Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

The Kingdoms of Judea and Israel: Back to the Future?

The Jewish (Israelite) people started off as 12 tribes, somewhat unified – and then things went downhill, historically speaking. Is the modern State of Israel going in the same direction?

Some academics and intellectuals have begun bandying about proposals for dividing Israel into cantons – akin to Switzerland’s confederation, made up of four different language groups. If it has worked there for many centuries, the pundits ask, why shouldn’t it work here? Of course, their suggestion is not a mere theoretical exercise trying to mimic a successful polity; rather, it stems from increasingly deep divisions in Israeli society – not merely “ideological” but profoundly “cultural” i.e., very significant lifestyle differences: ultra-Orthodox, secular Jews, Moslem Arabs, Druze, and so on.

Two contradictory statements can be made about this suggested “polity policy”: 1) it’s a very bad idea; 2) it might be slowly happening, nevertheless, without any official, legislative action. Let’s take each in turn.

One doesn’t have to be a political scientist to understand that Israel’s geo-political situation is far from that of Switzerland. The latter is not surrounded by enemies declaring their intention to eventually wipe the country off the map. In the (lack of) security environment that Israel finds itself, it needs all the centralized unity that it can muster.

Unfortunately, if the “theory” is bad (at least in the present, national security circumstance), sociological trends are moving in the “canton” direction. Here too, comparison with Switzerland is useful. Although the Swiss speak different languages, they are all by and large of the same religio-cultural background (Christianity). Israel, on the other hand, is 75% Jewish, 20% Moslem, and 5% “other.” Moreover, almost every Swiss citizen today was born there – as were their parents, grandparents, and longer generations of forebears. Israel, on the other hand, is an immigrant society, so that there has been insufficient time for any serious, cultural-sociological “melting pot” process to occur. Indeed, if anything, Israel’s “melting pot” has morphed into a deeply “mosaic” society, with greater separation than integration of most of the pieces (the one exception: Ashkenazi and Mizrachi Jews are far more integrated with each other than decades ago).

Such separateness can be seen in numerous ways. If back in the 1950s and 1960s, the ultra-Orthodox had a Poalei [Workers!] Agudat Yisrael party, today we find the ultra-Orthodox trying to pass legislation that would enable them to officially not learn anything professionally useful (“core curriculum”). Similarly, back then the National Religious Party (MAFDAL) was comprised mainly of politically moderate and religiously modern Orthodox Jews who strived to integrate into mainstream Israeli society. Today’s “successor” 2-headed party (Smotrich and Ben-Gvir) not only have a Messianic ethos, but their prime goal is to build up Judea and Samaria, thus de facto turning that biblical region into “Judeaistan.”

To be sure, they are not the only ones involved in geographic differentiation: Bnei Brak and Jerusalem have become more ultra-Orthodox over the years, whereas Tel Aviv is the unofficial “secular capital” of Israel. Indeed, many Israelis have nicknamed the country’s two main cities: Jerusalem aka Mamlekhet Yehudah (harking back to the 2-tribe Kingdom of Judea) and Tel Aviv aka Mamlekhet Yisrael (ditto regarding the 10-tribe northern Kingdom of Israel).

Moreover, the government’s policy (de facto, if not de jure) is to establish new towns and cities to be populated (exclusively) by the ultra-Orthodox, with the idea that this will reduce “lifestyle” tensions between them and less religious Israelis, especially regarding issues of shabbat and the holidays in the public space. There might be some actual logic to this, but it does reinforce (or at least maintain) the growing chasm between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of Israeli society.

In addition, and perhaps as a reaction, a relatively new phenomenon is growing in Israel: “Acceptance Committees” in the kibbutzim, moshavim, and other small regional areas. These committees “vet” any and all Israelis who wish to live in their midst, and the basic criterion (highly subjective) is “a good fit with the residents.” Israel’s courts by and large have allowed these to flourish – legitimating what in the U.S. would be called “redlining”! Needless to say, such a structure reinforces a unitary sociology and undermines the very idea of residential diversity.

And then there are Israel’s Arabs. Here the news would in theory be positive, as the drastic zoning restrictions placed on Arab towns has led an increasing number (especially the more highly educated) to migrate to Israel’s “mixed” cities. Unfortunately, the general (in)security situation occasionally penetrates these cities as well (Lod, Ramle, etc.), with outbreaks of interethnic violence as occurred a few years ago.

Although history never exactly repeats, the possibility of “rhyming” is there. After King Solomon’s reign, his kingdom split into two as noted above. The Northern Kingdom became a hotbed of polytheism and idolatry, whereas Judea stayed (mainly) monotheistic in its Temple cult. Sound familiar? Secular Tel Aviv vs. Religious Jerusalem?

Yom Kippur is in a few days. It’s usually thought of as a time for personal soul-searching. Given the developments noted here (and others these past few months e.g., “Judicial Reform”), Israelis would all do well to engage in lots of collective “al khait she’khatanu” (“regarding OUR sins”).

Israel needs more unity – not less. Otherwise, history might well recur – to everyone’s detriment.

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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