Tribal Bonfires

Experience teaches that when people become alienated from their state, the state is weakened.

About six months ago, when the civil war that led to Hamas' takeover broke out in the Gaza Strip, Hazem Saghieh wrote in Al-Hayat that the deadly fighting showed that the Palestinians had not yet become a unified nation. Rather, they were a collection of gangs and clans that fought one another in the name of resisting the Israeli occupation. (The commentator's article in the London-based newspaper was later reprinted in Haaretz in Hebrew.) Saghieh advised the Palestinians to unite around an agreement on the fundamentals of their political existence and warned against the split that was occurring at every level of Palestinian society and poisoning it.

Many Israelis watched what was happening in Gaza gleefully, and Saghieh's article merely strengthened their prejudices about their neighbors on the other side of the separation fence. Then came the events in Peki'in last week, which made it clear once again that we have no grounds for arrogance: The ties that bind Israeli society into a stable state, where the rules of the game ostensibly ensure it against being taken over by sectoral interests and ethnic demons, are not as strong as they once were.

In Peki'in, particularistic motives trumped the civic common denominator: Druze citizens fought agents of the law in the name of a value dear to their hearts - honor. These were not just young hotheads; even the Druze community's preeminent leaders explained, not to say justified, the violent riots as stemming from an assault on the community's honor.

The police's behavior indeed requires examination, but the mood this explanation reflects is also worth noting: It expresses the view that sectoral loyalty or values trump national loyalty or values. In the case of Peki'in, it was apparently deemed acceptable for a Druze border policeman to abandon his duties to the country and prefer communal solidarity.

Nor are the Druze unique. Most Arab Israelis declare that their Palestinian identity trumps their Israeli identity. More than a few Jewish settlers declare that their duty to obey their rabbis takes precedence over their duty to obey the laws of the state. The ultra-Orthodox believe that the laws of the state are secondary to the commands of Jewish law (as they interpret it). And some people claim that discrimination against Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern descent) justifies ignoring the crimes committed by a few of their number.

Therefore, the Druze of Peki'in allowed themselves to throw fragmentation grenades and "capture" a policewoman. Therefore, young Arabs felt free to destroy Jewish buildings and damage public infrastructure during the riots of October 2000. Therefore, settlers in the outposts attack soldiers with abandon (and some soldiers and officers from the settlements even disobeyed orders during the disengagement). Therefore, ultra-Orthodox Jews act as if they are willing to give their lives - and to assault policemen in the process - in the battle against archaeological digs that have exposed human bones. Therefore, supporters of former Shas leader Aryeh Deri threatened the judicial system should he be convicted. Nothing written here should be taken as derogating from the right to protest and the freedom to demonstrate; these are exceptional phenomena that bring to the surface deep-seated sectoral feelings that supplant national or civic solidarity.

Studies have proven this. The social solidarity index, published ahead of the Sderot conference that opens on Wednesday, showed a decline in the public's belief in mutual civic responsibility (this year, 54 percent do not trust government agencies to help them in times of trouble, double the 27 percent recorded in 2003). The democracy index, which was published by the Israel Democracy Institute five months ago, found that only 31 percent of Israeli citizens trust one another, and only 27 percent believe that the state's interests are more important than personal interests (down from 64 percent in 1981). When respondents were asked to define their identity, only 39 percent put "Israeli" in first place, and while 59 percent said they had a feeling of belonging to the state, this was down from 79 percent four years ago.

Experience teaches that when people become alienated from their state, the state is weakened. The internal rift among the Palestinians is a key factor keeping them from establishing an independent state. Lebanon is another nearby example of a state hanging by a thread due to ethnic and religious rivalries. And especially on November 4, the anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, it is worth recalling that if Israel wants to survive as a state, it had better not be apathetic about the trend toward alienation from the common denominators that hold it together.