largeLast month, Israel celebrated its 75th birthday. After eight wars, two uprisings and numerous terrorist attacks, its population ballooned to 10 million. The per capita GDP is as high as US$55,400. Silicon Valley is Israel’s high-tech base, driving economic development. But wealth did not bring national satisfaction. Decades of grievances have turned into bitter political warfare. The social fabric is broken.
This year, Independence Day is spicy. Even cemeteries are not off limits. A day earlier, Isabel Kershner reported in The New York Times that “Itamar Ben-Gvir, the ultra-nationalist minister of national security, began speaking on behalf of the government, triggering commotion.
“Family who objected to his presence at the cemetery and his supporters erupted in shouts at the grave.”
Ben-Gvir never served in the army and the army did not consider him suitable. Still, he loves swagger.
Fueled by religion, blood and land, a grim civil war is brewing. God and country breed controversy – as they do in America. In “Land of Hope and Fear,” Kershner, a Jerusalem-based journalist, plunges headlong into this cauldron of hostility.
Subtitled Israel’s Battle for Its Inner Soul, her book delves into the competing and conflicting tribes in the Promised Land. This book has been painstakingly researched, the product of dozens of interviews plus more than three decades of living in the field. Kershner knew what she was writing about.
Originally from Manchester, UK, she moved to Israel after completing her degree at Oxford University. Her husband, Hirsch Goodman, a paratrooper, was the founding editor of The Jerusalem Report, where she first worked. Their son served in the Israeli army.
Land of Hope and Fear is memoir, scorecard, and guide all rolled into one. This is a personal revelation. Earlier, Kershner tried to make sense of what she called “ethnic division.” Kershner details the country’s 10th president, Reuven Rivlin, and his 2015 “Four Tribes” speech.
In Rivlin’s taxonomy, Israel is broadly divided into Arab, ultra-Orthodox, ethno-religious, and secular. “The ‘new Israeli order’ is not a prophecy of the end of the world,” he said. This “reality” “can already be seen in the composition of first-grade classes in the Israeli education system”.
Eight years later, it’s all truer than ever. The divisions have grown sharper and deeper, extending beyond the classroom and touching hot-button issues such as military service, religion, income and education. What it means to be an Israeli is open to debate.
“There is no single answer,” Kershner wrote. “Never had.”
These primordial divisions have reinforced attempts by the Israeli right to stifle judicial independence and the ongoing wave of protests against such attempts to transform Israel into a must Haracha, Jewish religious law. Demographics are not on the side of secular Israel.
“Democracy is doing what God commands,” Simcha Rothman, an ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who helped push for judicial reform in 2021, declared. Additionally, Rothman expressed his admiration for Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, adding: “Those who don’t wear a kippa are actually hurting democracy.”
Rothman’s views are unoriginal.
The late US billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a former Netanyahu supporter, said in 2014: “I don’t think the Bible says anything about democracy.” God, he said, “is not talking about Israel continuing as a democracy”. “Israel is not going to be a democracy – so what.”
so what? The current President of the United States and his party are appalled. Joe Biden will not invite Netanyahu to the White House for the foreseeable future.
By the numbers, the Israeli army is the domain of both secular Jews and religious Zionists. Ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arabs are generally exempt. At the same time, their populations are growing.
Kershner spoke to members of each competing and often conflicting community. She offers a series of poignant windows, but no resolution. There was a time when secular Israel dominated socially and politically. no longer.
Resentment between secular Israelis and ultra-Orthodox is particularly acute, exacerbated by large disparities in education and income. In recent elections, educated, secular Israelis voted overwhelmingly against Netanyahu.
When Mitt Romney spoke of “makers” versus “takers” in the 2012 U.S. election, he could have conveyed the sentiments of what came to be known as Tel Aviv, the state of Israeli society. Home to the top fifth of the population – the economic ladder, the city becomes a high-tech incubator.
By contrast, Israel’s religious parties, the residents of the State of Jerusalem, draw votes from lower-ranked voters. Piety predominates. There, the past is the present. A reminder: Politics is about values, interests and anger.
Whether Israel remains a liberal democracy is an open question. Pressed on this by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, Netanyahu appeared hesitant. “I’m a 19th-century democrat,” he once told Bari Weiss. for many, including the prime minister’s son Yar NetanyahuOrbán’s Hungary offers a reassuring model.
Kershner focuses on history and political realities. The Land of Hope and Fear recounts a speech delivered by then-Military Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi on Independence Day 2021. During the celebration, Kochavi deliberately sounded dissonant.
“This is only the third time in the entire Jewish history that a united state of Israel has sovereignty over its state,” the general reminded his audience. “The first two times have ended disastrously.”
On Wednesday, Israel’s Knesset parliament passed a budget offering a windfall for Netanyahu’s supporters. Elections have consequences.
Kershner remains optimistic. “As the play unfolded, the actors stayed put,” she wrote. “The air is thick with memory and foreboding. The land is full of tenacious and exuberant life, and it is their home.”
In other words, the land and its people are in turmoil.