By Mazal Mualem
April 6, 2018
In a special interview with six former heads of the Mossad, published in Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper on Passover eve (March 30), Nahum Admoni expressed his concern about the growing rifts within Israeli society. Admoni, who served as director of the Mossad from 1982 to 1989, told the interviewer, “It is stronger now than it ever was before. I mean the rift between religious and secular Jews, and between Mizrahi Jews and Ashkenazi Jews. It hasn’t been closed in years. It is only getting wider.”
The entire interview was an elegy to the country that was, expressed by a group of people who were and still are among the most powerful and best-connected individuals in Israeli society. Yet their criticism of the growing rifts seems tedious at best. It has become a kind of worn-out mantra that politicians and other public figures use so frequently that it is not at all clear what it really means.
Usually, “rifts in Israeli society” are presented negatively, as something that must be mended immediately. They run counter to the doctrine of the “melting pot,” which dominated the early years of the state. Israeli society was composed of native Israelis ("Sabra"), immigrants from across the globe and minorities. At the time, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion wanted to build a homogeneous society, even if, on occasion, this meant eliminating the distinctive social markers of the new immigrants.
As the country prepares to celebrate its 70th anniversary, it is time to come to terms with Israel being a divided country of distinct tribes. But while that is part of the reality of life here, it is not necessarily a bad thing. There is a process underway of saying goodbye to the past and even of mourning, but when it comes to the old elites who established and led the state — the very people who believed in the melting pot — it is time to stop complaining about what was and to accept that it is not coming back.
New groups have amassed strength at the expense of these old elites. Natural demographic trends are shifting the balance of power between the different population groups. That is what happened as a result of the massive influx of Russian immigrants in the early 1990s, but also because of the high birth-rate among the ultra-Orthodox and Arab sectors. All of that has a deep impact on the structure of Israeli society, and particularly on the Israel Defense Forces. Once considered a “people’s army,” it is losing this stature, due to the fact that the vast majority of Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews do not serve in the army at all.
As Israeli society matures, it no longer has to attempt to be a melting pot, striving for the ideal of the “Israeli Sabra.” It must come to terms with the country’s tribal nature instead, deriving benefit and drawing strength from it. At the same time, it is the role of the country’s leadership to find the common characteristics shared by the different groups and to lay the groundwork for a healthy, multicultural society, which can continue to function 100 years from now. This requires Israel’s leaders to find a new model for the people’s army and to build an educational system that can bring the tribes together wisely. Rather than erasing the “other,” it should preserve that other’s culture and sometimes even the other’s language, while finding common ground. This should be the job of the political leadership.
Today, four separate educational systems operate simultaneously in Israel: secular, religious (Orthodox), ultra-Orthodox and Arab. There is a sense of alienation and even hostility between them, but these four tribes also have common ground, just as all people share certain things in common. This is what must be identified and promoted.
An incident that occurred on the soccer field last week showed how simple, how natural and how beautiful things can be in a society made up of many different tribes until someone comes along and sets everything on fire. On March 24, the Israeli and Romanian national teams played a friendly game. It was the first time in history that the captain of the Israeli team was a non-Jew. Bibras Natkho is Circassian.
Natkho, 30, was born in the village of Kafr Kama in the Lower Galilee. His family moved to the town of Modi’in when he was 10 because his father was serving in the Israel Border Police. This talented athlete has had a successful international career over the past few years, with 50 appearances in the national team’s uniform. The fact that he did not sing the national anthem, HaTikvah, at the game’s opening ceremony was received with understanding. After all, no one expects the non-Jewish players of the national team to raise their heads proudly and sing “a Jewish soul still yearns.”
The problem was that in a radio interview the next day, former player and current interviewer Eyal Berkovic told Natkho that he cannot be captain of the team if he won’t sing the country’s anthem. Natkho responded unapologetically: “I’m not a Jew. How do you want me to sing “a Jewish soul still yearns”? He later reminded Berkovic that his father served in the Border Police for 30 years, “which is a lot more than plenty of people in this country.”
This incident, which highlights the intensity of the rift between Jews and Arabs in Israel, also indicates how a rift can show where there is social cohesion and that there are a lot of meeting points and common ground between the different tribes. The Natkho family lives in the Jewish town of Modi’in. The father served in the Border Police for decades, while the son made history by becoming the first non-Jewish captain of Israel’s national team.
Then Berkovic came along, He stirred up a racist commotion just to improve his ratings and dismissed his fellow interviewer Ofira Asayag’s correct comment that Zinedine Zidane, the greatest player on the French national team, is an Algerian national who does not sing the French anthem.
In a speech to the Herzliya Conference in 2015, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin noted that four main tribes — secular, religious, ultra-Orthodox and Arab — coexist in Israeli society and that the level of hostility between them is increasing. Rivlin rightly called this “the new Israeli order,” resulting from a demographic situation with far-reaching implications for Israel’s national strength. His conclusion was, “If we desire to live with the vision of a Jewish and democratic state as our life's dream and our heart's desire, then we need to look bravely at this reality. This should be done together, out of a deep commitment to find the answers to these questions, out of a readiness to draw together all the tribes of Israel, with a shared vision of Israeli hope.”
Three years have passed since then, and the president’s comments remain lost on the public, no matter how accurate they were. If they remain true, Israel is still waiting for the right kind of leadership, a leadership with the good sense to embrace the people’s diversity.
Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel.