Analysis from Israel

Speaking at official ceremonies marking Israel’s Independence Day, both President Reuven Rivlin and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein warned of the dangers of internal rifts in Israeli society. Yet, in fact, the run-up to Independence Day provided eloquent evidence that two of Israel’s deepest internal schisms are slowly healing.

One piece of evidence was a poll published two weeks before Independence Day showing that 74 percent of Israeli Arabs feel “comfortable” in Israel–an astounding figure for members of a minority whose kin have been at war with their country since its inception. Another was the unprecedented effort by Haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) to mark Israel’s Memorial Day, which they have traditionally shunned.

The poll, conducted by the Jewish People Policy Institute, asked how comfortable people felt “being themselves” in Israel. Fully 74 percent of Arab respondents said they felt comfortable or very comfortable, not dramatically below the 88 percent of Jews who said the same. This is clearly a resounding refutation of the increasingly popular narrative that Israel is a racist country. It’s hard to imagine any minority feeling “comfortable being themselves” if they truly suffered from unrelenting racism. It’s also a testimony to Israel’s efforts to make its Arab minority comfortable by promoting integration, which most Arabs want, without assimilation, which they don’t.

Integration means access to educational and employment opportunities. And, as I’ve detailed before, this is something both governmental and nongovernmental agencies have increasingly been trying to promote. To give just one recent example, students from the Bedouin town of Hurra were among the 80 high school students who built a nanosatellite and launched it to the International Space Station last month. This was part of an international project whose local version was sponsored by the Israel Space Agency and the Herzliya municipality (Israel, incidentally, was the only participating country whose nanosatellite was built by high school students rather than college students).

Assimilation means adopting the majority’s culture, language, and religion. And far from demanding that Israeli Arabs do so, Israel actually helps them to preserve their distinct identity, except when it comes to participating in or verbally supporting anti-Israel activities. For instance, most Israeli Arabs attend government-funded public schools where Arabic is the primary language of instruction, and the curriculum includes Arab history, literature, and culture. Similarly, the government funds Muslim and Christian religious institutions. And unlike Europe, Israel doesn’t infringe on Arab religious mores by, for instance, imposing dress codes on civil servants or banning separate-sex swimming in public facilities.

As I’ve explained before, this tolerance exists not despite but because of Israel’s Jewish identity: Israeli Jews want to maintain their own unique religion and culture rather than dissolving into generic Western cosmopolitanism, and therefore, they are also supportive of Arabs’ desire to preserve their distinctiveness. This willingness to facilitate integration without assimilation is what enables most Israeli Arabs to feel “comfortable” in Israel, and even enables a smaller majority (51 percent) to say they are proud to be Israeli, as another poll released this week showed. In short, even though anti-Israeli extremists still abound, most Israeli Arabs are slowly moving toward the vision enunciated by Israeli Arab diplomat George Deek:

We can be proud of our identity and at the same time live as a contributing minority in a country who has a different nationality, a different religion, and a different culture than ours. There is no better example in my view than the Jews in Europe, who kept their religion and identity for centuries but still managed to influence deeply, perhaps even to create, European modern thinking.

No less significant is the movement within the Haredi community. I’ve written before about the growing number of Haredim who work, attend college, serve in the army rather than engaging in lifelong yeshiva study. But all these welcome changes could easily stem from self-interest rather than any desire for rapprochement with mainstream Israeli society. In contrast, self-interest cannot possibly explain the changing attitudes toward Memorial Day.

Haredim traditionally had two problems with Memorial Day, which falls one day before Independence Day. First, it’s an Israeli holiday rather than a Jewish one, and therefore uncomfortable for a community whose leaders have long viewed the secular Jewish state and its army with suspicion and even hostility. Second, many of the day’s specific observances–like the siren heralding a moment of silence or the wreaths laid on graves–were imported from non-Jewish culture. Haredim, reasonably enough, feel a Jewish state should mark its mostly Jewish dead in a more Jewish fashion.

This year, however, was notably different. Although the main Haredi newspapers continued to ignore Memorial Day, leading Haredi websites and radio stations devoted extensive coverage to it, including feature stories on Haredi soldiers who fell in battle. Every Knesset member from the more moderate Haredi party (Shas) planned to attend Memorial Day ceremonies, and the head of the more extreme Haredi party (United Torah Judaism) even served as the state’s official representative at one such ceremony, down to laying a wreath at a military cemetery. Once, the Haredi community would have deemed this beyond the pale. Today, it poses no threat whatsoever to Yaakov Litzman’s political future.

Haredim also organized their own Memorial Day initiatives. Thousands signed up for a project promoted by a leading Haredi website through which Haredim would study all 2,711 pages of the Talmud in memory of fallen soldiers on Memorial Day. Another leading Haredi website recruited volunteers to read the entire book of Psalms online in memory of fallen soldiers on Memorial Day. Haredim also organized physical Memorial Day ceremonies in cities around the country, including the Haredi bastion of Bnei Brak.

Like Israeli Arabs, Haredim have no interest in assimilating into mainstream culture. And as in the Arab community, anti-Israel extremists haven’t disappeared. But increasingly, Haredim seek to integrate while retaining their own culture, and thereby to make their own unique contribution to the Jewish state.

Both developments are excellent news for Israel. And they were definitely something to celebrate on Independence Day.

Originally published in Commentary on May 4, 2017

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Israel’s unity government may prove a constitutional time bomb

That Israel will soon have a government is good news; almost any government would be better than the political dysfunction that has produced three elections in the past year. But aside from its existence, there’s little to like about this “unity” government.

The biggest problem isn’t that many important issues will perforce go unaddressed, though that’s inevitable given the compromises required when neither bloc can govern on its own. Nor is it the risk that the government will be dysfunctional even on “consensual” issues like rescuing the economy from the coronavirus crisis, though this risk is real, since both sides’ leaders will have veto power over every government decision.

Rather, it’s the cavalier way that Israel’s Basic Laws are being amended to serve the particular needs of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his new partner, Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz.

Though Israel’s Supreme Court wrongly claims the Basic Laws are a constitution, they were never intended as such by the parliaments that passed them. Indeed, some were approved by a mere quarter of the Knesset or less.

But they were intended as the building blocks of a future constitution should Israel ever adopt one. That’s why this handful of laws, alone of all the laws on Israel’s books, are deemed “Basic Laws,” and why each addresses a fundamental constitutional issue (the executive branch, the legislature, the judiciary, human rights, Israel’s Jewish character, etc.).

In other words, though they aren’t a constitution, they do serve as the foundation of Israel’s system of government. And tinkering with the architecture of any democratic system of government can have unintended consequences, as Israel has discovered before to its detriment.

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