Sunday, May 19, 2024

‘Wounds Will Need to Be Healed’: Collisions in a Fractured Israel


When Ana Lavi neared the gates of her village in southern Israel late one night in July, a small group of men appeared in the road, surrounded her car and blocked its path.

The men had gathered half in celebration, half in vengeance. Hours earlier, Israel’s ultranationalist and religiously conservative governing coalition had passed the first part of its deeply contentious effort to weaken the Supreme Court.

To mark the moment, some of the government’s supporters had rushed to what they saw as the nearest symbol of Israel’s opposition: Ms. Lavi’s village, Kibbutz Hatzerim, one of the collective farms that have long been associated with the country’s secular and left-leaning elite.

Ms. Lavi phoned for help. The kibbutz security guard hurried to the scene, accompanied by other residents. A scuffle broke out, and the guard drew his pistol.

Ms. Lavi jumped from her car. “What have we come to?” she shouted, in a scene captured on video.

Then the gun went off.

The immediate trigger for the altercation was the far-right government’s effort to reduce judicial power. That push could cause a constitutional crisis if the Supreme Court overrules part of it after an appeal hearing that starts on Tuesday.

But the fight extends far beyond a disagreement over the court: The judicial crisis has become a proxy for an even broader battle among Israelis about the future of their country, as well as about what it means to be both a Jewish state and a democratic one.

At the state’s formation in 1948, three years after the end of World War II and the Holocaust, the founders of Israel declared that the country would be a haven for Jews that nevertheless respected the rights of all of its citizens, regardless of their religion or race. But they did not write a formal constitution, and they never fully clarified the role of Judaism in public life, how much autonomy Israel’s ultra-Orthodox minority should have or the place of its Arab minority, who initially lived under martial law.

Decades later, these unresolved ambiguities have become existential challenges. The size and influence of the religious population, 14 percent of the nation’s roughly seven million Jews, is growing larger, disconcerting secular Israelis who make up 45 percent, while the Arab minority is playing a bigger social, economic and political role, prompting a backlash from ultranationalist parts of Jewish society.

Historically, political coalitions between rival factions helped reduce these tensions, while the Supreme Court generally acted as a guarantor of minority rights and secular values. Now, profound demographic and social shifts have nudged the balance of power toward ultraconservative and ultranationalist groups. And in December, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assembled the most right-wing and religious governing coalition in Israel’s history, which promptly targeted the Supreme Court in order to remove a key bulwark against its national vision.

Since the start of that effort in January, the longstanding grievances have burst to the surface, foregrounding deep rifts, not only between the religious and the secular, but between different ethnic groups and social classes — all of whom now feel under attack, and are quick to go on the offensive themselves. Each side is fearful that their opponents seek to destroy their Israel — their way of life, their understanding of the country’s past and their vision of its future.

That divisive debate is seeping into daily life, in ways both big and small. On the airwaves, commentators and politicians have warned of a looming civil war. On the ground, tensions are apparent in weekly mass protests that draw hundreds of thousands to the streets and in smaller, often heated confrontations between Israelis with opposing views, even as some try to find common ground.

The gunfire outside Ms. Lavi’s kibbutz, which made national news, did not result in any casualties — the security guard fired in the air and did not hit anyone. But it highlighted the febrile nature of the current moment in Israel.

“Israelis against Israelis,” Ms. Lavi said in an interview. “It’s horrible.”

The emotions of the moment have been partly fueled by deep differences over the role of religion in public spaces and what it means to live a contemporary Jewish life.

After dropping his daughters at school one morning in May, Avishai Mendel, an ultra-Orthodox entrepreneur, was surrounded by a group of secular Israelis holding an early-morning protest outside the home of a cabinet minister.

Mr. Mendel’s broad black hat, long beard and dangling forelocks had quickly attracted their attention: They marked him as a member of the ultra-Orthodox community, many of whom study religious law instead of serving in the military like most other Jewish Israelis.

“They judge us all the time because of how we look,” Mr. Mendel said in an interview.

“You don’t go to the army,” one assailant yelled, in an exchange that attracted national media attention. “If everyone was like you, there would be no army,” shouted another.

Mr. Mendel, 42, sounded crestfallen in response. “What did I do to you?” he replied. “Did I ever hurt you?”

Many secular Israelis fear a coming theocracy, citing efforts by religious conservatives in the coalition government to push their agenda — and the growing confidence of those advocating stricter, religious-based rules for the country. Lawmakers have advanced plans to expand the power of all-male rabbinical courts, while a minister has sought to enforce gender-segregated bathing times at wild springs.

A fast-growing minority, the Haredim, as the ultra-Orthodox are known in Hebrew, are perceived to be reshaping Israeli society while doing too little to either protect it, through military service, or pay for it, through taxation. The employment rate of Haredi men is just 56 percent because many of them study religious law instead of working, although many of their wives are in the work force.

Many religious Israelis say that they should be able to live according to religious edicts, and that those desires should be respected by others. They push back against the secular calls to place marriage, which is currently overseen by senior rabbis, under the jurisdiction of the civil authorities, and to operate public transport on the Jewish Sabbath.

They also want to maintain their community’s exemption from service in the armed forces, long a divisive practice in a country where the institution is largely seen as a proud symbol of the Israeli state.

Both sides say they feel targeted by the other. Secular Israelis have been outraged by episodes in which religious drivers or passengers have ordered young women to sit separately from men on public transport. Religious Israelis have been accosted by secular ones, in the street or aboard buses.

Unlike many Haredim, Mr. Mendel did serve in the army, one of around 1,000 in the community who do so every year. He then studied electrical engineering and now runs a company with his wife that organizes technology classes for schoolchildren, religious and secular alike.

“I work like they do,” Mr. Mendel said of his secular critics. “I pay my taxes, maybe more than they do.”

Still, Mr. Mendel defends conscription exemptions for those who study the Torah, a practice that he says sustained Jewish identity through 2,000 years of exile.

“We can’t be a state like other states,” Mr. Mendel said.

“What brings redemption is studying the Torah,” he added. “Without the Torah, we wouldn’t be here.”

Class, not religion, was the main driver of the episode in July outside Kibbutz Hatzerim, where Ms. Lavi lives.

A gated community of small, detached houses and tidy lawns surrounded by rocky desert, Hatzerim is one of hundreds of collective farms founded before Israel’s formation in 1948.

To the kibbutzniks, their project was a heroic one that entrenched a Jewish presence in hostile areas. But to the residents of the surrounding towns, the gated kibbutzim often became symbols of inaccessible privilege.

After the men stopped Ms. Lavi’s car, prompting her 10-year-old daughter to burst into tears, they yelled abuse that surfaced decades of social resentment.

“Oh, your privileged daughter needs to enter the kibbutz?” Ms. Lavi, 50, a bookkeeper at the kibbutz council, recalled hearing one of the men say. “You privileged kibbutzniks!”

The judicial crisis has reawakened dormant tensions between the residents of working-class towns — who typically lean right — and those of wealthy suburbs and kibbutzim, who tend to vote for centrist and left-wing parties.

The kibbutz is surrounded by less feted cities, like Beersheba and Dimona, where residents historically lived in fraying, dust-covered apartment blocks.

These communities are dominated by Jews of Middle Eastern origin, known as Mizrahim, whose parents faced discrimination during Israel’s first decades.

The kibbutzim were built mainly by Jews from Europe who fled persecution, known as Ashkenazim, and who formed the backbone of Israel’s founding generation.

“They always had the privileges that we didn’t get,” said Daniela Harmon, a right-wing activist and accountant from Dimona.

The inequities between the two groups have significantly ebbed over time, through intermarriage and social change.

Hatzerim’s finance manager is the son of Moroccan immigrants. He joined the kibbutz 40 years ago after a childhood in Dimona. Beersheba is now a place of growing wealth and new neighborhoods filled with plush villas, and a major venture capital fund there is led by Mizrahi entrepreneurs.

“I see people who live in Beersheba who live a thousand times better than we do,” Ms. Lavi said.

But for parts of the Israeli right, the old elites — embodied, as they see it, by the kibbutzniks — still retain too much power.

To them, the well-funded anti-government demonstrations — held in cities like Beersheba and often attended by activists from out of town — feel like last-gasp efforts by the elite to protect its interests. They say the counterdemonstrations outside the kibbutzim are a fair response.

“You’re always protesting at our doors, blocking our roads,” Ms. Lavi said she was told by the government supporters outside the kibbutz. “What you’ve done to us, we’ll do to you.”

Ranin Boulos, an Arab Israeli, lasted only a few minutes at a mass protest in August in Tel Aviv. After thousands of fellow demonstrators began singing the Israeli national anthem, a song about Jewish identity, Ms. Boulos quietly left the crowd, alienated and confused.

In that moment, Ms. Boulos felt the protest movement was “a really internal Jewish matter,” she said.

“This democracy they’re asking for,” she said, “they’re not asking it for me.”

When Ms. Boulos, 38, later described that feeling on social media, she was swiftly criticized by Jewish opposition figures. “You are a minority, the anthem is decided by the majority,” said Ben Caspit, a prominent Jewish Israeli columnist. Respect the anthem, he added, just as “Jews did all those years in exile.”

“Only I’m not in exile,” replied Ms. Boulos, a television presenter who has long worked alongside Jewish Israeli journalists and lives in a rare village shared by both Jews and Arabs. “I’m in my home,” she added.

This is the dilemma facing Israel’s Arab minority, which forms roughly a fifth of Israel’s nine million citizens.

Palestinian citizens of Israel, as many Israeli Arabs, like Ms. Boulos, prefer to be known, have long experienced neglect and discrimination. Now they feel they are the most vulnerable target of the ultranationalist coalition government. The coalition includes a senior minister convicted of anti-Arab incitement, and it has passed legislation that critics say makes it easier to exclude Arabs from Jewish villages.

And yet they have been largely left out of the broad discussion of nationhood that the government’s actions have prompted. Most are wary of joining an opposition protest movement that mainly seeks to preserve Israel’s status quo, in which Arabs already felt like second-class citizens.

Ms. Boulos feels alienated by the protesters’ goal of fighting for a Jewish and democratic state, rather than just a democracy for people from any religious background.

While small groups of protesters have sought to highlight the Palestinian cause, key protest leaders have not. Ms. Boulos finds it hypocritical that they want to preserve their own rights while ignoring those of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank.

“No one went to the streets like this for Palestinians,” she said. “Now, they’re in the streets because suddenly this touches them. Now, someone is playing with their toy.”

Still, Ms. Boulos has since returned to the protests — sensing a chance to win over more Jewish Israelis to her cause.

“I’m like a wedding crasher,” Ms. Boulos said. “Part of me does think that I shouldn’t be there.”

But part of her also thinks, “Raise your own voice inside of this crowd and try to raise other issues.”

Michael Swisa, a couples therapist, and Prof. Gal Ifergane, a neurologist, have almost nothing in common.

Mr. Swisa, 47, supports the government and its judicial overhaul. Prof. Ifergane, 55, protests against it every week. “We disagree on everything,” Prof. Ifergane said.

When Mr. Swisa approached Prof. Ifergane at a recent opposition protest, the stage was therefore set for yet another fiery confrontation.

But this time was different: Mr. Swisa had come for a dialogue, not an argument.

Fifteen minutes later, both men emerged from a surprisingly good-humored exchange with a better understanding of the other’s position and a pledge to continue the conversation.

Days later, they spoke by phone for a longer discussion. They befriended each other on Facebook and read each other’s posts. They met in person at Prof. Ifergane’s home, inviting friends from either side of the debate, in a kind of political salon.

“Your views are very different to my views, and in my eyes, they are not moral,” Mr. Swisa said to Prof. Ifergane at a separate discussion attended by The New York Times.

Nevertheless, Mr. Swisa added, “He’s a fabulous person, and I’m so glad there are people like him in our country.”

That kind of exchange shows why some Israelis still hold out hope for national reconciliation. While many Jewish Israelis disagree about the future of their country, the vast majority still share the goal of maintaining Israel as a haven for Jews.

Mr. Swisa, a highly conservative Jew who lives in a settlement in the West Bank, still resents the court for opposing segregation between men and women in certain public spaces and restraining Israeli military activity against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. “Generally, the court makes the state less Jewish,” Mr. Swisa said.

Prof. Ifergane, a highly secular Jew who helps run a major hospital, still views the court as a bulwark against religious autocracy. Without the court, hospitals like his might be encouraged to discriminate against Arab, gay or even female patients, he said. “The only check on the government is the Supreme Court,” Prof. Ifergane said.

What binds them is a desire to keep the country united.

“This war will end — someone will win and someone will lose,” Prof. Ifergane said. After that, he added, “The wounds will need to be healed.”

Myra Noveck contributed reporting.





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