2 Camps At War/Being Born in Israel


Society is an organism that builds upon the coming together, pulling apart, and coming together of group life. At moments of political crisis, the shifts are vital and volatile. In this light, Israel today would represent a case-study of society transforming itself in real-time on the basis of sudden shifting across the division between two oppositional “camps.” While it includes parts of the moderate secular right and religious liberal-left, the so-called “democratic camp” is dominated by secular liberals and leftists. The other camp is a “national-ethno-religious camp” represented by the new full-on rightwing government-coalition engineered by Benjamin Netanyahu. Including secular and traditionalist rightwing Jews, this camp is utterly dependent upon Haredi and religious Zionist communities.

The rift opened up by the judicial overhaul-coup between these two camps brings to a new and crystal-clear light to old questions about Israeliness and Jewishness, democracy and Zionism, religion and the State of Israel. Who controls society and State? To whom does the public sphere belong? On the one hand is the democratic principle of equality enshrined in the Declaration of Independence regardless of race and gender and religion; on the other hand, there is majoritarian-ethnic supremacy and religious privilege in Israel and the Israeli Occupied Palestinian West Bank.

While Israel has always been a divided country, the divisions were based upon an established consensus that sustained in itself across a variety of changing iterations over time. Among Israeli Jews, a shared sense of an Israeli social-national identity combined with a more or less ambient sense of Jewishness as a national-cultural marker. For all the blind-spots, prejudice, and discrimination defining Israeli society and culture, Israeliness was presupposed upon combinations of formal and substantive commitments to democratic norms and institutions. The social contract papered over and hid from view profound political fault lines at the heart of the Zionist project and the State of Israel regarding religion and society and state, equal burden of military service, Ashkenazi-Mizrachi tensions, settlements and military rule in the Israeli Occupied Palestinian Territories, and civil inequality suffered by Arab/Palestinian Israelis.

Since the 1980s (in either large or small part in response to the appearance of Meir Kahane and the religious racism he represented in Israeli society on the political scene), the old discourse in Israel and about Israel between the right and the left was about how to balance between the “Jewish and democratic” character of the society and the state. Today the “Jewish and democratic” discourse sounds increasingly tinny. It is largely because democracy in Israel is being hollowed out by the social forces and political parties that represent Jewish majoritarian-populism and the Haredi and rightwing Jewish religion dominating Jewishness and Judaism in Israel.

The “national camp” and the “peace camp” were the two camps that had defined Jewish political discourse a long time ago in the 1980s and 1990s. For their part, Arab-Palestinian Israelis belonged to a minority social camp isolated and excluded from the dominant Israeli-Jewish-Zionist ethos and privilege that glued the country as a whole without them. In the wake of the First Intifada and then during the Madrid and Oslo Peace Process, Israeli politics and political culture was indexed to support for or resistance to a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinian people in the Occupied Territories. Even as religion hovered in the background, the parameters of the discourse were largely secular and national, as was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself. Back then, few people addressed the problem of religion as such. Part of a broad consensus, religious Zionism and the Jewish settlement project in the Israeli Occupied Palestinian West Bank and Gaza operated under a single national umbrella defined by the secular state and fidelity to it.

Both camps fell apart some twenty years ago. The “peace camp” crumbled under the impact of Palestinian terrorism during the Oslo peace process + the terrible incitement by the Israeli right and religious right leading up to the murder of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 by a rightwing religious nationalist + the collapse of Oslo and the extreme violence of the Second Intifada between 2000-2005. The “peace camp” ceased being an effective political force in Israeli society. Less noted is how the rightwing “national camp,” once defined by tough-minded and pragmatic security hawks, became unglued under the same set of pressures.

As Netanyahu purged the Likud of the old-school secular-moderate right, the “national camp” began to mutate into an “ethno-religious camp.” This camp is becoming post-Israeli, committed more and more to Jewish ethnonational populism wedded to rightwing religious Zionism and the Haredi political power. Appeals to conservative forms of traditional Judaism began to displace secular formations of Israeliness on the political right. It did not matter that many of these appeals were purely formal and lacking any religious substance. Coming from perfectly non-observant Israeli Jews on the right, indeed, it was precisely to the point. Religion was more and more fused into a hegemony based on Jewishness as a old-new political adhesive in society.

Writing here about this hegemony from the center right of the “democratic camp,”  Yossi Klein Halevy; identifies “a softening of tensions, even a kind of convergence” between secular and religious Israelis after the Second Intifada. “The militant secularism of the state’s early years seemed to be fading, replaced with a softening toward religion, a longing for spirituality.” Klein Halevy describes the new ultra-right-religious government now waking up a slumbering secular society that no longer can take its own privilege and place in society for granted. His analysis suggests without directly addressing how this very “convergence” created a fake pluralism that worked to obscure fundamental problems and tensions regarding religion and state and the place of religion in society that are driving the judicial overhaul-coup and resistance to it.

Israel woke up to a new reality when, for the first time in its history, a full-on rightwing and religious and ultra-religious national government comprised of populists and racists took control of the country in November 2022. Overnight, mainstream Israelis, pundits and activists and politicians began to talk about “the democratic camp.” Naming itself as such under a brand-new banner, the “democratic camp” appeared as if out of nowhere. (Others can say with more certainty about the origin of this moniker.) Upon the ruins of the old peace camp, the “democratic camp” was the name of a newly emergent social formation addressing direct threats to liberal democracy posed by the new government. About the sudden appearance of this new division in society, there were reports in the Israeli press regarding a “watershed moment in a deeply divided society,” or a “radical center being born.” 

At the core of the split between the two new camps are old-new lines of division between liberalism and anti-liberalism, democracy and autocracy, secularism and religion that are foundation stones of the Israeli Occupation of the Palestinian West Bank. While the mainstream protest movement driving the “democratic camp” are not preoccupied by the Occupation, settlements remain determining factors driving the rift in society and shaking the contours of that rift. As a radicalized force in Israeli society since 2005, religious Zionists are the primary backers of the judicial overhaul-coup. But the overhaul-coup is only a means to an end. The ultra-rightwing and racist religious political parties now being mainstreamed in religious Zionism today exercise power in the governing coalition disproportionate to their place in Israeli society. From this unchecked political position in power, the ethno-religious camp is an extremist force that seeks to stamp Israeli society into its own image.

As seen by the “democratic camp” are threats to rule of law, the separation of powers, the protection of minority rights and women’s rights and gay rights and personal autonomy in the face of brute majoritarian rule and religious coercion. Under attack are values of equality and human dignity. A founding document of the country, the Declaration of Independence was itself recently attacked by lawyers for the government during a landmark legal hearing before the Supreme Court of Israel regarding a portion of the judicial overhaul-coup. While the “democratic camp” has focused most of its energy against the judicial overhaul- coup, it becomes less and less mum about rightwing or “messianic” religion is now constituting from the seat of government grave threats to the social fabric of the country as a whole: economic, ideological, juridical, military, diplomatic, and so on.

How coherent are these two camps?

In terms of their political representation in the Knesset, the two camps are roughly equal. But, again, it is also true that only a relatively small minority in the country, overwhelmingly religious, is in favor of the judicial coup that has been the object of sustained protest by hundreds of thousands marching for the “democratic camp.” Somewhere at Ha’aretz, Judy Maltz reported how, in November 2022, only 29,137 votes separated the pro-Netanyahu (2,360,757) & anti-Netanyahu (2,331,620) parties (including Meretz, Balad which did not make it into the Knesset). The ethno-religious bloc received a mere 49.56% of the vote. Together, four religious parties account for more than half the seats in the governing coalition. There are also seven religious lawmakers from Netanyahu’s own Likud party. This means that of the sixty-five members of Israel’s next coalition, 61% will be orthodox Jews, of which some two-thirds are Haredi. In no way can the current government claim to represent the majority of the Israeli public.  

The “ethnoreligious camp” only looks coherent. This camp includes consistent traditional backbone support from Mizrachi Jews and secular Ashkenazi Likud voters. But the camp is utterly dependent upon Haredi, Haredi-national, and religious ultra-nationalists, led exclusively by extremist settlers in the Israeli occupied Palestinian West Bank. While they represent a political-parliamentary majority in the Knesset, the camp is not a stable formation. Voices on the secular right and in Haredi politics are beginning to reassess the wisdom of the judicial overhaul-coup. In order to maintain the integrity of their own insular communities, Haredi parties threaten to topple the government if a broad or blanket exemption from military service isn’t passed for Haredi men. This is something that rank-and-file Likud voters and members of Knesset reject, as do most of the liberal-left. Leaders in Likud are at odds with the extremists representing Religious Zionism/Jewish Power and are coming to realize that untrammeled Jewish settlement in the Occupied West Bank might undermine any attempt to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia.

The “democratic camp” is ad hoc, more or less, but perhaps more stable after all is said and done. The liberal-democratic camp is defined by institutionalist commitments to secular norms and state bodies, separation of powers, an independent judiciary and rule of law, free and independent media, civil rights, and personal autonomy, including women’s rights and gay rights. While the democratic camp includes liberal and leftwing religious Jews, the protests have been described as a secular uprising. The “democratic camp” is arguably incoherent insofar as its political leaders and public are unable to reach past their own ethnic-sectarian bubble to speak to and include larger Israeli publics (Mizrachi, Arab, religious). Also incoherent is the inability to address directly in a consistent way the danger posed by the occupation and settlements to democracy in Israel. For all that, however, the “democratic camp” enjoys a deep coherence that has sustained a wave of protests numbering in the hundreds of thousands for nine months and still counting. Coherent, the mainstream and leadership cadre of the democratic camp have rallied around “Israeliness,” country, state institutions, “Zionism,” the flag, the Declaration of Independence. On one hand, the “democratic camp” is narrowly focused and broadly based. On the other hand, bit by bit and on a slow roll, the Occupation and settlements and religion come into focus for mainstream Israeli Jews, as do the violence and structural problems tearing apart Arab Israeli society from within.

Against false appeals to unity, social fissure brings contradictions, dynamics, and forces to conscious awareness and attention. Fissure lies at the basis of what Emile Durkheim called a more organic form of solidarity based on social difference, as opposed to what he called a “primitive” or “mechanical” form of solidarity based on identity and recognition. Modern democratic systems depend upon the organized separation of powers. It combines freedom of religion with the formal separation of religion and state. Modern democracies rely upon a robust civil-secular sphere and strong central government, an independent and powerful judiciary, equal rights and universal citizenship regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender and sexual orientation. Undergirding these, democracy depends simultaneously upon the opposition and the regulation of opposition within a framework of social contracts and other constitutional arrangements. Lack of an opposition is the essence of anti-liberalism. The out and out civil clash between the liberal “democratic camp” and the anti-liberal and anti-democratic “ethnoreligious camp” constitutes a major event erupting out of and back into the social order of Jewish society and in Israel. Looked at one way, social division would be the precondition of any gelling back together of Israeli society into a rough consensus-shape of a new social contract.

For American and other diaspora Jews, this is a moment of taking sides. Decades ago, the late novelist A.B. Yehoshua argued that Jews in the diaspora can ignore the tensions between religion and secular elements in Jewish culture and society. (Perhaps because in the Diaspora, Jewishness is more of a culture than a society per se) In contrast, Jewish life in Israel is essentially political. Indeed, liberal American Jews almost never entered into the right-left fray in Israeli politics. Liberal American Jews were as-if-apolitical. Ignoring the problems defining Jewish power in Israel, they preferred to embrace the “Jewish and democratic” principle, no matter who was in charge of the government. (As for modern orthodox Jews, they increasingly took the rightwing side in Israeli politics, starting in the 2000s if not before.)

What is different now is the new government reliant upon by the radical neo-populist and Haredi and neo-religious right. Hostile to liberal values at home and to liberal Jews and Judaism abroad, Netanyahu and members of his party, and now voices on the American Jewish right, primarily orthodox, make common cause with ethno-populists, fascists, and enablers of neo-Nazi anti-Semitism in Europe and in the United States. At an inflection point in human history writ large and in Jewish life writ small, at a moment when democracy is under threat in the United States, liberal American Jews are coming to realize they have no choice but to side with democracy, whatever that might come to mean in the future, both in Israel over there and here in the United States, where democracy is threatened by the same constellation of ultra-right political forces mainstreaming social and political extremism.

Without gaining a lot by way of broad traction, it is being argued by critics on the anti-Zionist and radical Jewish left that the “democratic camp” is “not really democratic.” The far-left and anti-Zionist argument is that the principles of democracy and equality on which the camp says it stands is not realized for all, not in Israeli society, and not in the “democratic camp” itself. This line of argument is based on the assumption that a state or a country cannot be “Jewish and democratic,” that Zionism is itself racism and Israel is a racist project, etc. Arguably, this is to miss the mark about a political movement that represents an old-new camp in society based upon a large and mobilized popular mass. What’s also true is that an old social contract once torn up can only be reconstituted on new foundations.

At an inflection point with no clear end in sight, the reality of the “democratic camp” is indeed virtual and full of potential. The “democratic camp” is a social mass on the move with the power to capture energy for the creation of something genuinely new and emergent in Israel and in Jewish life. This potential life in the social body is the unrealized promise of a more perfect and just civil union that would represent in a genuine way the varied richness of Israeli society. The virtual reality of the democratic camp lies in real effects produced in the actual world by sustained and sustaining energy in the streets and in society demonstrating for democratic and human values against the representatives of populist majoritarian-autocratic, and ultra-racist rightwing religious rule and obscurantism. At stake is who and what represents the face of Israel or, if you want, the image of God in human society.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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