Israel's Far Less Extremist Than It Seems

The loudest, ideologically fundamentalist voices in Israel – from ultra-Orthodox to Arab nationalist to anti-religious left – create a sense that Israel's in constant crisis. The reality is very different

Israeli artists
Avi Tal

When Israelis are asked how they are doing, the most common answer is “Personally, I’m fine.” Indeed, the 2016 Israeli Democracy Index found three-quarters of Israelis report their personal situation as “good,” - but two-thirds report the country’s situation as “so-so” or even “bad.”

Despite the sense of individual wellbeing, there’s a pervading sense that Israel as a collective is damaged.

For years there's been a sadness in the air, tinged with sourness and self-criticism. The Zionist project seems to have run out of steam. Independence Day is a fitting moment to consider this sense of crisis and ask: Do the facts support it?

From a security perspective, we have never been better off. Israel is a military power whose traditional enemies no longer pose an existential threat.

Israel’s economy is strong and stable and Israelis excel in the information-based industries of the future.

Things are looking up on the diplomatic stage; the prime minister recently met with the leaders of the U.S., Russia, and China. Even the skies above the United Nations are clearing up.

So why the doom and gloom? Our Achilles’ heel is a fundamental disagreement over the Israeli vision.

In Israel's early years of sovereignty, we dealt with existential issues: security, settlement, immigrant absorption, and economic development. We worked together on the basis of a covenant of fate that was self-evident.

Since 1967, the question of the territories is a black hole sucking up the entire Israeli civil discourse. Clashed between Palestinians and Israeli forces in the West Bank village of Beita. April 28, 2017.
Majdi Mohammed/AP

Then, in 1967, Israel was struck by a spell. Like the pinprick that felled Sleeping Beauty, the contact with the territories of the ancient homeland thrust Israeli civil society into a vortex. The question of the future of the territories became a black hole that has sucked up the entire Israeli civil discourse since. The central issue we have dealt with for 50 years is where the country’s borders will be drawn, rather than what type of society will exist within those borders.

Meanwhile, loud, harsh voices demanding a single and inflexible meaning for the Israeli journey resound. They include people like the ultra-Orthodox leader Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, who has declared no haredi should even report to the IDF’s recruitment centers; Arab Knesset member Hanin Zoabi, who has compared Israel to pre-Nazi Germany; Eli’s pre-military academy leader Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, who said military service drives female soldiers “crazy” and strips them of their Jewishness; and journalist Yossi Klein, who equated religious nationalists to Hezbollah. 

What all four have in common is an ideological fundamentalism that leads them to see the other as the devil incarnate, and that works to bury their interest in an all-inclusive society. The general public perceives their extremism as representative of the entire sector to which they belong. This atmosphere of all-out war between camps is what underlies the sense of crisis in which we find ourselves.

But if we listen to the more mainstream voices in each of the sectors, we find cause for optimism.

There are shadows in our national life, but the sense of crisis regarding Israel’s identity and solidarity is unfounded. An Israeli soldier places small flags with black ribbons on the graves of fallen soldiers for Memorial Day, Tel Aviv. April 30, 2017.
Ariel Schalit/AP

No, there isn’t a realistic chance of agreement regarding the territories in the near future.

Nevertheless, it does appear the internal conversation in each sector is shifting toward the center and that the swirling centrifuges that push us apart are slowing down.

The facts:

The ultra-Orthodox aren’t what you think.

Haredi separatism is breaking down. Haredim are increasingly integrating into Israeli society. Nearly 50% of haredi men and more than 75% of haredi women have joined the workforce. Haredim in their thousands are flocking to colleges and universities. While haredim still prefer social seclusion, do not serve in the military, and are far from internalizing liberal values, they are now involved in the making of national decisions, participate in the Zionist project, and are feeling the touch of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” which within a generation will raise this impoverished group to a middle-class income level. No, the “walls of holiness” the haredim erect around themselves to shut out secular society’s influence will not fall, but there are gates in the walls which are not hermetically sealed.

Israelis should go a bit more easy on the doom and gloom. Watching the Israeli Air Force Aerobatic Team aerial show on Independence Day in Tel Aviv. May 12, 2016.

Israeli Arabs aren’t what you think.

The typical positions of Israel’s Arab citizens regarding the state are different from the confrontational stance of their political leadership. According to the Democracy Index, 55% of Israeli Arabs are proud to be Israeli. When asked which identity is most important to them, they mainly choose their religious (29%), Israeli (25%!), or Arab (24%) identity. Only one-eighth see “Palestinian" as most important.

They don’t accept Israel as the State of the Jewish people and only 40% of them feel “to a great extent” that they are part of the country and its problems. Yet, a third expresses confidence in the IDF.

The National Religious aren`t what you think.

For years, the National Religious group’s ideological engine ran mainly on messianic energy that came out of influential nationalist-ultra-Orthodox yeshivas. But the threat posed by a messianic agenda has lessened in recent years. National ultra-Orthodoxy has lost power (it accounts for only 6% of the National Religious camp) and influence. The National Religious Right derives its outlook and policy preferences from a realistic analysis of events, based on its worldview.

An IDI study found there is substantial overlap between the National Religious camp’s attitude toward democracy and that of the Israeli public as a whole. While Religious Zionists hold an almost monolithic Right stance, they display a plurality of views on questions of religion and state.

Israel's security and economy have never been better. The traditional spray foam fights on the streets on Independence Day. Tel Aviv 2016.
Tomer Appelbaum

The Left isn’t what you think.

Finally, the majority of the Left is far from the unpatriotic stereotype attached to it. According to the Democracy Index, about two-thirds report they are proud to be Israeli and four out of five feel part of the country and its problems. Considering for how long the Right has maintained political power, and the depth of the disagreement about the country’s borders, these are impressive numbers.

It appears a realistic assessment of Israel produces a positive picture. There are shadows in our national life, but the sense of crisis regarding Israel’s identity and solidarity is unfounded. In fact, 85% of Israelis believe that in order to deal with the challenges facing us we must hold fast to the state’s democratic character.

Israel is not what you think.

Yedidia Stern is vice president for research at the Israel Democracy Institute and a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University.