Sometimes, social issues in Israel feel like the junior high cafeteria. Various groups jostling for influence, eying each other suspiciously, and everyone secretly wondering, “Do I belong?” But, even by Israeli standards, the last few weeks, between the funerals of Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef and singer Arik Einstein, have brought this question into greater relief.
I’ve never been a citizen of another country. But, I often wonder whether citizens in other countries are similar to Israelis in their deep need to belong. After all, modern Israel was established by committed socialists. They were members of small, tightly knit collectivist communities, such as the kibbutzim, who, drawing on Jewish community tradition, created the Israeli ethos of the “hevre,” a word difficult to translate, but which encapsulates the social values of Israel: A true Israeli has a “hevre” – a close group of friends, knitted together into one committed social unit that is held together, even through time.
Israeli socialists and kibbutzniks are now few and far between, but their collectivist social legacy remains powerful. True to its Jewish roots, in Israel it is the funerals that force the question of who belongs above all. When hundreds of thousands of Israelis, mostly ultra-religious men of Sepharadi origin, flocked to the televised funeral procession of Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef in Jerusalem, many Israelis watched and wondered, “Is this the new Israel?” And if so, what does it mean for the future? Is the old Israel gone? And if so, is it bad that it is gone? And, if this is the face of the new Israel, do I still belong?
When a very different funeral resulted in tens of thousands flocking to Tel Aviv to attend the funeral of the Israeli singer Arik Einstein – and when all media channels allotted their entire time, inches and space to a the traditional seven days of Jewish mourning when all get together to speak of the dead, hailing Einstein as the Israeli Frank Sinatra and the “ultimate Israeli” – many others wondered as well, “If he is the ultimate Israeli, what am I?” Do I belong in that Israel? And if this is his funeral, are we mourning an Israel that no longer exists as well as the new Israel that does exist? On greater terms, others wondered if the Prime Minister himself made a point of coming to Arik Einstein’s pre-funeral procession ceremony to speak, does it mean that he has identified a new consensus, an emerging new Israeli identity for which he can safely speak?
However, it is not just funerals, but also political events that raise such questions. The recent ousting of the social activist leader of the Labor Party, Shelly Yehimovich, and the election of Labor insider and Zionist “prince” Isaac Herzog, has been viewed by many as a form of counter-revolution: the old elites pushing back against the upstart communist revolutionary to protect, as much as they can, the old Israel and the privileges they enjoyed in it. Others have heralded it as an opportunity to rebuild a new left based on inclusion and cross group solidarity.
In parallel, Avigdor’s Lieberman return to mainstream politics, finally free from a 17-year burden of police investigations with the clear end goal of making it to the top, has led many others to wonder whether he will be Prime Minister after Netanyahu, as well as what that would mean for Israel. Does it mean that Israel has yet again proven itself as a society where immigrants can rise to the top within their own lifetime or does it mean a society that would look more like today’s Russia?
Who is right? Maybe all. Maybe none.
Israel is both an immigrant country that has made the absorption of new Jewish immigrants one of its most important and foundational aspirations, as well as a society deeply suspicious of outsiders. It is also a society that is struggling with difficult relations between majorities and minorities (such as the Muslim Arabs and the Ultra-Orthodox population) who do not share its founding ethos. This combination means that the social fabric of the country is never set. It is a society always in flux, with new groups always entering and vying for power and influence and old groups fearing that their home is being transformed even as they are still living in it.
As Israel continues to define its identity and what it means to be “Israel”, various groups wage battle to shape its soul. The bad news is that they do battle. The good news is that they do so because they all desperately want to belong. When twenty-five years from they all attend the junior high reunion they will find that everyone had their insecurities, no-one truly felt they belonged, and a generation later, they all finally do.