Naftali Rothenberg
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The clash of minorities

The only route to recovery from today's crisis is to lay the ground for a collective majority consciousness

President Biden appealed to Prime Minister Netanyahu to stop the legal reform or as it was published: “reach a broad consensus”. The American administration believes, like many in Israel, that the constitutional changes initiated by the coalition caused the crisis. A common understanding mistakenly identifies a multipolar confrontation as a struggle between only two sides: left and right, conservatives and liberals, supporters of legal reform and its opponents. It is possible that a temporary calm will be achieved by stopping the legislation, or God forbid, as previous governments have acted in the face of similar crises: embarking on a military operation. These moves do not touch the roots of the crisis. The outbreak we are witnessing expresses a deep political-social crisis since the founding of the state and even before. A suppressed crisis, whose existence was ignored despite outbreaks that came as a warning signal for the future to occur. Israel is an arena for the ongoing struggles between many different groups and among themselves, and between subgroups within them. This crisis reality is: The clash of minorities.

Israel was meant to be a nation-state with a Jewish majority. According to the dry statistical figure, about 75% of the citizens consider themselves Jews. Seemingly a clear majority. However, the groups that make up the majority do not have, and never had, a collective majority consciousness. The self-perception of each of the groups is that of a persecuted minority. In the first decades of the founding of the state, the ruling group conveyed a feeling of majority. This is an illusion that arose from the power in the hands of the government that weakened and oppressed the minorities: the Arab, the Jewish-religious, the Jewish-Mizrahi and others. The government implemented the “melting pot” policy that was supposed to eliminate the main differences.

From the mid-seventies, the voices of the minorities increased in the public and political space. Coalition and other agreements are designed to balance the demands of the minorities from the government, and also the growing concerns of the elites and powerful groups in society about minority groups. These arrangements were based on a coalition built on a fairly strong ruling party whose parliamentary power is supplemented by parties representing distinct or minority groups. The ruling parties from the left or the right tried to keep the centers of power for themselves, were seen as protecting the “general interest” and described the small parties as representing sectoral interests. The small parties were aware of the limitations of power, and generally tried to focus on the interests of their political base.

These political arrangements were challenged. The ruling parties have weakened and their credibility as representing the general interest is in doubt. There are no parties capable of guaranteeing stability in the management of state affairs, and implementing long-term policies. The previous minorities coalition (called the “change government”) included those with opposing ideologies and interests and was headed by a prime minister with no political base. The political power of the current coalition depends on the support of the small minority parties that joined it. The power of a party with 5 or 7 seats sometimes exceeds the Likud with 32 MKs. Some members of the majority party compete with the smaller parties in sectoral legislation and extreme statements. The diverse minority coalition of Bennett-Lapid has been replaced by a monochromatic coalition of minorities led by Netanyahu. Remnants of majority consciousness, which are so necessary for the existence of a nation-state, have evaporated and are gone.

The absence of majority consciousness undermines the Jews’ sense of security and thereby also their responsibility to protect the rights of minorities and human and citizen rights in general. The situation of minorities in a nation-state is the litmus test for the degree of its democracy. Ensuring that the rights of minorities and individuals are preserved testify to the country’s democracy, its strength as a nation-state and the stability of the majority society. When the majority does not have majority consciousness, when its constituents feel insecure, the situation is dangerous. Even the meaning of the term “majority” is not shared today by the different groups. Each group perceives itself as a minority and does not see the other groups as they are, legitimate partners. Only a fringe in each of the groups show awareness of the importance of common denominators and agree to include in the national majority all those who consider themselves Jews.

Israel is in a deep crisis, which may continue in the years to come.

There is one way to put society and the state on a path of recovery and create a chance for a decent and good life for every group within it without exception: building a solid, unconditional infrastructure of human and civil rights and making sure they are implemented. When these form the basis of the common life of the citizens of Israel, a strong nation-state will be built here, fulfilling its duty towards every citizen, and the elected officials truly work for their senders.

About the Author
Rabbi Naftali Rothenberg is the rabbi of Har Adar township, Israel, and a senior research fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute
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