London — After almost two weeks in Israel, I thought I had left the frontal, visible conflict with the Palestinians at Ben-Gurion Airport. Then I walked down London’s Oxford Street. In front of Marks and Spencer, the famous British department store, non-Arab Muslims were collecting signatures on petitions declaring Israel to be guilty of genocide and calling for a boycott of stores which sell Israeli products produced on the West Bank.
Clearly, Israel needs to rethink its treatment of the Palestinians, but it pales by comparison to the slaughter in Syria. Where are the protesters against Assad? (Besides, there is evidence of a new policy in Israel, with Jewish families moving out of the Ulpana outpost following a ruling by Israel’s High Court).
But after spending time in Israel and Britain, the temptation is to say that the chorus of international condemnation is the least of Israel’s problems.
There is, of course, a fear of the military threat facing Israel from her immediate neighbors and the various terrorist groups they harbor. There is the existential nuclear threat posed by Iran, and the persistent climate of international isolation, boycott, and sanctions. Finally, there is an ever-present threat of a Third Intifada.
And yet, while in no way minimizing these dangers (and keeping Iran on the front burner), Israelis seem confident they can handle these external threats. When it comes to internal challenges, however, the mood is even more downbeat. One view is that the confrontation between the secular and the fervently Orthodox will ultimately destroy the country. They see the current mood of intolerance worsening and the kulturkampf intensifying.
Some secular Israelis — and interestingly, some religious Zionists — worry that no one in Tel Aviv cares what is going on in Jerusalem and vice versa. Life in Tel Aviv is so dynamic, exciting, and vibrant that many of these Israelis have no interest in what might be occurring mere miles away. They are focused on their own lives. Similarly, the haredi community pays little heed to any of the genuine concerns or interests of secular Israelis. Despite poverty, economic dislocation, and social discontent — signs of which are emerging with increasing openness — the haredim are expressing triumphalism, confident in their political power and religious conviction.
Several Modern Orthodox leaders suggest that talk of a kulturkampf is a gross exaggeration. They argue that first and foremost economics will ultimately drive haredim into the work force in a significant way. The need to provide and the pressure of economic survival will change their approach to work, and perhaps to many aspects of modern society.
These same Modern Orthodox see a return to and renewed interest in Jewish and religious studies, not because there is a sudden wave of religious revivalism among the secular community, but because educated, secular Israelis acknowledge their gaps in Jewish history and culture. The growth of groups studying religious texts has spread throughout the country, and some are now suggesting that this will result in a growing understanding and respect for each side.
Not that the secular Jews and the Modern Orthodox will be quick to reconcile. Some secular Israelis do not draw a real distinction between the haredi and the religious Zionists. Yes, religious Zionists serve in the military and engage with the modern world. But to many Israelis, especially on the left, they are first and foremost about holding on to the settlements, and ultimately preventing a two-state solution. Ha’aretz, the elite voice of the frustrated Israeli left, seems to worry almost daily about religious soldiers defying orders that pertain to the settlements.
The international community ignores these challenges and trends, focusing only on charges of discrimination against Arabs. When Israel does do something to address inequities between Arabs and Jews — for example, extending an incentive program for private sector firms willing to increase their hiring of Israeli Arabs — Israel’s critics are unmoved. The program seeks to raise not only the economic conditions of Arabs living within the Green Line but ultimately their status and stake in the society.
Israel is passing through a more complicated period than many want to admit, especially internally. After 64 years, the need to address these festering societal challenges has never seemed more urgent.