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‘We are in a civil war over Israel’s national identity’

Ben Lynfield
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‘We are in a civil war over Israel’s national identity’

Published: 28 July 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

The religious Right wants Jewish supremacism, the liberal Left wants democracy. The war could yet turn violent, political scientist MENACHEM KLEIN tells BEN LYNFIELD.

Could there be a civil war in Israel? That question is on the mind of many Israelis, including President Isaac Herzog, who warned against it Wednesday. “This is the time for restraint, the time for responsibility, the time to completely guard the first directive: no to a war among brothers,” he said.

But a few people say it is already underway. “We are in a civil war,” Menachem Klein, emeritus professor of political science at Bar Ilan University told The Jewish Independent in an interview on Tuesday, a day after the Knesset took its first step towards a more authoritarian state.

Klein, also a visiting professor in King’s College Department of War Studies in London, explained that the recent months of internal confrontation should be considered a war over the very identity of Israel: “A modern civil war is not like the American civil war with two big armies fighting each other. It can be violent confrontations between small groups. Here it’s clear we have two very different camps, communities, identities, self-perceptions, ways of imagining the state and what it means to be an Israeli citizen.”

Tensions have soared further since the Knesset voted on Monday to eliminate a criterion for judicial oversight of the government, the “reasonableness clause”. Opponents see this as a first practical step in weakening the judiciary and setting Israel on a course to losing its democratic character.

What distinguishes this from being a political struggle within the rules of the game, Klein says, is that the war is over the rules of the game themselves and over national identity, with the right-wing coalition “coming and changing the identity” of Israel. Noam Arnon, a spokesman for settlers in Hebron in the occupied West Bank, agrees with the assessment that Israel is in a civil war.

There is a civil war being waged by 'an elitist group' of the Left that is trying to thwart the elected right-wing government. They are in the economy, the military, academia and high tech.

Noam Arnon, spokesman for Hebron settlers

But he told The Jewish Independent that it is being waged by “an elitist group” of the Left that is trying to thwart the elected right-wing government. “They are in the economy, the military, academia and high tech. The Left is directing a civil war and a military coup,” Arnon said, apparently referring to refusals of reservists to serve under what they see as a burgeoning dictatorship.

Klein says there are two goals in this civil war, for two warring sides. “Jewish supremacism is the policy implemented by one group while the other group wants to preserve the old order,” Klein says.

He defines the current moment as “cold civil war” but adds that it is “reasonable to assume” that bloodshed could be set off by either the Right or the Left. “There is no immunity against radicalism and bloodshed on the Left,” Klein says.

Opposition leaders known as the Kaplan Force said in a statement late Wednesday reported by Ynet news agency, that they would use economic means, disruption of public order and widening of protests against the “illegitimate” government but stressed this would be done non-violently.

In Klein’s view, the coalition camp enjoys the advantage of having a clear message: the primacy of Jewish identity over democracy.

While they are exuding determination, Klein says the protest movement is actually in deep crisis. “For the protesters. All they had on their agenda was to stop the legislation. Now the legislation has passed. It feels like a total loss. They put all their eggs in one basket even though this is about much more than legal changes. They lack a coherent ideology and that is a serious weakness.”

In Klein’s view, the coalition camp enjoys the advantage of having a clear message: “the primacy of Jewish identity over democracy”.

“[Religious Zionism party leader] Bezalel Smotrich is clear. He prefers Jewish supremacism over democracy and rejects liberal democracy.” The protesters, by contrast, speak in terms of rights -individual rights, gender rights, group rights, but have not formulated ideas about a collective identity, Klein says.

“They don’t say what they mean by a Jewish state. They don’t say who is included and who is in and who is out or what are the geographical or communal boundaries of the Jewish collective They run away from identity issues and stick to slogans about ‘Jewish and democratic’ and the Declaration of Independence.”

The protesters don’t say what they mean by a Jewish state. They don’t say who is included, or what are the geographical or communal boundaries. They run away from identity issues.

Menachem Klein

In this war, the Jewish supremacists, as members of religious communities and settlements, have an advantage when it comes to social cohesion. “Their communities offer members a belonging to a group, which can be organised in a synagogue with their own communication channels and their own authorities, the rabbis. They have their own group identity,” Klein says.

By contrast, the protesters come as individuals, not as people from an organised community. “In the protests they try to build imagined communities, ad hoc communities, but these are not organic communities”. Groups built around army units, geographical locations and professors projecting that there is “no academia without democracy” have weaker cohesion than the right-wing communities, Klein argues.

If the opposition is to win the civil war it must formulate an answer to the Right’s stress on identity, in the process building an alliance with Palestinian citizens, Klein argues. “Seeing Palestinians as second-class citizens plays into the hands of Jewish supremacists,” he says.

“In the next few weeks, the protesters should discuss what does it mean to be a Jewish state and a substantive democracy with equal citizenship for non-Jews? The vast majority of protesters say that for them it’s important that it be a Jewish state. But what do they mean by Jewish state? These are serious subjects and to confront the Jewish identity camp, the orthodox camp, you have to deal with them.”

Noam Arnon, the Hebron settler leader, said he very much hopes there won’t be an eruption of violence. “The Right never initiates violence,” he said, overlooking the Hebron massacre by settler Baruch Goldstein in 1994 and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a settler supporter a year later.

Israel is entering a civil war, former prime minister Ehud Olmert says
(Jerusalem Post)
DAVID HOROVITZ: How do we safeguard Israel, when the government is at war with much of the people?
(Times of Israel)
DANIEL GORDIS: The Country’s Already Been Destroyed’
(The Atlantic)

Photo: Menachem Klein

About the author

Ben Lynfield

Ben Lynfield covered Israeli and Palestinian politics for The Independent and served as Middle Eastern affairs correspondent at the Jerusalem Post. He writes for publications in the region and has contributed to the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy and the New Statesman.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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