08.03.2023 Author: Viktor Mikhin

Israel: A Fractured Civil Society

The current situation in Israel is so complex and tense that the local media is increasingly focusing on whether and when a civil war is about to start. Even the mere mention of such a turn of events would have been dismissed in the blink of an eye not long ago. But, as the sages of old used to say, everything flows-everything changes…

Of course, political violence has occurred at various levels throughout the country’s brief history, and even before its founding. Nonetheless, despite anger mixed with deep sadness over the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish militant in the midst of crucial peace talks with the Palestinians in 1995, the assassination did not spark a fratricidal conflict between factions of Israeli society. However, times have changed, and the term “civil war” is now widely used in popular discourse. While Israel’s political right has used violent tactics for years, progressive forces are also discussing the use of arms and possible bloodshed in the name of preserving Israeli democracy. Some argue that such words are only used figuratively, but the transition from “so to speak” to actual violence may be shorter than many believe.

Israel’s democratic governance system has always been built on shakier ground. This is largely due to the absence of a written liberal-democratic constitution, as well as the country’s history of frequent conflicts with its neighbors and a lack of social cohesion. In nearly 75 years of independence, the belief that there would be enough cohesion to hold the country together, despite divisions within the Jewish majority, not to mention the large Arab Palestinian minority, has proven to be a pipe dream. The current constitutional crisis, the country’s worst since its inception, is not a passing fad. Rather, it is the result of a failure in nation-building, a failure that has created an environment favorable for divisive, populist political leaders who cynically exploit disagreements to gain power. And no one in the country’s history has done so more deceitfully and successfully than the current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. For the first time, there is widespread concern that Israel’s democratic system is under serious threat of extinction.

So far, two pillars of hope and fear have held Israeli society together. After two millennia, there was hope for a safe and democratic independent Jewish homeland. The fear pillar had two components: first, the fear of returning to the Diaspora, where Jews would face new threats and persecution. Second, they are terrified of decades of conflict with their near and far neighbors. What has changed is that the line between forces determined to undermine the democratic system beyond recognition and progressive forces protesting in the streets after years of apathy is now clearer than ever. In retrospect, one could argue that this clash was unavoidable due to diametrically opposed views of what it means to be a Jewish democratic state in the first place. However, it has the potential to deprive millions of Palestinians of their democratic rights.

For far too long, Israel’s unresolved internal contradictions have been silenced and exacerbated, providing fertile ground for anti-democratic fundamentalist factions to consolidate power, while the majority, rather than resolving the contradictions, has shown unreasonable tolerance for right-wing violence. It is not only a question of punishing those who have committed actual acts of violence, but also of suppressing and expelling those who have created such an environment for such actions from public life.  It is also about the educational system’s failure to teach students from a young age that peaceful, healthy dissent and debate are signs of a strong society, and to warn them that resorting to violence is a slippery slope that leads to social disintegration.

Likud Party prime ministers’ policies incite their supporters to violence against their opponents and Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line, creating a toxic environment that has resulted in brutal actions against Arabs and peace activists, as well as Rabin’s assassination. And it was all done by Jewish terrorists.  While such acts of political violence have been more sporadic in Israel, they are now on the rise, with Jewish settlers committing them to varying degrees against their Palestinian neighbors in the occupied West Bank almost daily.

However, it is Prime Minister Netanyahu who has turned manipulating Israel’s incredibly fragile social and political structure into the darkest of arts by driving wedges between different groups of society. Although he is always one step behind those who commit violence, he is always in command and control. And, in his current government, he has brought some of these activists into the center of Israeli decision-making. As if inspired by an organized crime script he has surrounded himself with political allies and advisors who reduce the level of debate to the lowest common denominator and, above all, incite violence against those who do not share their views. Simultaneously, by deliberately exacerbating divisions and tensions between progressives and conservatives, religious and secular, Jews and Arabs, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, he attempts to elicit the most primal emotional responses of fear, envy, and hatred.

For the first time, however, there is a strong feeling among those who fear that Israel’s democratic system is under threat of extinction. People are increasingly realizing that this is a battle that their society cannot afford to lose. Voices using the terminology of armed resistance and civil war are becoming increasingly alarming among them. So far, pro-democracy demonstrations have been mostly peaceful, with right-wing activists attacking protesters in an attempt to deliberately fan the flames. Nonetheless, some prominent figures in the pro-democracy movement, which has so far largely been a spontaneous mass phenomenon, use military terminology that raises the possibility of firearms being used at some point.
The schism between those who regard the Supreme Court as the country’s adversary and those who regard it as the last bastion of individual liberties, human rights, and the overall protection of the democratic system is now defined in terms that leave little room for compromise.

In a heavily militarized country with a large military population, and given the toxicity of the current debate, the possibility of civil war is no longer remote.  On the eve of its 75th anniversary of independence, Israel may require a crisis to rethink what it means to be Jewish and democratic in a highly complex political and social environment. However, this must be done in a civilized and democratic manner.

The question is, has this Jewish train left Israel’s station?

Viktor Mikhin, Corresponding Member of the RANS, exclusively for the online journal “New Eastern Outlook.