OpinionIsrael at War

Out of the midst of death can come rebirth

After the war, Israeli unity must be at the top of the agenda.

Israeli flag. Credit: Maxim Studio/Shutterstock.
Israeli flag. Credit: Maxim Studio/Shutterstock.
Elya Cowland
Elya Cowland is a British-Israeli public-relations professional living in Jerusalem. Following the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks in Israel, he has been facilitating media opportunities for the families of Israeli hostages, as well as coordinating media campaigns for war-related initiatives and organizations.

The brutal Hamas attack on Oct. 7 sparked a tremendous display of unity in Israel. Hundreds of thousands showed up for reserve duty, flocks of volunteers mobilized and families welcomed evacuees into their homes.

But as the war continues, cracks are beginning to show. Politics is back on the agenda. Talks of ousting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have resurfaced, protests have started taking an overtly political stance and tensions between the secular and haredim are rising. While the nation is still mostly united, Israel must work harder to create long-lasting and deep-rooted unity.

The divide between Israelis was never more evident than during the year leading up to the current war. Protests against the government were held weekly and often met with counter-protests. Secular and religious Israelis vied for power with ugly clashes unfolding at Yom Kippur services in Tel Aviv. The divide was so intense that there was even talk of civil war.

While the immediate reason for the split was the government’s proposed judicial reforms, it was rooted in a deeper ideological divide, a core disagreement on what it means to be Israeli.

After years of repeated elections, a government with a right-wing and Orthodox religious ideology emerged victorious in 2022. Until then, the overriding Israeli ethos was largely secular and centrist. Thus, for many, the rise of the current government threatened the very core of Israel’s national identity.

As a result, the high-tech sector threatened to relocate to the United States. We made Israel prosperous, it said, we will not allow you to take our country away from us. Reservists threatened to resign. We made this country safe, they said, we will not let you take it away from us.

Then came the war and priorities changed. Israel was under attack and politics took a back seat. Theodor Herzl once said, “A Nation is, in my mind, a historical group of men of a recognizable cohesion held together by a common enemy.” He was proved right. In a sense, out of the midst of death, the war brought a sense of rebirth to Israel. Naturally, as the threat posed by the war begins to calm, this unity begins to unravel. But perhaps by adding additional dimensions to our nationalism, we can reinforce our bonds.

When the State of Israel was established it quickly became a combination of various identities unified by the task of creating a shelter for the Jewish people. It contained everyone from communist Ashkenazi Jews and Hasidic Eastern Europeans to penniless exiled Yemenites. The differences between these groups were numerous. They did not even speak the same language.

Through compromise, they reached a tenuous agreement on what it means to be Israeli. They had little choice in the matter. Creating a coherent culture and identity was a luxury that a country fighting a war of independence that threatened its very existence could not afford. They couldn’t even agree on a constitution.

These compromises evolved into the modern existential threat of civil division and even war. Societies need consensus laws, culture, shared values and national characteristics. Without them, nations risk collapse.

Herzl’s definition of a nation was based on the Jews’ 19th-century predicament. The nation of Israel was dispersed and faced constant persecution. Naturally, Herzl saw this distress as the primary force uniting the nation.

But the enemy alone did not create the State of Israel. It was ideological conviction and dedication to rebuilding a nation in the Land of Israel that brought Israel into existence.

Now, as Israel experiences this terrible crisis of growing tensions at home while defending itself from determined enemies, there is an opportunity to finish the work our founders began and finally solidify our national identity.

This isn’t the first time it’s happened. War has a long history of shaping nations. For example, World War II had a tremendous effect on French national identity. France went from a country torn between communist, socialist, conservative and reactionary parties to a consensus if contentious society. The threat posed by our enemies forces us to accept the imperative of ensuring our future survival.

This war has not only unified Israel but set its people’s priorities straight. For many of us, our social responsibility, sacrifice, altruism and connection to the land, our heritage and Jewish identity are once again crystal clear. The war has taught Israeli society not to take our state for granted and that if we don’t stand up for ourselves, no one else will. We understand now that the lives and safety of our people matter more than anything else.

National identity need not be dogmatic, purist or restrictive. It can evolve through healthy debate. But it must have clearly defined underlying principles. On the day after the war, our government will have much to discuss, from rebuilding and healing to reinforcing the country’s security. We must ensure that the conversation on strengthening Israel’s national identity and sense of unity is part of the agenda.

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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