The Transformation of Israeli Society

Israeli society is undergoing a far-reaching transformation. This is not a trivial change, it is a transformation that will restructure our very identity as Israelis, and will have a profound impact on the way we understand ourselves and our national home.

In Israel, there is a word which has long since turned into a weapon: "Demography." This usage is generally nothing but an ostensibly polite way of describing one or other population group as a "threat" or a "danger." As unwanted, as illegitimate.

I have identified a very real threat in our collective suppression of the transformations that Israeli society has been undergoing in recent decades; in neglecting to confront what I call the "new Israeli order."

In the 1990s, Israeli society comprised a clear and firm majority, with minority groups alongside it. Today, the first grade classes are composed of about 38% secular Jews, about 15% national religious, about one quarter Arabs, and close to a quarter Hareidim.  One thing is clear, the demographic processes that are restructuring or redesigning the shape of Israeli society, have, in fact, created a "new Israeli order." A reality in which there is no longer a clear majority, nor clear minority groups. A reality in which Israeli society is comprised of four population sectors, or, if you will, four principal "tribes," essentially different from each other, and growing closer in size.

And what about the distribution between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews?’ Between Left and Right? Periphery and center? Rich and poor? Are these not dividing lines that segment and tear apart Israeli society? And the answer is, of course they are. Those dividing lines unfortunately exist – within each of the population sectors, and through all of them together – and they must be addressed and dealt with.

However, in contrast to those divisions, it is the distribution into four principal tribes that make up Israeli society, that reveals its basic structure; a structure, that for many of us, is perceived as a threat – to the secular-liberal character of the State of Israel on the one hand and to the Zionist enterprise on the other.. 

A child from Beth El, a child from Rahat, a child from Herzliya and a child from Beitar Ilit –  not only do they not meet each other, but they are educated toward a totally different outlook regarding the basic values and desired character of the State of Israel. Will this be a secular, liberal state, Jewish and democratic? Will it be a state based on Jewish religious law? Or a religious democratic state? Will it be a state of all its citizens, of all its national ethnic groups?

Each tribe has its own media platforms, newspapers, television channels. Each tribe also has its own towns. Tel Aviv is the town of one tribe, just as Umm el Fahm is the town of another, as is Efrat, and Bnei Brak.

The "new Israeli order" is not a creative sociological differentiation; it is, rather, a reality with far-reaching consequences for our national strength, for the future of us all. From an economic viewpoint, the current reality is not viable. The mathematics is simple, any child can see it. If we do not reduce the current gaps in the rate of participation in the work force and in the salary levels of the Arab and Hareidi populations – who are soon to become one half of the work force – Israel will not be able to continue to be a developed economy.

From a political viewpoint, Israeli politics to a great extent is built as an inter-tribal zero sum game. One tribe, the Arabs, whether or not by its own choice, is not really a partner in the game. The other three, it seems, are absorbed by a struggle for survival, a struggle over budgets and resources for education, housing, or infrastructure, each on behalf of their own sector.

But, beyond all this, we must examine the social and moral implications of the "new Israeli order." We must ask ourselves honestly, what is common to all these population sectors? Do we have a shared civil language, a shared ethos? Do we share a common denominator of values with the power to link all these sectors together in the Jewish and democratic State of Israel?

In the past, the IDF served as a central tool for fashioning the Israeli character. However, in the emerging Israeli order, more than half of the population does not serve in the military.

Neither suppressing nor fighting this situation will help. We are all here to stay. Now, if we truly want to deal with the significance of the "new Israeli order," then we must bravely face the issue, and ask ourselves some tough questions.

Are we, the members of the Zionist population, able to accept the fact that two significant groups, a half of the future population of Israel, do not define themselves as Zionists? They do not watch the torch-lighting ceremony on Mount Herzl on Independence Day. They do not sing the national anthem with eyes glistening. Are we willing to give up military service, as an entry ticket into Israeli society and economy, and settle for civilian or community service?

And on the other hand, are the Arab and Hareidi publics willing to commit to contributing their share in molding Israeli identity and the Israeli economy, and to participating in civil national and community service, with a sense of responsibility and commitment?

The ‘new Israeli order’ now requires us to abandon the accepted view of a majority and minorities, and move to a new concept of partnership between the various population sectors in our society.  

I believe that there are four pillars on which this partnership must stand. The first is a sense of security for each sector, that entry into this partnership does not require giving up basic elements of their identity.

The second pillar is shared responsibility. When no tribe is a minority, no side can escape bearing responsibility for the destiny and the future of the State of Israel, and of Israeli society in general.

The third pillar is equity and equality. In order to ensure the partnership between us, we must ensure that no citizen is discriminated against, nor favored, simply because they belong to a specific sector.

The fourth, and the most challenging pillar, is the creation of a shared Israeli character – a shared "Israeliness." Despite the challenges the ‘"new Israeli order" poses, we must recognize that we are not condemned to be punished by the developing Israeli mosaic – but rather it offers a tremendous opportunity. It encompasses cultural richness, inspiration, humanity and sensitivity.

We shall need to implement the partnership demanded by the "new Israeli order" in each and every area of our lives. We shall be required to be familiar with education for partnership – given the separate education systems.

Only in this way, together and in partnership, shall we be able to rekindle the Israeli hope.


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