Acrimony, angst and agitation as Israel turns 75
A debate at the crossroads between high-tech modernity and a catastrophic slide backwards: should nations divide into two when political splits become too much?
As Israel marks 75 years of independence, its 10 million citizens are in a seriously foul mood. So it was telling that on the I24 news station the debate I was invited to examined whether the country should be split in two along political and cultural lines.
The bitter divisions are on stark display this week, with Memorial day on Tuesday shifting to Independence Day at night, amid continuing mass protests against the rightist-religious government. The discourse was dominated by calls (largely ignored) from bereaved families that government politicians – from a coalition heavy with draft-dodging rabbis – absent themselves from the ceremonies at military graveyards.
Secular liberals are overwhelmed by the horror over everything the government stands for and the damage it is causing — beyond the machinating prime minister who is on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Many nationalist and religious Israelis are starting to suspect that the liberals are sore losers who don’t truly respect their Nov. 2022 election victory or even their way of life – and they certainly have a point.
This chasm relates to a broader phenomenon across the democratic world pitting the educated, urban and secular against the working-class, rural and traditional. Longstanding disagreements everywhere have turned radioactive because of social media echo-chambers, culture-warrior politicians and (in my view) growing inequality.
The idea that enough is enough and a split would not be so terrible will be familiar to anyone who has read the musings about a divorce between Red and Blue America. But Israel’s case is special. Israel is always somehow special.
In a way, the angst gripping the country may seem odd, considering that Israel at 75 is amazingly successful. Last year it posted a higher per capita GDP ($55,000) than Britain, France and Germany; it has world-beating tech innovation, a premier military, a vibrant culture, tourist sites aplenty and delectable cuisine.
But … there’s a very big but.
What theoretically has sparked the latest uproar was the so-called “judicial reform” announced in January by PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, which is dependent on far-right nationalists and parties representing the Ultra-Orthodox religious sector. The plan would have refashioned Israel into an authoritarian state with an omnipotent government essentially unchecked by a judiciary.
At this writing, it looks like the plot may have been scuttled by four months of unprecedented nationwide street protests and clear evidence of the economic damage it would have wrought.
But in truth the issues run far deeper. At the core, they have to do with the fantastical birthrate of the ultra-Orthodox Jews – almost seven children per family. That unique situation moves the goalposts all the time — and a horrifying endzone is coming into view. As the group refuses to teach its children a core curriculum, sanctifies lifelong religious study by men and is overwhelmingly subsidized by the secular, it’s safe to say that if they grow from a sixth of the country today to a majority in a few generations (and that is the trend line) not much will be left of Start Up Nation. The religious, who are serious about their cult, will set up a theocracy — and the secular will flee.
In the United States, a somehow similar chasm has emerged between the Red and Blue states (meaning automatically Republican and automatically Democratic states). That Red America was not only perfectly capable of electing a character like Donald Trump but appears to be sticking with him even after he tried to overturn the 2020 election is so upsetting Blue America that there, too, there is talk of a divorce.
But in the US this is rendered impractical, inter alia, by the extreme non-contiguous nature of Blue America – which lies mainly in the northeast and on the west coast. That’s visible in the below map of the 2020 election results.
What’s different with Israel?
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