Israel: a nation renowned for its deep-rooted splits, religious significance and vast, often disputed, history. Subject to domestic terrorism from its own citizens, it is a country literally surrounded by enemies. It is possibly the most contested region in the world and the old fights over where sovereignty should lie, with the Jewish settlers or with the Palestinians, remain interminable. There are countless examples and events that evidence just the sheer cavity between Israel’s Jews and its Palestinians, from continuous bombings to sectarian street clashes. The dreadful impact of this enormous divide between two of the oldest and biggest religions in the world is captured by two sentences in a play, written by Aaron Sorkin, called ‘Isaac and Ishmael’:
Teenager: What do you call a society that has to live every day with the idea that the pizza place you’re in can just blow up without warning?
Sam Seaborn: Israel.
However, this description of the Holy Land is just one, albeit very large, divide in Israel today. This nation, only born in 1948, is not just divided between religions, but within them too. These splits have been more open and obvious among Israel’s Muslims (Hamas and Fatah), however the disparity within the Jewish community, which has typically been quieter, has surfaced recently, as demonstrated by protests outside the Israeli Supreme Court throughout the past few weeks between Orthodox-religious Jews and liberal-secular Jews.
These demonstrations, which will continue throughout the next few weeks, were sparked after Rabbis Dov Lior and Yaakov Yosef were taken into custody a few weeks ago. The two men heavily endorsed a text called The King’s Torah, which justifies the killing of non-Jews who threaten the state of Israel. At one point, it even implies that it is permissible for a Jew to kill a non-Jewish child if it could grow up to pose a threat to Israel. The police asked the two Rabbis to voluntarily come in for questioning, and, when they refused, arrested them.
Although the demonstrations appeared to start out as a protest over the issue of free speech and its jeopardy from certain police powers, it was not long until they transformed into ideological battles between Israel’s Orthodox-religious Jews (right wing) and its secular-liberal Jews (left wing). These battles began focusing on the grand old issues that split Jews all over the world, from Zionism to separation of church and state. Violence broke out and police reinforcements have been used to separate the counteracting protests.
These clashes are by no means the first signs of divide within the Jewish communities of Israel, as liberal Jews have been at odds with their conservative counterparts since Israel’s creation. This chasm between Jews has been noticeable both through Israel’s times of war and through their times of peace, but has usually been accompanied by politically significant events or incidents. For example, in 1995, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by radical right-wing Orthodox-Jew, Yigal Amir, because he had signed the Oslo Accords in 1993. However, the difference this time round is that these cracks have emerged without the catalyst of changing regimes or large political movement.
The inconsistency of these new clashes scare many Jews in Israel, as they bring to light the prospect of a tangible discord, which would be catastrophic for the region, as both sides act as a sort of check on each other; secular-liberal Jews make sure Orthodox-religious Jews don’t step out of line and vice versa. If the two sides were to officially split, the political and, more importantly, military implications could be drastic. This was vaguely demonstrated during Israel’s unilateral disengagement plan from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Although Jewish settlements in Gaza are not internationally recognised, many Orthodox-religious Jews believe they are justified and when a number of these Jewish settlers refused to move, the army was forced to evict them. These events not only sparked much tension between the two sides, with intra-sectarian fights and an ideological civil war, but also established dissensions within military ranks, causing huge problems for army generals ordering soldiers to evict settlers against their own vehement views.
What is worse is that not only does separation appear to be more likely than ever, but it’s coming at a time when these splits are most prevalent in public service and the army. Figures released in the Israeli Defence Forces magazine Maarachot claim that 30% of today’s Israeli infantry officers consider themselves Zionists, compared to 2.5% in 1980. This gargantuan shift in ratio in the military has sparked more fear, and subsequently, more tension. This is especially relevant after a recent Supreme Court decision ruled that some Jewish settlers in the West Bank will be forced to move in the coming months. Many high-ranking officers in the army are worried that an exacerbated rendition of the mass eviction in 2005 could occur, as intra-Jewish divides could cause soldiers to refuse carrying out orders to evict Jews when necessary, which isn’t a million miles away from the reality of a military coup d’etat.
The arrest of Rabbis Dov Lior and Yaakov Yosef is just another incident in the line of history dividing Israel’s Jews. Due to an increase in the degree of pressure between the two opposing sides, many fear that worse is to come. The consequences of a significant and dimensional split between Jews could be so devastating that it could act as the final straw; no one is sure on how many different fronts Israel can fight a war.