The 3 Tribes In The Jewish Discussion About Israel
It’s not just the political discussion about Israel that’s massively polarized. Even discussing the experience of living in Israel is a wildly divisive issue in today’s Jewish world.
To understand Israel’s convoluted politics, commentators commonly divide today’s society into tribes.
The disproportionate use of this exact metaphor — popular among commentators from all points of the political spectrum and none at all — achieves a few objectives all at once:
- Firstly, it reinforces the factionalism that has become a prominent feature of Israeli society. In doing so, it challenges the narrative that Israel — or at least its Jewish population — is a homogeneous entity. We’re tribal, those making the comparison insist. We divide along religious, ethnic, and political lines — among others.
- It subtly challenges Israel’s oft-spun narrative about being a beacon of Western prowess among a dismal and divisive Middle East. The suggestion: Israel’s right at home here.
- It lays bare the fact that the divisions within Israeli society aren’t just those between left and right and between hawks and doves and between the secular and the religious. Rather, it points out that they concern much more integral matters such as what the state’s fundamental character should be. And this is wholly accurate. We have, within Israel, a subset of the ultra-orthodox community that believes that Israel should be a theocracy governed by the edicts of the Torah and that secular Zionism and the current character of the state are therefore both the product of sinful misinterpretations of holy texts. We also have a sizeable portion of the Arab population who believes that the idea of a Jewish state at all is repugnant and who call for a one state solution as a resolution to the conflict. The first group has been known to burn the Israeli flag even in the midst of its capital. The latter has been known to hoist the Palestinian one in protest at what they see as the state’s oppressive governance.
All this is well known because these meta-narratives about the character of the state tend to be well-reported around the world.
What those living outside of Israel usually don’t grasp , however — including Israel’s legions of cheerleaders in the Jewish Diaspora — is that the same polarization regarding how the state should be perceived exists also in respect of apolitical matters.
For instance: putting politics, religion, and everything else to the side, is Israel a good place in which to live?
Given that a sizeable portion of the Jewish diaspora have uprooted their lives in order to come to live in a divisive part of the Middle East, the quality of Israel’s transportation network might seem like as eminently uncontroversial a topic as could be chosen. Yet as anybody who moves here soon discovers: that ain’t necessarily so.
Underlying those deceptively simple questions are rather frank differences in ideology — which is why a discussion about the quality of toilet paper, or fish, in Israel commonly turns so unexpectedly hot under the collar (at least among immigrants).
To spell those out:
Should we hold a conversation about Israel that’s based upon rational observation about what’s good — and less than good — in the country?
Or should we filter all discourse through the lens of halacha, suppressing unpalatable factors of life here because we subscribe to the idea that speaking ill of any facet of life in Israel is a sinful violation of Torah law (precedent for this position within the Torah comes from the Sin of the Spies)?
It’s a major difference of opinion — a makloket — in the Jewish world. And daily it drives some serious conflict.
Because different people — and ethnic groups — subscribe to different views about these issues, I’d like to suggest that the online discussion about life in Israel (at least in the Jewish and Israeli worlds) splits in three.
To continue the analogy, let’s call them three tribes. I suggest that they are as follows.
Tribe 1: The Relentlessly Pro-Israel Group
Tribe 1 has managed to effectively monopolize discussion about life in Israel in the Jewish world. I’m showing my bias here. As a tribe three-er (my feelings about life in Israel are very much mixed), I resent this fact, mostly because its adherents have a tendency to stifle conversation.
But for reasons that likely have a lot to do with the polarization of debate in general — as well, perhaps, of Israel’s embrace of black-or-white Trumpian politics — this has become the embedded reality in today’s Jewish fabric.
The position of this group is an unwavering one, totalitarian even: Everything about Israel must be supported and ideally stated as being singularly good even when common opinion, outside of Israel, flatly contradicts such a claim. Not only its politics. But also the general quality of toilet paper as found in its supermarkets. It’s all wonderful. All of the time.
An example, although this strays slightly into the realm of politics: Every action of the IDF must be supported fully, even when circumstances — like Elor Azaria’s killing of a Palestinian — seem to merit questioning. Furthermore, it must be called “the most moral army in the world.” The attitude was also on full show last week two: questioning whether the Border Police were justified a subdued Palestinian, for many, was simply intolerable. They’re the best.
If one asks why imported Spanish olive oil costs less, in many Israeli supermarkets, than that grown a few miles away — and why olive oil in dreary Ireland is even cheaper — the explanation must be that Israeli olive oil is unquestionably the very best in the world, thus the higher price tag. We’re lucky to have it.
For this group, facts aren’t an impediment to argument. You could point out that Israel has one of the highest rates of poverty in the OECD and that that fact is problematic in light of Israel’s now established position as a generally wealthy nation. They would likely retort that that reflects Haredi and Arab non-participation in the workforce. In other words, it’s not Israel’s fault. In fact, it just evidences how magnanimous Israel is. Etc.
Tribe 2: The Relentlessly Anti-Israel Group
The smallest of the three tribes — but one that certainly exists — is the group that holds that life in Israel is singularly bad.
This group consists of many who moved to Israel and lived to regret the decision.
They won’t concede that anything in Israel might be positive.
Its food? A crude copy of Arabic cuisine.
The sunshine? It’s oppressively hot here and requires the regular application of overpriced sunscreen, thereby only adding further to the already extreme cost of living.
Because Tribe 1 is so dominant, however, tribes 2 and 3 tend to mix and mingle on the fora that exist on the periphery of mainstream conversation in the Jewish world — and in olim communities.
Tribe 3: Those Who Endorse The Lost Middle Ground
The third tribe represents those who adhere to a view of the country that’s grounded in logic.
Because in any construct as large as a country, it’s likely — almost 100% inevitably — that there will be aspects that are good and others that are not-so-good.
Tribe 3 is where I feel most at home, although it’s becoming harder and harder to find fora in which to discuss our experience of living in Israel without facing harassment from either tribe one or tribe two. Many of us feel like we’re being forced to the edge of the debate, silenced from two directions.
We see Israel — the country in which we live — through a mixed lens.
Many of us — like me — are Zionists.
We’re immensely proud to be part of the rejuvenation of the first Jewish state in more than two thousand years.
But we’re also pragmatists and we can’t understand why supporting Israel meant agreeing to perceive everything about the country through the prism of black and white logic. It wasn’t in the terms and conditions sheet.
We realize, for instance, that there’s nothing to celebrate about the fact that Tel Aviv was recently named the most expensive city in the world even if, simultaneously, it bears testament to the city and country’s rapid economic transformation.
We don’t see the good in the endemic aggression on Israel’s roads because we realize that there is none.
And while we’re keen to celebrate the success of Israel’s high tech sector in capturing record inbound investment flow this year, we’re also not blind to the fact that 90% of the economy does not work in the technology sector and continues to struggle to make ends meet against an oppressive cost of living.
We see that non-participation in the sector and worrying trends in STEM subjects aren’t evidence of Israel’s magnanimous nature, but rather strategic challenges that will have to be met head-on if Israel’s vaunted tech revolution is to continue for the generations to come.
At very least, we’d like the right to talk among ourselves at peace.
Talking about Israel is polarizing no matter which context you engage in it in — whether you’re talking about the quality of its politics or its toilet paper. Wherever you stand in the debate, silencing doesn’t help.