Will the post-Netanyahu Israel Include Arabs in the Collective ‘We’?

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New Hope Chairman Gideon Sa’ar, left, and Yesh Atid chief Yair Lapid at the Knesset.
New Hope Chairman Gideon Sa’ar, left, and Yesh Atid chief Yair Lapid at the Knesset. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Famous TV journalist Yaron London just couldn’t identify with the Mount Meron catastrophe. “I feel about this disaster and its victims around the same thing I felt about the reports of a tsunami on an Indonesian island,” he wrote on Facebook.

Identification is a complicated matter. We have no control over when it awakens. Presumably, had the 45 been killed in an antisemitic terror attack, they wouldn’t have seemed to London as similar to each other “as the buffaloes falling into the jaws of the crocodiles swarming in the Mara River on the Serengeti plain,” as he wrote.

Had it been a terror attack, the collective characteristics of the group would have turned into symbols of its persecution, enhancing the disaster’s dimension: Shtreimels strewn on the floor, bloodstained Torah books, skullcaps and side curls peeping out under the white sheets covering the bodies would have penetrated London’s heart. Once again, Jews being murdered just for being Jews.

London may not feel identification as a secular Tel Aviv Jew, or however he would define himself, with the ultra-Orthodox community as a collective. But faced with a hostile entity that hates Jews and persecutes them as a collective, he might have felt identification, regardless of the differences between ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews. Similar occurrences are known during wars, when dramatic political differences are laid aside “for a moment” to fight a common enemy.

London displays alienation toward ultra-Orthodox people that isn’t unique to him. It intensified during the coronavirus crisis, when many people felt the ultra-Orthodox weren’t joining the battle against the common enemy. It’s the same common enemy that, being medical rather than military, increased the identification between Jews and Arabs, especially due to Arab Israelis’ high visibility in the health care system.

London’s alienation is the mirror image of the ultra-Orthodox people’s lack of identification with the “leftists,” which explains Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky’s preference to form a government with the Arab parties’ support over cooperation with parties whose worldview is opposed to religious principles.

This isn’t a technical matter but a reorganization of identity. The extent of identification among the various collectives forming Israeli society can be used as a tool for political navigation. These days we’re witnessing an across-the-board coalition stemming from a sense of identification between right- and left-wingers, stirred by Benjamin Netanyahu.

I imagine Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennett and Gideon Sa’ar entering a room, and I have no doubt they feel complete identification with each other, like being among friends. I imagine Merav Michaeli joining them, and nothing in the group’s intimacy is marred. Benny Gantz enters – he’s one of the family. Nitzan Horowitz – a brother. Avigdor Lieberman – they have no problem with Lieberman.

If you want to understand how much power Netanyahu has, he has the ability to put all these people in the same room and make them feel the differences between them diminish and they become one big family again. But put ultra-Orthodox people or Arabs into the room and it becomes political, because that would confront these politicians with the two real Others of the Israeli reality.

It’s not clear what will come after Netanyahu, who is the “architect” of the “bloc” with the ultra-Orthodox. It isn’t inevitable that without him the anti-ultra-Orthodox sentiment that drove Lieberman away and pushed him closer to Lapid will pull the bloc apart. It will be interesting to see if the delicate alliance being woven with the Arabs on the left is preserved, or if they’re merely a counterweight to the ultra-Orthodox on the right.

Will post-Netanyahu Israel go for an “Israeli” move that includes the Arabs in the collective “we”? (To use Lapid’s iconic question from his time as a journalist, what’s Israeli to you? The married couple of Arab anchorwoman Lucy Aharish and Jewish actor Tzachi Halevy?) Or is Israel in store for a “Zionist” journey in which Likud is invited into the governing coalition without Netanyahu, without the Arabs and without the ultra-Orthodox?

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