By: NATAN LERNER, professor of International Law at the Hertzelia Interdisciplinary Center and at the Tel Aviv University.
There is great interest expressed by the world public opinion about all the matters related to Israel. As a wide-ranging rule, this interest is mainly centered in its foreign policy and the relations of Israel with its neighbors or in original reports as, for example, the kibbutz. There is less interests expressed by the public opinion in all the related to the internal life of the Israeli people, to tensions about its social, ideological, religious and, in general, group relations.
Israel is a special case in the history of creation and the consolidation of nation states.
Among the dramatic process which culminated with the legitimate declaration of independence of Israel on the 14th of May 1948 as one part and as the other the numerous examples of creation of states during the 19th and 20th centuries there is no great similarity. This is basically valid for the comprehensive transformation of the Israeli society, marked by massive demographic changes and powerful military and political upheavals.
Israel was conceived, created and built as a political entity dedicated to one goal, the Zionism, a movement founded at the end of the 19th century by Theodore Herzl with the support of many Jewish people support. This is an ethnic, religious and cultural community which has not lost its group identity during its long history of dispersion among many peoples and which was most severely affected by the holocaust during the 20th century, the extermination of six million Jews by the Nazis, approximately, at such time, it was half of the Jewish world population. The aim of Zionism was to establish, in the same place where two thousand years ago there was a Jewish state, an independent state with an ample Jewish majority.
It is in view of this historical background that we shall analyze the present Israeli society. It contains a multi-faceted, multi-religious, multi-cultural and multi-linguistic population of more than six million people. Approximately 80 percent of such number shares the feeling of belonging to one nation, with common, identifiable and distinguishable history, religion and culture. The non Jewish minority considers itself as extremely different in ethnical, religious, linguistic and historical terms from the majority, which acknowledges this difference and knows the kinship between this minority and the population of the region, beyond Israel’s borders. None of them
look for assimilation. They enjoy of a common citizenship but this situation does not eliminate the difference. This picture does not include the Arab population living in the disputable territories, beyond the “green line”, which is the 1967 border.
Several groups coexist among the Jewish majority population. They are aware of their common fate, but nevertheless, separated by tensions resulting of their ethnic modalities, their geographic origin, their mother tongues, their particularities in relation to their cult, behavioral singularities, cultural, gastronomic preferences, their conception about life and their rooting. The mizug galuiot, the merge of migrations, it means the integration of the various segments of the population, only partially achieved, was one of the main axioms of Zionism. During many years the Israeli society was classified only from two viewpoints: a) Jewish majority and Arab minority, b) within the Jewish majority, the Ashkenazim, of European origin and Sephardim (literally Spanish), of oriental, Balkan and south European origin.
This classification, more on less accurate, two decades ago, has been altered by demographic changes as a result of immigration as well as cultural integration and mixed marriages.
In 2002, the Jews in Israel summed up some 5.025.000 souls; it means 39% of the total Jewish population of the world. This means that from the establishment of the State of Israel the Jewish population has grown eightfold, due mainly to immigration.
The demographic growth is higher among the Arab population, and amid the Jews it depends on social and cultural aspects.
Nevertheless, the problem is not only reduced into numbers. During the first years of the State the main affluence of immigrants were from countries such as Morocco, Iraq, Yemen; and more than one million people came during the last 12 years from
countries which pertained to the ex USSR, some 45.000 from Ethiopia and during 2002 some 6.000 people came from Argentina. A result of such immigration is a most varied and multifaceted cultural, social, psychological mosaic. Its impact on the relations, tensions, conflicts within the population is enormous.
The parameters of such impact are, within the Jewish majority in ethnical and cultural terms, of encounter and plurality. Yemenites, Iraqis, north Africans, Romanians, Anglo-Saxons, Latin-Americans, Russians, Ethiopians, and their descendants were added to the original European core (Russian, polish, in their majority ideologically motivated center Europeans) and struggled to built one nation, one people with as less as possible diversity and as much as possible affinity. The result is yet imprecise.
There is no doubt that today Israel as a nation exists, in some way similar to the Jewish people living all over the world but different from it. The “Sabra”, the native and Israeli born Jew is the symbol of the unity, the different tendencies of the Jewish
religion and the various communities living together in Israel are the symbol of the faction tensions, mainly relieved by the arduous military, technological, financial and psychological effort so indispensable for the survival of the country.
The Israeli society is, therefore, necessarily multiple. Not necessarily harmonious, not necessarily tolerant, most of the time nervous and irascible and even hard and violent.
Nevertheless and with all that the Israeli society is simultaneously creative, intense, dynamic, conservative and revolutionary. The question is that the Israeli society cannot be of monolithic nature, which is positive. On the other hand it cannot attain egalitarianism, which is not good. This has its influence in the legislation, very advanced in the legislation, very advanced in many aspects but archaic and lacking of revision in others, in culture, vibrant and modern, at a highest international level within some areas but behindhand, tribal and heartless in others. The here is a very high proportion of articles written by Israelis for the world wide important journals.
The quality of the universities is praised, a satisfactory technological, scientific, medical, investigation level and a positive intellectual debate. But, on the same time, the so called developing towns and some of the neighborhoods of the major cities are
far away of the mentioned progress having a low educational level, showing poverty and typical elements pertaining to underdevelopment.
It is possible to detect the causes of such events: the cultural differences, the price of integrating so dissimilar components, the preservation of the religious component within the life of the society and its educational consequences, the need of dedicating
a major fraction of national talent, energy and resources for the military. No matter from which angle we consider it, the result, usually non-desired, are the sharp differences within the Israeli society.
Presently the external security matter shares the center of public attention with the matters about poverty and social differences. One of the committees of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, has issued a report over the social disproportion which shades light over the suffering of various sectors of the population, taking into account a perspective over the last twenty years. The number of poverty stricken population has increased five fold, the rate of unemployment has reached during the year 2002 to a frightening 10,4%. The difference of income among the various population layers is extremely considerable and therefore the consequences are felt on a nation-wide scale, standard of living, education, and so on. The Arab minority, the new immigrants and the ultra orthodox Jews are mostly affected.
The financial and social impairment has started to worry the political leadership and the public opinion no less than the foreign risks which, in reality, have not decreased. Adding this all to other internal tension elements – the acute secular or lay confrontation with the orthodox and ultra orthodox sectors, the political polarization in foreign matters and the search for a solution for the Arab Israeli conflict, the resentment born by the lack of fairness in public burdens, the customary resentments which separate the groups of immigrants from the established inhabitants, the struggle for the equality between sexes, and then we will perceive a comprehensive picture of a tense and divided society, which is a result of a complicated process which combines historical aspirations and realities.
Natan Lerner was member of Hanoar Hatzioni in Argentina