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Israel: Everybody is a Minority

Reuven Rivlin, the president of Israel, is an outspoken man, but he knows when to hold his fire.

He condemned the killing of an 18-month-old Palestinian child in an arson attack in the West Bank by suspected Jewish settlers last Friday as “terrorism”, but he did not say that the suspects were from the extreme wing of the “national religious tribe”.

Rivlin has not yet commented publicly on the knife attack on Gay Pride marchers in Jerusalem the previous day that wounded six people (one of whom, 16-year-old Shira Banki, has now died of her wounds). But if and when he does, he will not point out that the killer, Yishai Schlissel, belongs to the extremist fringe of the “Haredi tribe”, the ultra-Orthodox Jews who do not even recognize the legitimacy of the state of Israel.

It would be wrong to use language that paints all the members of the tribes in question as accomplices in these murders, because they aren’t. Even if some of them sympathize with the actions of the murderer (and some probably do), it would still be a political mistake to alienate them further from the mainstream of Israeli society.

But maybe we should rephrase that last sentence, because in Rivlin’s view there no longer is an Israeli “mainstream”. There once was, when secular Jews, mostly of Eastern European origin, formed the majority of the population and everybody else belonged to “minorities”. But higher birth rates among those minorities have turned the secular Jews into just another minority—and he says they should really all be seen as “tribes”.

He said all this two months ago, in a startlingly frank speech to the Herzliya conference, an annual event where the country’s leaders debate issues of national policy. “In the 1990s,” he told them, “Israeli society comprised…a large secular Zionist majority, and beside it three minority groups: a national-religious minority, an Arab minority, and a Haredi minority.

“Although this pattern remains frozen in the minds of much of the Israeli public, in the press, in the political system, all the while, the reality has totally changed,” he continued. “Today, the first grade classes (in Israeli schools) are composed of about 38 percent secular Jews, about 15 percent national religious, about one quarter Arabs, and close to a quarter Haredim.”

The demographic changes, Rivlin said, have created a “new Israeli order…in which Israeli society is comprised of four population sectors, or, if you will, four principal ‘tribes’, essentially different from each other, and growing closer in size. Whether we like it or not, the make-up of the ‘stakeholders’ of Israeli society, and of the State of Israel, is changing before our eyes.”

The most important implication of this change is that barely half of the children now in Israeli primary schools will grow up to be Zionists. The Arabs will not, of course, but neither will the Haredim, the ultra-Orthodox Jews who believe that the Zionist project to recreate Jewish rule in Israel is blasphemous. Only God can do that, by sending the Messiah, and the Zionist attempt to hurry it along by human means is a rebellion against God.

Neither of these “tribes” even serves in the military, once the great unifying Israeli institution. Arabs are not conscripted for military service, and very few volunteer. In practice, the Haredim have been exempt from military service for all of Israel’s history as an independent state, although parliament passed a law last year that seeks to end the exemptions.

The Zionist tribes are also divided between the secular Zionists and the “national religious” tribe. The latter reconcile their Orthodox religious beliefs with the Zionist project by arguing that it was God who inspired the early Zionists in eastern Europe to build a Jewish state in Palestine, even if they did not realize it themselves. Most Jewish settlers on the West Bank, and most of their supporters in Israel proper, belong to this tribe.

All these former minority tribes are to some extent alienated from the secular, liberal-democratic Zionist assumptions that underpin Israel’s current political structure. A few members of each tribe are already so alienated that they turn to violence, like the settlers who attack Palestinian children, the Israeli Arabs who run amok and kill Jews, or the Haredi fanatic who attacked the Gay Pride march.

President Rivlin, “Ruvi” didn’t say that explicitly—it’s too upsetting—but he was pointing out that the emperor has no clothes. The current secular Zionist domination cannot continue; the other tribes must also come to feel safe and welcome in a different kind of Israel. Specifically, in a “one-state” Israel that includes all the territory between the river Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea.

Rivlin, though an Orthodox Jew, doesn’t really belong to any of these tribes: his family has lived in Jerusalem for more than two centuries. He doesn’t believe that the “two-state solution”—one country for Jews and one for Palestinian Arabs—is viable any more, if it ever was. So he is driven to the “one-state solution”, which requires reconciliation and cooperation between all the tribes.

It’s so radical that it almost makes sense. It’s just hard to believe that it could actually happen.