Jewish Solidarity Makes Israeli Democracy Stronger

The secret to the strength of Israeli democracy may lie in another feature of this society that is not easily reconciled with a well-run democracy: the quasi-tribal sense of Jewish solidarity, the general sense that we are a kind of extended family.

The cab driver faithfully played his role as the stereotypical, old-fashioned man of the people. He was right-wing, Mizrahi (of Middle Eastern or North African origin ) and traditionally religious. He was a fan of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ("a bastard, a snake," he called him affectionately ) and an enthusiastic supporter of all the anti-left bills now before the Knesset. He expressed his uncomplimentary opinion of the leftists. "Tell me," I said to him, "would you really like to put them in prison, those leftists?" "Prison?" the driver asked in surprise. "No, of course not. You're overdoing it."

Many people believe that Israeli democracy relies on a shaky public and ideological foundation, liable to collapse at any moment. It's true that this is a society created, for the most part, by people from non-democratic countries and shaped during a bitter national conflict; the worldview of many of its people include things that do not easily accord with liberal democracy - if they do at all.

The secret to the strength of Israeli democracy may actually lie in another feature of this society that cannot easily be reconciled with a well-run democracy: the quasi-tribal sense of Jewish solidarity, the general sense that we are a kind of extended family. The vast majority of Jews from all backgrounds who came here have had no desire to kill or imprison other Jews because of politics, for reasons that are better defined as tribal rather than democratic. But in a society where this is the prevailing feeling, it is impossible to maintain any type of dictatorship. A society like this can be governed only democratically, and even then with difficulty.

I am far from idealizing the Jewish tribal sense of solidarity. It clearly makes it difficult to treat with appropriate severity those members of the tribe who have harmed members of another (such as those carrying out "price tag" attacks, harming Palestinians in response to government actions that extremist settlers dislike ). Nor is it always possible to rely on this feeling when we need it. Twice have I participated in demonstrations that ended with a political assassination - that of peace activist Emil Grunzweig and that of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. In the former case, I saw with my own eyes Jews expressing joy over murder - and at the very sight of spilled blood.

And still, anyone who surveys the history of the Zionist movement and also the state, fairly and without ideological bias, knows that the extent of internecine bloodletting for political reasons here - compared with other societies, both nearby and distant, in similar situations - has not even been marginal; it has been virtually negligible. It is likely that, under similar circumstances, a more civic and less tribal culture would have resulted in more people murdered and executed for political reasons, and more political prisoners both on the right and the left.

As far as the willingness to kill those who do not belong to the tribe, that is clearly far greater. But it is also clear that the overall number of people who have been killed in the Israeli-Arab conflict, throughout all its decades, is very low compared with the number of people routinely killed in wars and national conflicts in many parts of the world. This must have something to do with the fact that the party that has thus far been the stronger one in this conflict has had no great desire to kill.

"When you gain power, you too will kill your enemies," says the King of the Khazars to the Jewish Chaver in Yehuda Halevy's "Kuzari." The Chaver has no good answer, but we do: "Yes, of course, but less so than others. Far less."

Counting corpses is not the only way to assess the conflict, but it is certainly an important part of the overall assessment. Anyone who wants a country that is more just and more humane to everyone must refine and balance the Jewish sense of solidarity - rather than oppose it.