Whose Israel Is It? after 50 Years, the Nation's Jewish Solidarity Has Dissolved into Tribal Clashes

By Contreras, Joseph; Watson, Russell | Newsweek, April 20, 1998 | Go to article overview

Whose Israel Is It? after 50 Years, the Nation's Jewish Solidarity Has Dissolved into Tribal Clashes


Contreras, Joseph, Watson, Russell, Newsweek


After 50 years, the nation's Jewish solidarity has dissolved into tribal clashes.

They are the faces of Israel Past and Israel Present, and they could hardly be more different. When the Jewish state proclaimed its independence 50 years ago, its leader and first prime minister was Polish-born David Ben-Gurion, a white-haired, secular patriarch who intended to create a distinctively Israeli Jew. His vision: a thoroughly Westernized democrat who speaks Hebrew, embraces socialism and respects religion, while accepting without question the supremacy of a secular state. By now the liberal, European-descended elites who founded the nation have been displaced by a right-wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, a slick, native-born politician who speaks American-accented English and presides over an assertive coalition of Russian immigrants, religious Zionists, ultra-Orthodox rabbis and working-class Sephardic Jews of Middle Eastern origin. The fractious Israeli Parliament now consists of 13 political parties, most of them representing narrow religious or ethnic constituencies. Instead of Ben-Gurion's melting pot, Israel has become a mosaic whose pieces don't fit.

The astonishing diversity of Israel's 5 million Jews is a source of both strength and weakness for the nation. Populated by waves of immigrants who helped to wrest the land from the Arabs, Israel is still the only fully functioning democracy in the Middle East, with the only successful economy that doesn't depend on sucking oil out of the sand. "I think Israel is the most spectacular achievement of the 20th century," Netanyahu boasted last week in an exclusive interview with Newsweek.

Secular and religious Israelis have always had differences, but now they are more potent than ever. As religion seeps deeper and deeper into politics, the consensus that shaped Israel's early years has been replaced by bitter tribal clashes. Israelis cannot even agree on what constitutes jewishness, a determination now divisively entrusted, for the purposes of conversion, to Orthodox rabbis. Other social contrasts are deepening: Sephardic Jews versus the Ashkenazi of European origin, a growing middle class versus thousands of immigrants still trapped in poverty, thriving capitalists versus poor but zealous settlers in the occupied territories, the hedonism of Tel Aviv versus the rigorous piety of Jerusalem. "The founding fathers' illusion of creating a monolithic type of Israeli has failed," says historian Shlomo Ben-Ami. "We are becoming a society fragmented into [conflicting] traditions and ethnic and religious groups."

This week, Israel continues the observance of an uneasy Passover. The nation no longer faces an overwhelming military threat from neighboring Arab countries. But individual Israelis are still haunted by the haphazard risk of terrorist attack. Last week, Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement, promised to "bring sadness and horror into the heart and home of every Zionist" in retaliation for the mysterious murder of one of its bomb makers two weeks ago.

Meanwhile, hard-line Israelis were preparing provocations of their own. Thousands of Jews planned to attend a "feast of freedom" last weekend in the divided West Bank city of Hebron. The occasion--which coincided with Easter Sunday--was the 30th anniversary of a settlement that re-established a Jewish presence in the city of Abraham for the first time since 1936. In the swaggering spirit of the Netanyahu era, organizers planned a full day of festivities, which seemed sure to arouse the resentment of the Palestinians. Some dovish Israelis planned counterdemonstrations.

The fragmenting of Israeli society achieved its ultimate expression in the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. His murderer was a fellow Israeli, a right-wing religious student of Yemenite descent who opposed Rabin's efforts to reach a settlement with the Palestinians under the Oslo accords. …

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