Israeli Social Cleavages: The Good News



Israeli Social Cleavages: The Good News


Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig

Schusterman Visiting Israeli Scholar, Brown University


This topic might seem to be downright perverse. The social news from Israel the past few days has not been sanguine. Arab-Jewish riots in the traditionally co-existing, mixed city of Acre (Akko in Hebrew), set off by an Israeli-Arab driving through a Jewish neighborhood with car radio blaring. So what’s the good news?

           It is hard to focus on what does not make the news – especially if years and years go by and the topic supplies no “news”. But that is highly newsworthy in itself – especially when the subject used to make the papers on a daily basis.

           Israeli political scientists (of which I am one), have been teaching their students for decades that Israel is an over-burdened polity as a result of the large number of serious social cleavages between groups, any one of which would be enough to destroy another democracy. The main ones: 1- Ashkenazi (Jews of Western origin) vs. Mizrakhim (Jews of Arab country provenance); 2- Religious (ultra and national) vs. Secular; 3- Israeli Arab (“Palestinian”) vs. Israeli Jews. To these one can add the central political cleavage of Left (pro-peace process) vs. Right (Greater Land of Israel).

           But most of these no longer exist as deep-rooted splits in Israel. Mizrakhim have made it to the highest echelons of society and politics (several Israeli Presidents and Army Chiefs of Staff; the present Speaker of the Knesset; many of the richest tycoons). Partly as a result, there are no more virulent campaigns like that addressed to Shimon Peres in 1981 with rotten vegetables and curses slung at him during election stops. The ultra-Orthodox are slowly entering Israeli society with nascent Haredi units existing in the Army and even a few (secular studies) colleges for the ultra-Orthodox population that has come to realize that it has to work in order to make a living. Moreover, Israel no longer suffers from massive religious demonstrations like the stone throwing on the Ramot Road in Jerusalem that went on for years every Sabbath back in the 1970s. And as to the political Left-Right split, while some animosity still exists, most of Israeli society has moved to the Center as the last election results illustrated and as constant polls show regardless of which politician is up and which down.

           In short, Israeli society has decidedly come of age. This is not to say that there are no tensions in these areas and that an unusual outburst could not still occur. But it is to say that these topics no longer have the political resonance that they once had, in part because Israelis have found the way to finesse the problems, in part because they have solved the most egregious aspects of these cleavages, and in part out of pure social exhaustion.

           So the social “non-news” is actually quite good. That leaves the major societal area of bad news that is reported on by the media. And here – completely against the grain of the other domains of Israeli life – the news is indeed bad. In fact, the split between Israeli Arabs (not just Moslems; Bedouin too) and the Jewish majority is getting palpably worse. Why this is so – and what Israel could (and should) do about it, I’ll discuss in next week’s post. Meanwhile, it would behoove Israelis and their supporters alike to bask just a little in the significant progress that has been made – the lack of “news” on this score notwithstanding.


Oct. 12, 2008

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