The Great Rift

Two Books Look at Two Divides: Religious-Secular and Modern-Traditional

By David M. Szonyi

Published March 07, 2003, issue of March 07, 2003.
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Some writers have rotten luck. Eva Etzioni-Halevy, a professor of political sociology at Bar-Ilan University, apparently researched “The Divided People: Can Israel’s Breakup Be Stopped?” before the current intifada broke out. Already, less than a year after the book’s publication, her fears about a “breakup” of the country because of rapidly growing dati-hiloni (religious-secular) tensions seem overshadowed by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the severe problems Israel’s economy faces.

Yet Etzioni-Halevy rightly waves a flag of warning. As she demonstrates in quoting many leaders who refer to the other camp in vituperative tones, the religious-secular split is becoming increasingly shrill. Dati nationalist extremists have called the largely hiloni soldiers who have evicted Jews at unauthorized settlements “Nazis,” while some hiloni extremists refer to the ultra-Orthodox as “medieval” and to religious settlers as “fascists.” Hiloni Jews also recall that both Baruch Goldstein, who slaughtered 29 Muslims at prayer in Hebron in 1994, and Yigal Amir, the assassin of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, were dati.

Israel’s political system reflects this polarization: The anti-clerical Shinui Party gained 15 seats in the January 28 election, versus six in the previous Knesset, bringing it within four seats of the once-predominant Labor Party. Meanwhile, Shas, the party of ultra-Orthodox Mizrahi (originally from the Middle East) Jews, saw a decline in its Knesset seats to 11 from 17, but it remains a significant force as the Knesset’s fourth-largest faction.

Etzioni-Halevy provides some historical analysis of the dati-hiloni split. She notes that the exemption of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students from army service — initiated by David Ben-Gurion in the early 1950s, when it affected a few hundred young men — has spiraled out of control, so that 30,000 ultra-Orthodox men claimed exemptions in 1999. Also rocketing to new levels are state subsidies for the yeshivas, having increased between 1996 and 2000 by more than 40% — from around 700 million shekels to 1 billion (about $200 million). These phenomena have produced a sharp reaction in the hiloni community.

Still, Etzioni-Halevy fails to make a persuasive case that Israeli society is “breaking up.” In overwhelming the reader with quotes, anecdotes and statistics, she includes the relatively trivial and over-interprets some data. For example, she notes a significant decline in Judaic studies majors among students at the Hebrew University from the 1950s until today. What of it? This decline might simply indicate that Israeli students are preparing for careers in a technologically advanced economy and are thus less focused on the humanities in general.

More important, “The Divided People” fails to offer and analyze data that go against its “breakup” thesis. For example, many Israelis occupy a religious middle ground that defies polarized categories, considering themselves masorti (traditional) rather than dati or hiloni. They may light candles on Friday night and attend a soccer game on Saturday afternoon. In addition, there is a significant incidence of “intermarriage” by couples from mixed dati and hiloni backgrounds. Finally, the suicide bombers seemed to have revived a siege mentality where religious and culture wars seem an unaffordable luxury.

Yes, there is still much to worry about on the dati-hiloni front. The rabble-rousers on both sides are too strident, and the dati parties do extort shamefully large subsidies for their institutions. But so long as Israel feels itself under threat and retains a broad religious center, it does not seem to be undergoing a “breakup.” Neither hiloni nor dati leaders have sanctioned violence or discriminatory measures against the other, much less advocated a breakup. Rather, Israel is experiencing a passionate debate over the character of the state and what it means to be a citizen. The struggle over resources and influence waxes and wanes, but it does not threaten to degenerate into a civil war, nor was the overwhelming majority of the Israeli electorate on January 28 motivated primarily by anti-dati or anti-hiloni sentiments, but rather by security and economic concerns. And while Shinui may have gained a significant number of seats, the status-quo-oriented Likud gained twice as many.

Two more diffuse issues of Israeli society are discussed in “Elvis in Jerusalem: Post-Zionism and the Americanization of Israel” by Tom Segev, the veteran historian (“One Israel, Complete”) and Ha’aretz columnist.

By “post-Zionism” Segev means the passing of the (largely Labor) ideology that emphasized the collective’s over the individual’s welfare. The term also refers to traditional viewing of the Israeli-Arab conflict as a morality play in which the peace-loving Jews returned to Israel after two millennia of exile and wished only to develop their state; the hostile surrounding Arabs wished only to drive them into the sea. As such “new historians” as Benny Morris and Segev himself have demonstrated, the historical reality contains many more shades of gray. Today there is little ideological consensus about the state’s history; the image of the Zionist enterprise and specifically the myth of the ever-heroic Haganah during the War of Independence, is being debated when not debunked.

By “Americanization,” Segev refers to the spread of American chain stores in Israel, the political-diplomatic near-alliance between Jerusalem and Washington, and the American-style election campaigns throughout Israeli society. Israeli society is becoming more me-oriented and consumerist, with a concomitant weakening of common cultural and societal bonds. One manifestation is the widening chasm between the poor and the rest of society. The growing income gap, the second-highest in the developed world (after the U.S.), resonates politically because many of the disadvantaged are Mizrahi Jews (thus, the success of Shas). Another is the growing fragmentation of Israeli society among various ethnic and interest groups. While this tendency has positive elements, such as the rapid increase in Israeli nonprofit organizations, on balance it makes for a more fragmented Israel. The fact that a growing number (more than one-third) of Israelis under 40 do not vote and that more middle-age men are failing to show up for reserved military duty reflects this reality.

Segev writes with a fluid, engaging style that makes his book an enjoyable read. He offers such fascinating observations as that Theodor Herzl might be considered the first post-Zionist because of his emphasis on “normalizing” the condition of the Jewish people. But Segev’s book also suffers from a tendency to flit from topic to topic at the expense of in-depth historical and socio-economic analysis. Additionally, his observations seem most pertinent to native, upper-middle-class or well-off Ashkenazic Jews. The growing ranks of the poor and struggling middle-class have little interest in (post-)Zionist ideology and even less access to the consumerist fruits of Americanization. Finally, Segev fails to explore the implications for Israeli society of the phenomena he describes, especially when contrasted with such countervailing trends as the growing cultural distance between American Jewry and Israeli Jewry.

Both books add to our knowledge of the Israel that lies beneath the heartbreaking headlines generated by the intifada. But neither conclusively establishes the significance of the issues the authors explore. Israel, despite the divisive ideologies and behavior of some of its political and cultural leaders, remains intact for now. But its civil society, never really as unified as the myth-makers would have it, is fraying more than ever.

David M. Szonyi, an editor and writer living in South Orange, N.J., serves as a consultant for a major New York philanthropist. He last appeared in these pages on May 17, 2002, writing about a conference at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York called “The Writer and the Holocaust: Risks of Traumatic Memory.”

The Divided People: Can Israel’s Breakup Be Stopped?

By Eva Etzioni-Halevy

Lexington, 183 pages, $70 (cloth); $24.95 (paperback).

Elvis in Jerusalem: Post-Zionism and the Americanization of Israel

By Tom Segev

Translated by Haim Watzman

Metropolitan, 167 pages, $23 (cloth); $12 (paperback).

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