Opinion

The Israeli Nation Is a Fiction

Sagi Elbaz
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Netanyahu at a campaign rally following the April 9 election, Tel Aviv.
Netanyahu at a campaign rally following the April 9 election, Tel Aviv.Credit: DAN BALILTY / NYT
Sagi Elbaz

Throughout history, nations have sought to establish a system of common values that would define them as a people. The political philosopher John Rawls called them “primary goods” that transcend political or ideological controversy. These primary goods are an expression of the identity, historical memory, myths and ethos of each state. The attempt to build them becomes more complicated when a nation is composed of a number of ethnic and religious groups.

In the United States, democracy and capitalism carry a near-religious aura as core values, even if they have eroded significantly under President Donald Trump. In France, too, the principles of liberty, equality and brotherhood, which originated with the French Revolution, are sometimes cited as a national ethos, although the minorities in the country, mainly Muslims from North Africa, have a sense of alienation from the state and the values that it represents.

In Israel the attempt to form a shared ethos, inspired by successive generations of the Labor movement, led over the years to the consolidation of various identities, most of them different from one another. The vision of a homogeneous society encountered many obstacles and, later, also resistance from groups that did not assimilate into the nation-building project.

This set off a struggle over the character of Israeli society between those who sought a uniform identity — what Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling called the “ahusalim” – a Hebrew acronym for Ashkenazi, secular, native-born, socialist elites — and other groups and forces, including Arabs, Mizrahi Jews and the religious, who promote ideas of diversity and multiculturalism.

In theory, the political elite offered room for cultural diversity, but in practice it supported the melting-pot policy that meant the shedding of all the distinctive characteristics of ethnic traditions and faiths, and the creation of a cultural system that, although it might contain a range of cultural elements is, at base, controlled by a single dominant component.

The melting pot did not manage to forge the multiplicity of groups in Israel into a single dominant culture. The multicultural model failed also as a result of the hostility between Jews and Arabs, Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, religious and secular and right and left.

The person responsible for fanning the hatred between the two political camps, right and left, is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. More than any other politician, Netanyahu undermined the values that were mistakenly perceived as shared ones: nonpartisan governance, collectivism, secularism and socialism.

Netanyahu, like the historic Labor movement, adhered to his own consolidated set of values. He, like the other camp, tried and tries, in an aggressive and undemocratic manner, to impose on Israel a uniform identity that is more religious, more ultranationalist and capitalistic.

The two remaining fundamental components that still unite most Jewish (but not Arab) Israelis and foster a sense of belonging are a Jewish state and the security ethos. The idea of Israel as a Jewish state (not necessarily in the religious sense) scores high in every public opinion poll, while there is little support for the “state of all its citizens” model.

The national security ethos has developed over the course of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a social-psychological underpinning of beliefs and opinions about the conflict that has gained wide traction in the minds of Israelis and their leaders. This mindset regarding security is disseminated through the media and through books and school curricula.

The effort to establish a single Israeli nation based on a dominant system of core values failed in the past and is doomed to failure today as well. The multitude of groups that draw their faiths and outlooks from different, often opposing, forces is not a recipe for the creation of a cohesive nation. The bleak reality shows that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the only thing enabling the existence of the (Jewish but not Israeli) one-nation idea, given the broad public support for the principle of the Jewish state and the security ethos.

Sagi Elbaz teaches in the International Graduate Program in Political Science and Political Communication at Tel Aviv University..

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