OpinionIsrael News

Neither side of the Israeli divide can ‘defeat’ the other

There may be two kinds of Israelis, but they both need to take a long look in the mirror.

Israelis protest in Jerusalem in support of the judicial reform program, March 27, 2023. Photo by Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90.
Israelis protest in Jerusalem in support of the judicial reform program, March 27, 2023. Photo by Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90.
Benjamin Kerstein
Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his work on Substack at No Delusions, No Despair. Purchase his books here.

“To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order … we must first set our hearts right.” — Confucius

Many breathed a sigh of relief last week when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to freeze judicial reform legislation and enter into talks with the opposition. Nothing has actually been solved, of course, and the controversy over the reform issue that has roiled Israel for months, reaching a peak just before Netanyahu’s announcement, could easily reignite if the talks fall through.

Nonetheless, if both sides negotiate in good faith—which is likely, though not a given—then some kind of compromise can almost certainly be reached. Both sides are well-motivated, as the security establishment has made it clear that it cannot guarantee the defense of the country if a broad consensus on the nature of the reforms is not reached. In a country like Israel, this is as close to a papal bull as one is likely to get. The divide between the two sides may be wide, but except for their radical fringes, they are not willing to place the country in mortal danger.

While there may be reason for optimism in regard to the negotiations, things are less clear, and less encouraging, in regard to the deeper reasons behind the enormous domestic upheaval Israel has recently experienced.

Put simply, there are now more or less two kinds of Israelis: One is secular, outward-looking, liberal, lower-middle to middle-class, and increasingly discontented with the task of shouldering much of the socioeconomic burden. The other is religious, introverted, strongly nationalist, and sharply divided on issues such as economic self-sufficiency and military service—with some shouldering the burden and others not.

The line between these two kinds of Israelis could not have been more sharply delineated in recent months. It was the latter who pushed the judicial reforms in order to protect and promote their conservative values and social privileges, and to curb what they view as a corrupt and biased establishment. It was the former who took to the streets, convinced that their most essential freedoms and Israeli democracy itself were endangered by freeloaders and fascists who have been oppressing them for years if not decades.

One cannot unreservedly endorse one or the other of these two camps. Both have their points to make. But the divide between them unquestionably endangers Israeli society. Even if the judicial reform issue is resolved in some kind of reasonable manner, the rivalry between the two is likely to erupt again over some other if yet unknown controversy. The root causes of the problem must be dealt with.

These causes cannot be addressed exhaustively here, but there is one that is perhaps the most dangerous of all. It is not a policy issue but rather a mentality: Both sides of the divide, particularly at the extremes, see the other not as rivals to be debated or even, God forbid, convinced, but as mortal enemies who must be utterly defeated.

The right believes the left must be crushed in order to prevent it from destroying Israel through its pacifism and decadence. The left believes the right must be isolated and disempowered in order to save Israel from becoming a Jewish Iran.

The problem with this is not only that it is a recipe for perpetual division and mutual hatred, the sinat hinam that destroyed the Temple. It is that both of these ambitions are impossible to realize. Whether the opposing camps, drawn up for battle, like it or not, neither of these two Israels is going anywhere.

The religious right can place its faith in its birthrate, but secular, leftist and moderate Israel will continue to exist as, at the very least, a large and powerful minority. The left may hope to use its control of certain institutions to stymie right-wing ambitions, but it cannot hope to completely suppress the values and beliefs of a major and sometimes majority bloc of activists and voters.

It is the responsibility of both sides, then, to submit to reality. They must give up the sordid idea that they can “defeat” their rivals. Israel will not become a post-Zionist clone of the E.U. member nations. At the same time, it will not become a Torah state or anything resembling one. One side or the other will not stand for it, and the results will only damage and weaken Israel, perhaps beyond repair.

Whether they want liberty, equality and fraternity above all or a state firmly anchored in Jewish identity, history and religion, Israelis are going to have to compromise. Not only for the good of the country, but also for the good of themselves. It is morally reprehensible to see one’s brethren as mortal enemies and attempt to “defeat” them for good and all. It poisons not only the public discourse but also one’s own character. It is time for both kinds of Israelis to take a long look in the mirror. If we want to save Israel, we must begin by saving ourselves.

Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his writing on Substack and his website. Follow him on Twitter @benj_kerstein. His books can be purchased here.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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