Israelis are adept at the pretense of normalcy. We move with seeming ease between daily life and life-threatening crisis. Our home front has endured assaults from Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles, Hezbollah’s Katyushas and precision missiles, Hamas’s homemade rockets and the more lethal Iranian models currently falling on our neighborhoods, along with suicide bombing and car ramming and stabbing sprees.
The Israeli ethos of coping is summed up in an ironic but heartfelt phrase, Lo na’im, lo norah, “not so pleasant but not so terrible.” Even when it is terrible, as it is now, with half the country forced into air raid shelters and “safe rooms,” we know there is a morning after.
But now it is the morning after that I worry about most. Even as the missiles fall, Arab citizens and Jewish citizens are violently attacking one another. More than the missiles, I worry about the terror we have internalized. How will we overcome the hatred and fear?
The epicenter of the unrest is Lod, a mixed Arab-Jewish working-class town minutes from Ben Gurion Airport. Young Arab men firebombed Jewish homes and burned five synagogues, chanting slogans calling for Israel’s destruction; Jewish extremists counterattacked. The violence quickly spread, even to Haifa, our showcase of coexistence. Arab mobs and Jewish mobs roamed the streets, beating and lynching, destroying “Jewish” shops and “Arab” shops, destroying a fragile but enduring equilibrium.
Ironically, the worst interethnic violence since the 1948 War follows the most promising year in the fraught history of the Arab-Jewish relationship. The coronavirus pandemic, Israel’s first lethal crisis that wasn’t about its conflict with the Arab world, brought Arab citizens closer than ever to the mainstream. The Israeli health system is one of the most integrated areas in our society: According to government estimates about 17 percent of doctors and 24 percent of nurses are Arab. The Israeli news media’s coverage of coronavirus focused on doctors in hijabs and coexistence in the respirator wards. One story that became iconic told of an Arab nurse who recited deathbed prayers with an ultra-Orthodox Jew.
Meanwhile, Israel was in political lockdown. After four inconclusive elections in two years, Jewish Israel was stalemated. Until this year, it was a given that Arab parties don’t participate in helping to form governing coalitions. Arab politicians didn’t want to risk supporting a government at war with Gaza or Lebanon; Jewish politicians didn’t want to legitimize Arab politicians who sometimes supported terror attacks against Jews.
Arab voters, though, were demanding that their representatives become players, even if that meant downplaying a Palestinian nationalist agenda in favor of pressing local issues like rising violent crime in Arab towns. The deadlock provided an opening.
Then came the fighting in Gaza and in Israel’s streets, and the historic partnership unraveled.
Israel’s ability to fashion a common civic identity for Arabs and Jews is confounded by the security situation. Jews wonder how they can trust a minority that is culturally and emotionally aligned with their enemies, and whose politicians reject the country’s identity as a Jewish state. For Arabs, a history of government land confiscation and budgetary discrimination, as well as the seemingly endless occupation of the Palestinians, have left deep wounds and distrust. The message Arabs take from the country’s Jewish identity and symbols is that they don’t quite belong.
That message was reinforced in 2018 with the Nation-State Law, passed by the right over the objections of the center and the left, which defines Israel as a Jewish state but ignores its democratic identity. Right-wing defenders of the law insist that affirming Israel as a democracy was unnecessary, since the Knesset had already passed laws ensuring equal rights for all. Yet those laws refer to individual rights, while the Nation-State Law defines the country’s identity.
The framers of Israel’s Declaration of Independence defined Israel as both Jewish and democratic: the homeland of all Jews, whether or not they were Israeli citizens; the state of all its citizens, whether or not they were Jews. An Israel that would no longer regard itself as a continuity of the Jewish story and protector of the world’s vulnerable Jews would lose its soul; an Israel that would no longer aspire to fulfill democratic values would lose its mind.
Balancing those two increasingly contentious but foundational elements of our national identity defines my Israeli commitment. There are voices on the left and the right who call for abolishing either Israel’s Jewish identity or its democratic identity. I stand with the large, if embattled, camp of political centrists that insists on holding both. We know that Israel’s long-term viability depends on managing the tensions inherent in our identity and reality.
For Israelis to form a shared civic identity, Jews need to fulfill Israel’s founding promise to grant full equality to all citizens and reassure Arabs that “Israeli” is not a synonym for “Jew.” Arabs need to come to terms with the fact that Israel will not abandon its Jewish identity and commitments.
In my building in Jerusalem’s French Hill neighborhood, nearly half the families are Arab Israeli. They are lawyers, doctors, civil servants, who bought apartments here because they want their share of the Israeli dream. The violence that erupted in the poor mixed neighborhoods would be unthinkable in middle-class French Hill. When Arabs and Jews meet in the parking lot, we sigh and reassure each other that things will get better because they always do and we have no choice.
Most Israelis — Arabs and Jews — are practiced in the habit of decency. But we are also practiced in self-justification. We know the routines of neighborliness, but rarely consider the other’s reality. We avoid the hard questions that threaten our certainties, our insistence on the absolute justice of our side. What is it like to be a Palestinian citizen of a Jewish state that occupies your family? What is it like to be a Jew who has finally come home, only to live under constant siege?
The current violence wasn’t triggered by any one event but, in part, by our inability to ask those questions. Perhaps we can begin building a better Israel from that place of shared brokenness.
Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He is author, most recently, of Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.