A Community of Communities

Jay Mens

“There are four sons: secular, religious, ultra-Orthodox and Arab. They are all smart and they all know to ask questions”[1]. In 2015, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin compared the composition of Israeli society to the proverbial children at the annual Passover meal, the seder. It is an apt metaphor, particularly in light of a popular exegesis that the seder at once emphasises the differences between individual Jews as well as their collective responsibility[2]. Transposing this Passover metaphor onto the modern State of Israel is a lens with which to examine the defining cleavages of Israel today. This article will, correspondingly, examine Rivlin’s “sons” as four ideal-typical demographics of Israeli society, how they view each other and how they make up Israel’s civic life.

First, the secular “son”. Zionism was the outcrop of the Haskala, the “Jewish Enlightenment”, which fused a new, secular Hebrew literature with the nationalist sentiments of 19th Century Europe. The secular force of Labour Zionism midwifed the Jewish state into existence, from leading initial waves of Zionist settlement in the 1880s until losing the reins of government in 1977. The Haskala literature that enabled the advent of Zionism would often pit a muscular, "new Jew” against the weak “Old Jew” of the shtetl. The former would spend his days working in the fields, while the latter would ponder Biblical hermeneutics. The modern vanguard of this old sentiment is the Yesh Atid- “There is a Future”- Party, which burst onto Israel's political scene in 2013. It won 18 seats on a resonant message of universal military service, civil marriage and public services on the Sabbath[3]. Not so simple. In 1947, Israel’s secular, socialist founders agreed upon a status quo with haredi[4] leaders. Haredim would join a united Zionist front at the UN if the state complied with religious law in four key areas: Kosher food and Sabbath observance on official events, religious monopoly on civil functions and educational autonomy for the religious[5]. Secular Israelis dislike the tradeoff[6], but ‘tampering’ with it could even affect Haredi recognition of the state[7].

Haredim base communal life on the primacy and sanctity of learning. Zionism was, historically, a vile human attempt at divine redemption[8]. Nonetheless, Haredim have been at the centre of most Israeli governments: The role of Kingmaker in parliament is a pragmatic means to military exemptions and benefits for full-time Torah scholars. “One who accepts upon himself the yoke of Torah is exempted from… the yoke of worldly cares”[9]. To the secular Israeli, preoccupation with the "Yoke of Torah" means ‘welfare queening’ and ostracism. Two statistics show the divide: 83% of secular Jews believe in evolution compared to 3% of Haredim. 95% of secular Israelis travel on the Sabbath, compared with virtually 0% of the Haredi community[10]. Despite a shared Jewishness, their views of its significance differ sharply. That difference can turn into hostility: a Haredi threatened to assassinate the Yesh Atid leader in 2014[11]. No wonder, then, that 71 percent of Israelis see the tensions between secular and haredi Jews as their society's most “acute” problem[12].

Given this tension, one might have considered the national-religious community to be an amalgamation of secular and religious Hegelian dialectics. However, they receive little love from either camp. When In that Religious Zionism sees the Land of Israel as sacred and the modern State of Israel as the vehicle of redemption, it slaughters two holy cows: That of the secular left, the two-state solution, and that of Haredim, the status quo. The 1995 assassination of the secular Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, by a national-religious fanatic is still a painful memory for the left[13]. On the other hand, the possibility of the Jewish Home compromising on civil marriage prompted one Haredi political leader to say that “whoever votes for them is a heretic, according to the Torah”[14].

Israel proper consists of about 1,796,000 Arabs and 6,450,000 Jews[15]. Yet in 2011, there were only “three cases of Jewish men married to Arab women, and 16 cases of Arab men married to Jewish women”[16]. Religious restrictions have a role, but given the existence of secular populations in both demographics, a lack of interaction clearly has a role in creating this reality. In politics, the Joint List is the only Arab political party, commanding 13 seats out of 120, but its members are regularly at odds with their colleagues. One Arab MK, Hanin Zoabi, joined the 2011 Gaza Flotilla and by 2014, 85% of Israelis wanted her impeached[17]. Another MK was arrested last month for smuggling cell phones and SIM cards to terror convicts in jails[18]. This only compounds linguistic, religious and cultural differences. In a state founded to be a refuge for Jews, Israeli Arabs are indeed at the seder- but they do not celebrate Passover.

We have, then, four completely different ‘ideal types’ that sum up most of the population. Changing demographics will also change the political landscape. Today, 52% of Israeli Jews above the age of 50 are secular, but, 56% of Israelis within the age bracket of 18 to 29 are on the spectrum of traditional, national-religious or haredi[19]. Perhaps this coincides with a 2011 report suggesting that “young Israelis are moving much further to the right politically”[20]. The evolution of those four, crude ‘archetypical communities’ and of their many ethnic and political subdivisions will tell us how a future Israel will answer questions of war, peace and economics.

Israel is, in a highly pronounced way, a community of communities. The reductiveness of the four ideal types implies an intractable conflict. The picture is, of course, far more complex than that. A Muslim Arab may become a Member of the Knesset on the Jewish Home list[21]. Israel’s controversial Minister of Justice is the secular[22] number two of the same party. Yesh Atid has a Haredi Member of Knesset. The secular Labour Party has a national-religious[23] woman on their list. The necessity of going forward could also open up new possibilities where ‘conflicting’ parties of interest work together in unprecedented ways. Will Yesh Atid one day form a government with Haredi parties? Could a large Arab party, for the first time in Israel’s history, play the role of Kingmaker? The discussions at the Israeli seder are many, and impassioned; whether or not all its participants will get along is a question history has yet to decide.


[1] Silverman, Anav, January 4 2015, Israeli Knesset Focuses on Unity in Opening Session, The Huffington Post

[2] Schneerson, Rabbi M. M., 1996, Torat Menachem, Vol. 32, Va'ad Hanachot Lahak, p.315

[3] Ain, Stewart, March 6 2013, Religious Freedoms Could Expand In New Coalition, Times of Israel

[4] The preferred term to “Ultra-Orthodox”

[5] Testimony of the Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Levin (Agudat Israel) to UNESCOP, July 17 1947 (Hebrew)

[6] The 2016 Israel Religion & State Index, 4 October 2016, Hiddush

[7] Reinharz, J., Rabinovich, I., 2008, Israel in the Middle East: Documents and Readings on Society, Politics, and Foreign Relations, Pre-1948 to the Present, p58

[8] Kimmerling. B., 2012, Diaspora Nationalism and Jewish Identity in Habsburg Galicia. Cambridge University Press

[9] Ethics of the Fathers, Chapter 3, Line 5

[10] Pew Research Center, March 8 2016, Israel’s Religiously Divided Society

[11] Newman, Marissa, February 26 2014, Lapid could be assassinated like Rabin, rabbi warns, Times of Israel

[12] Pew Research Center, March 8 2016, Israel’s Religiously Divided Society

[13] Peri, Y., 2000, The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Stanford University Press, p.364

[14] Bendet, S., January 19 2013, HaRav Ovadia: HaBayit HaYehudi- Hayit shel Goyim”, Walla News (Hebrew)

[15] Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, Statistical Abstract of Israel, 2009, Table 2.24

[16] Maltz, J., June 2 2014, Why Interfaith Marriage Is on the Rise in Israel - and Why It's a Problem, Haaretz

[17] Tuchfeld, M., October 24 2014, Poll: 85% of public wants Arab MK Zoabi removed from Knesset, Israel Hayom

[18] January 17 2017, MK Basel Ghattas questioned by police in new case, Times of Israel

[19] Pew Research Center, March 8 2016, Israel’s Religiously Divided Society

[20] Kashti, O., March 31 2011, Poll: Young Israelis Moving Much Farther to the Right Politically, Haaretz

[21] Ghert-Zand, R., January 11 2015, For Anett Haskia, there’s no place like the Jewish Home, Times of Israel

[22] Mako, Okefet mi'Yamin, 19 December 2012 (Hebrew)

[23] Ifergan, S., January 18 2015, Lo hayiti mamlitzah layeladim sheli lilmod arichat din, Mako (Hebrew)