot Hamizrach SHAS party, and the Ashkenazi Yahadut Hatorah party that includes two competing versions of haredi life: the mystical and the scholarly (they formed one party to ensure passing the voting threshold) – not to mention the much smaller, but rabidly anti-Zionist Neturei Karta sect who will have nothing to do with anyone, religious or otherwise.

Of course, there is also no love lost between all ultra-Orthodox sectors and Israel’s secular community – each constantly trying to pull the public space in their theological direction (e.g. [non]public, Sabbath transportation). The only ameliorating factor here is the quite large “traditional” Israeli Jewish sector (mesoratim) who straddle the divide and are generally tolerant of both sides – practically more secular, but deeply respecting the Jewish religious heritage.

The ethnic divide also exists between Israel’s different religions: Jewish, Moslem, Christian, and Druze. Here, at least, there are some cross-cutting cleavages e.g., the Druze and Jews are strong Zionists (most male Druze serve in the army); most Moslems and Christians in Israel are ethnically Arab. Still, the “Naqba” (Arab for “catastrophe”: displacement of hundreds of thousands of Arabs during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence) continues to be a festering wound, even for those Arabs who stayed put and became Israeli citizens. Nevertheless, as noted in a previous essay (#4: Shared Opportunity), many Israeli Arabs are mainstreaming into the Israeli economy, society, and even politics.

The picture isn’t much prettier on the ideological front. It’s hard to say whether today’s political “discourse” is more virulent than when the Labor Party “excommunicated” Menachem Begin’s pre-Likud “Herut” back in the 1950s and early 1960s, but there isn’t much civil dialogue between Israel’s Right and Left. Nevertheless, here too there is some reason to be optimistic as the two main, non-confrontational center parties (Lapid’s Yesh Atid; Gantz’s newly named HaMakhaneh Ha’Mamlakhti [Literally: The Statist Party, but generally translated as “The National Unity Party”]) have gained in strength and constitute the fulcrum of almost any future government. Even the huge political-ideological divide between Jews and Arabs has narrowed somewhat, as the Islamist Ra’am party joined the present coalition government and has shown to be highly pragmatic (and non-ideological) in its demands.

The main good news on the diversity front is the virtual disappearance of the intra-Jewish, ethnic divide between the Ashkenazim and Edot Ha’Mizrakh. If in the 1981 elections this was arguably the most salient topic, today it is mostly a political non-issue (other than ultra-Orthodox SHAS – mainly as a refuge from Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox “racial” discrimination in education and marriage). When occasionally it does rear its head, it tends to be in the guise of some other issue e.g., “judicial activism” of the (ostensibly Ashkenazi) Supreme Court.

Culturally, Israel’s diversity has been a net plus. The popular music scene (“Mediterranean” and general “Rock”) has evolved into a world class amalgamation of musical roots taken from all over the Jewish world. Israeli cuisine has also become world class, here even absorbing Arab culinary sources for taste enrichment. Moreover, Israel’s modern Hebrew absorbs words and terms from non-Biblical sources – Jewish and Gentile alike: Arabic, Yiddish, Russian, Yemenite, and so on.

What all this means is that regarding Israel’s pluralistic tolerance there is somewhat of a disconnect between “official” (i.e., political, ideological) expression, and everyday life (culture, social interaction). Looking towards the future, one can hope that the latter will eventually overwhelm (or at least moderate) the former. Real life has a way of smoothing the edges of intellectual discord. Nevertheless, given some of the real gaps between Israel’s multiple and quite diverse social groups, “Pluralistic Tolerance” will not be one of the country’s strengths carrying it forward into the future. One can only hope that it will not hinder or undercut the other areas of the country’s greater strengths as analyzed in my previous essays.

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:
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