The answer to this question is very personal. Some will connect it to their Jewish Identity, some for the need to have a Jewish country—a ‘just-in-case country’, and some cannot explain why they care, but they do.
However, many people think about Israel as a concept. It’s the Jewish State. Jewish people with a mostly Jewish government, and Jewish Army. A country with great food, cool Tel Aviv, and beautiful Jerusalem. A place where they can feel at home, surrounded by so many other Jewish people, like them.
It is not. Indeed, many Jewish people live in Israel. However, it is a very complex place that comprises multigroup (‘tribes’1) and subgroups, and sub-subgroups of people who have different cultural backgrounds, histories, values, and most importantly, a different vision for the future of Israel.
When the founders of the country envisioned the Israeli state, they imagined all these groups combining into one “melting-pot” definition of the “New Jew”—creating a new shared culture, history, and society that will emerge from the fact that they all live together on the same land. But this vision was not realized. On the contrary, the incidents of the last few months in Israel have revealed how big the gap between these groups is. The level of stress, protests, and anger has reached new peaks. It is a historical time in Israel that will probably affect Israeli society for many years to come.
How did Israel get to this place? Who are these tribes that are the components of Israeli society? What drives them? What do they think of other groups? How do they see the future of Israel?
The goal of the Israel Seminar of the Mandel Executive Leadership Program was to try and answer these questions. I am a Fellow in this program, and many of my cohort friends are about to take positions of CEO and other very senior positions in Jewish organizations around the U.S. and Canada. These are the people who will play a significant role in the relationship between Jews in Israel and the diaspora. It is crucial for them, the future Jewish American leaders, to understand the complexities of Israeli society. However, the program was so excellent, thorough, and thought-provoking that I also wish that Israeli leaders could have experienced it as well.
The Mandel seminar dedicated each day (and these were very long days) to a different group in Israeli society: the Ultra-Orthodox (Haredim), the National-Religious in the settlements, the Mizrahi people who live in the periphery in the south, the seculars in Tel Aviv, Israeli Arabs, and people who live in mixed cities like Haifa and Akko. Within each group we met with the people most qualified to present us with the complexity of that specific group, people who do not always fit the narrative we came with and opened our eyes to the depth of each tribe of Israeli society.
We met Ultra-Orthodox who do a lot, and pay a price, to get higher education, or make a change within their society, who want to have a profession and earn a living while maintaining their beliefs and traditions. We met settlers who portrayed a whole spectrum of opinions. On one hand, we met with the person who twitted to wipe out the Palestinian village of Hawara— a tweet that was re-tweeted by Bezalel Smotritch, which eventually led to President Joe Biden’s refusal to invite him to the White House.
At the same panel, we heard a feminist female Rabbi, who, despite recently losing her closest friend in a terror attack, still believes in the two-state solution. We met people in Tel Aviv who feel that they must fight for their democratic country, as they know it. And a person who takes pictures of the city so she can show her grandchildren how life in the city was before everything changed. We met Israeli Arabs who want to feel part of Israeli society, but the door is not always open for them. The entire week we heard pain, anger, and fear, but also a lot of love for Israel and hope.
These identity tribes live within the very small State of Israel—they live alongside each other, with each other, and despite each other. In such a little piece of land, it is almost inevitable for one to find orthodox, secular, national-religious, and Arabs in every bus line you’ll decide to take. However, even though they all ride the same bus, it still feels as if they do not see each other.
The tribal-identity society, which is enforced by the separate education system that the country provides for each group, does not encourage people to reach out to others who do not think like them. It creates a simplified narrative of what the others want or think: the ultraorthodox wants Israel to become an Iran-like country, they don’t want to work or study math. The seculars like only people who think like them. The settlers are terrorists, and the Arabs do not want to be part of Israeli society.
The Mandel seminar enabled me and my Fellow friends to break these narratives—to dive deep into each tribe and to find that the gaps between the groups are not always as big as they first seem. In the seminar we tried to understand that every group, every tribe, has people who hate and people who love. And we met with them. In every group, there are people who I can connect with, people who want to be part of the greater society of Israel. And we heard them. But most of all, we saw the need for the other tribes to listen to each other as well.
I, as many Israelis these days, also fear for the future of the democratic nature of the country, and for the government’s checks and balances. I feel strongly that in spite of the demographic changes that are happening in the country, there are certain values, like the right of speech, freedom of religion, and other human rights that should always be protected by law and the court. However, the seminar helped me understand that the fight for these values needs to be open enough for anyone, from every tribe, to participate in.
The seminar enabled us to understand Israel’s complexity, and then try to bring this understanding to our communities in the United States. Learning about these issues makes it easier to understand Israel, and therefore, to understand the relationship between Israel and the United States.
However, this seminar was also a reminder that every society is dealing with complicated issues these days—with groups that create their own truth, without listening to other opinions, groups who feel threatened that others are changing their reality. We put everyone who doesn’t think like us in one box, believing that “they” all think the same. We, like many people in Israel these days, need to reach out to people on the other side and find the ones who share some of our values. We need to understand that compromise is not a bad word, and that one side cannot win without everyone losing.