Ethics & Public Policy Center

What Do Israeli and U.S. Politics Have in Common? National Identity Crises.

Published in The Washington Post on March 26, 2019


The American Israel Political Action Conference concluded Tuesday, bringing to a close its annual call for America and Israel to recognize their mutual bonds and interests. The focus, as always, was on security and the two countries’ alliance. But the two countries share something much deeper and more troublesome: intense political debates over national identity and demographics whose outcome will shape each land’s long-term future.

Americans are used to hearing about Israeli politics through the lens of the conflicts with Iran and the Palestinians. They might be surprised to learn that Israeli Jews are remarkably unified on these matters. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s challenger in the April 9 elections, former Israeli general Benny Gantz, has declared that there is no difference between him and Netanyahu on the threat from Iran. While Gantz and his potential coalition partners might be somewhat more open to negotiating a two-state peace settlement with the Palestinians, both potential leaders recognize that they cannot reach such a settlement with the current Palestinian leadership.

The election campaign is nonetheless extremely bitter, and not just because of the personal animosity Israel’s center-left establishment holds toward Netanyahu. Israel’s Jewish left and right sharply disagree about what it means to be an Israeli, the role of religion in politics and daily life, and on how to deal with the country’s looming demographic challenges.

The question of national identity came to a head last year when Netanyahu’s government passed a law establishing Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. The law also made only Hebrew an “official language,” excluding the Arabic spoken by Israel’s large Arab minority, and specifically encouraged continued Jewish settlement in the West Bank. The law was approved on a nearly party-line 62-to-55 vote in Israel’s parliament, with Netanyahu’s coalition of center-right, hard-right and religious-right parties on one side and the Arab, left-wing, center-left and centrist parties on the other.

The heart of the dispute is nearly identical to that which engulfs the United States. One side in Israel wants “a state for all its citizens” even as it remains dominated by a Jewish super-majority, just as one side in our culture wars wants a more multicultural United States. The other wants an Israel that is eternally Jewish at its core (even as it wrestles with what it means to be a Jew), just as some in the American political right push for one, primary culture here.

Such binary divides over core values and identity are extremely polarizing. The fact that Israel, like the United States, is divided nearly in half over these issues makes the conflict even more bitter.

Religion complicates these questions in Israel just as it does in the United States. Israel was founded largely by secular, social democratic Zionists. They nevertheless gave special treatment to ultra-Orthodox Jews by, for example, exempting those who studied the Torah from compulsory military service. But as the number of strongly religious Jews in Israel grew dramatically, resentment over Orthodox privileges has festered. The two coalitions now differ sharply over the manner and extent to which the Orthodox should continue to have their religious beliefs accommodated in public law, just as the two parties here differ sharply over religious freedoms of beliefs and how they affect the way we conduct ourselves.

Israel also wrestles with questions of demographic change. The right dreams of incorporating the West Bank into Israel proper. But doing so without also attracting migration to Israel from the Jewish Diaspora would make Arabs a much more potent political force, as they would comprise nearly 40 percent or more of the state’s population. As one might expect, this is highly controversial.

Many Israeli Jews find denying those Arabs political rights, as some in the settler movement advocate, objectionable, as they believe it would eliminate Israel’s democratic nature in favor of its Jewish one. Thus, they tend to favor solutions that preserve the existing demographic balance as it provides a uniform democracy for all with little chance that Arabs can exercise significant political power. Indeed, Gantz has already declaredthat he would not enter into a coalition with either of the Arab parties, which places his center-left party at a distinct disadvantage at forming a majority even as it regularly places first in the polls.

The center-left establishment might want to rethink that stance. Looming demographic trends indicate they will soon constitute a clear minority of Israeli Jews. As in the United States, the Israeli center-left is significantly more educated and secular than its religious-right counterparts. According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, secular Jewish women currently bear 2.1 children on average, meaning the absolute number of secular Jews will likely not increase much over time.

Religious Jewish women, however, bear four children on average, and ultra-Orthodox Haredi women bear a whopping 6.5 children. That discrepancy will add up quickly, meaning that by 2040, the share of the Jewish population likely to be either seriously religious or ultra-Orthodox will probably double from 10 to 15 percent to 25 to 30 percent. Add to that the influx of religious Jews from the United States and elsewhere, and the Israeli center-left’s demographic challenge becomes even starker. In the United States, conservatives face a similar predicament.

Americans from both sides of the political aisle can learn important lessons from these facts. Demographics matter, and parties that try to finesse those facts often get swamped by them. Old ideas of nationalism and traditional religion are not going away; any attempt to create a new Israel or United States needs to accommodate adherents of the old orthodoxies. Fail to heed these lessons, and a country descends into tribalism, recrimination and decline.

The Israeli vote next month will settle who runs the state and which coalition sets the terms of debate for the immediate future. But it should be viewed, as U.S. elections should be viewed, as just one moment in time in an existential debate that is going to continue for a long time.

Henry Olsen is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center

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