Geo-politics is usually viewed as something within the field of international relations, correctly so. However, it can also appear within any specific country – occasionally with serious consequences for domestic tranquility. Israel and the US are currently striking examples of this.
The American case is more widely known. In a nutshell, it can be described as “Red” (Republican majority) states vs. “Blue” (Democratic-led) states. Those states who alternate between Democratic and Republican victories, or have representatives relatively equally split, are a disappearing breed.
The problem lies not so much in electoral politics per se, but rather in the policies of one-party governed states. They tend to be more extreme, given that they lack political checks and balance. Two such policies have become lightning rods: abortion and gun control.
In anticipation of the Supreme Court overruling Roe vs. Wade, approximately half the states have already passed highly restrictive abortion laws. As a reaction, several Blue states have announced that they will establish clinics and other services to enable women from those Red states who wish to have an abortion to cross state lines and do it there. In other words, it’s not just separate policies between the two state “colors”; they have now begun to create policies in direct conflict with their neighbors, attempting to undercut the Red state restrictions. The last time that happened in the US was before the Civil War when Northern states set up the “Underground Railroad” to enable southern slaves to escape to freedom in the north. As we all know, that issue did not end peaceably for the Union as a whole.
If that was the only serious issue back then, today there’s another one “complementing” abortion: Gun Control. Here too the Blues and Reds are diametrically opposed in their approach, with the latter enabling even weapons of mass mayhem to circulate – while the former are trying to restrict the dissemination of guns as much as constitutionally permissible.
The danger goes even further than that. Given Americans’ penchant for mobility in search of jobs and a “better life,” there’s a real danger that Republicans will move to Red states; their compatriot Blues doing the same in mirror image. While gun control and abortion are not (yet?) issues as hot as slavery was back then, the very strong feelings they engender – both issues are literally ones of life and death! – there is always the possibility that such a geographical split could eventually lead to civil war. Indeed, looking at the US electoral map, such a geopolitical divide has already become clear: the two coasts are mostly Blue, and the huge (but less populated) middle of the country is strikingly Red.
Israel has its own geographic split, albeit as of now not nearly as explosive. It comes down to the Center versus the Periphery. The former (metropolitan Gush Dan) is where the wealth and cultural elite reside, as a not too extreme generalization. The latter tends to be far poorer and less populated (Jerusalem has the country’s largest city population, but it is relatively poor and considered to be “culturally peripheral,” given its very large number of ultra-Orthodox residents). Politically, the center of the country votes Center-Left wing; the Periphery, Religious and Right-wing. Indeed, a common saying in Israel – not far off the mark – is that there are two nations in this one country: the State of Jerusalem and the State of Tel Aviv, the former a stand-in for all the periphery, north and south; the latter constituting the large midriff of Israel’s geography.
Go to Jerusalem, or Netivot in the south and Safed in the north, and one finds that the Sabbath is just that – quiet, spiritual, synagogue-going. Go to Tel Aviv and you’ve landed on Saturday on a different “planet”: stores are open (especially the ones selling non-kosher products); theater and cinema venues abound; the beach is packed.
If that seems to be a “superficial” difference, the socio-economic gap between the two Israels is more troubling. For instance, recently the IDF admitted that its elite units are (wo)manned mostly by soldiers from the center of the country – not because of any discriminatory policy, but simply because the educational system is superior in the center, not to mention those families’ economic wherewithal to afford private tutoring for their children.
And it’s not merely a socio-economic divide. There’s also what political scientists call an “overlapping cleavage” – the economic gap is reinforced by an “ethnic” one: the periphery is heavily populated by Jews who arrived from Arab countries (Edot Ha’Mizrach) whereas the center is mainly Ashkenazi (Jews from a European background). Such cleavage reinforcement is a recipe for eventual, serious internal strife.
Is this a new phenomenon? Certainly not for the Jewish people. In fact, 2,700 years ago the theological and socio-economic gap between the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom (polytheistic in the Galilee) and the two in the Southern Kingdom (relatively monotheistic in Judea) ultimately led to a split and the eventual exile of the former, never to be heard from again.
The US and Israel would do well to heed the lessons of history. Political geography within a country can be dynamite if not cared for. Us vs. Them is not only a matter of country versus country; it unfortunately can be a product of dysfunctional domestic politics as well.