Tamar Hermann
Bitterlemons (Opinion)
February 16, 2012 - 1:00am

No doubt, Israeli society is highly fragmented. Here we have a new society composed of a Jewish majority, mostly first, second or--at best--third generation immigrants from numerous countries. Alongside it is a native Arab-Palestinian minority belonging to the national collective dispossessed by Israel's independence and perceived by the Jewish majority as its arch enemy. Together, they can hardly be expected to become a harmonious human fabric.

Students of Israeli society have traditionally pointed to six main cleavages that were often metaphorically referred to as "tribes": Jews and Arabs, secular and religious (orthodox and ultra-orthodox), veterans and newcomers, rich and poor, Ashkenazi and Sephardic, doves and hawks. The relative importance attributed to each of these divisions has depended greatly on the analytic, epistemological and ideological point of departure. There are no "objective", agreed-upon indicators for such social phenomena.

However, there is a near-solid consensus that the cleavage between Jewish and Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel is the deepest, the most persistent and--in terms of Israel's social cohesion--apparently also the most detrimental. It is almost a truism to state that Israeli Jews and Arabs experience extremely dissimilar practical and cognitive realities and that the practical and cognitive meeting points between them are today scarce. As a result, the Jewish-Arab schism in Israel is apparently the only one fitting the common social science definition of tribalism as "the possession of a strong cultural or ethnic identity that separates one member of a group from the members of another group".

It follows that it is highly questionable to what extent "tribal" is an accurate description of Israeli Jewish society. In a tribal society, the lines of division are immutable and tribal identity supreme to all others. Here we argue that within Israeli Jewish society, first, the cleavages are in ongoing transition with their relative importance changing over time, and second, above these cleavages there is an amazingly strong unifying factor: the Jewish Israeli--to a large extent Zionist--identity, forged by the fire of the ongoing Middle East conflict and its international repercussions. Despite polyphonic political public discourse and vociferous struggles over the character of public space, at the end of the day this unifying factor brings all Jewish Israelis under the same roof, particularly on "rainy days".

Take, for example, the secular-religious cleavage that recently captured much attention. Each of the groups--secular, traditional, national orthodox and ultra-orthodox--has its own life style and identity. These are often the source of bitter disagreements and even physical clashes, exacerbated by the growing demographic share and hence empowerment of the latter two groups and the parallel demographic decline and hence sense of defeat of the former.

This notwithstanding, as indicated for example by the January 2012 Peace Index poll, all four groups hold almost identical views on the critical question, "In principle, which of the following two objectives is more important to you: that Israel be a country with a Jewish majority or that Israel rule the whole Land of Israel west of the Jordan?" A highly similar proportion in all four groups--71 percent of self-declared ultra-orthodox, 75 percent of the orthodox, 77 percent of the traditional and 72 percent of the secular--chose the first option. In other words, regardless of their bitter squabbles, these groups are practically unified by their clear preference for an Israeli state with a dominant Jewish majority. Another recent poll revealed that over 80 percent of Jewish Israelis believe in God and over 70 percent believe that Jews are the chosen people: definitely not different tribes here.

Another cleavage often addressed as politically and socially critical is the split between old-timers and newcomers, mostly immigrants from the former USSR. The image of the latter that was prevalent and apparently correct during the 1990s and early 2000s was of a sector holding little respect for democratic values. However, as the 2011 Democracy Index poll suggests, this "tribal" feature has faded away: 29.9 percent of the "Russians", compared to 29.4 percent of "non-Russian" Jewish Israelis, agreed to the statement that a strong leader who does not have to take parliament or the media into consideration is a good system of government for Israel. Other research projects also indicate a strong process of incorporation of the "Russians" into general Israeli Jewish society, thereby reinforcing the need to reconsider our view of the "tribes" metaphor.

On top of that, the data show that the formerly highly salient Ashkenazi-Sephardic cleavage seems to have dissipated significantly because of massive intermarriage, upward mobilization and the educational upgrade of all of Israeli society. In parallel, the rich-poor or class cleavage that once correlated with the secular-religious and Ashkenazi-Sephardic divisions has not developed into a politically significant or socially unifying conscientiousness.

Does this mean that Israeli Jewish society is rock-solid? Definitely not. It is more diversified, polyphonic, and full of internal contradictions than ever. However, particularly when externally threatened, these cleavages are overridden by a still very robust sense of "we-ness"--in stark contradiction to the "spider-web" reading of Israel's internal state of affairs by some external observers.


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