Another Kind of Unity

Some nations are united by a strong founding document. Israelis have only themselves, and that has been enough.

The mothers of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrah, who were kidnapped and killed by terrorists last summer. Laura Chiesa/Pacific Press/Corbis/APImages.

The mothers of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrah, who were kidnapped and killed by terrorists last summer. Laura Chiesa/Pacific Press/Corbis/APImages.

June 24 2015
About the author

Haviv Rettig Gur is the senior analyst for the Times of Israel.

Edward Grossman’s essay captures in an impressionistic sweep the intertwined fears, joys, and dangers that make up the present-day Israeli experience. Looming over it all is the distant yet imminent Persian menace—a menace that, Grossman fears, Israel’s fractured political class may not be up to. Hence his call for a new politics of unity in the Jewish state.

While the essay neatly captures much of the Israeli condition, something important is missing. Grossman’s question, “Can Israel Unite?” seems to be premised on the assumption that the factional nature of Israeli parliamentary politics somehow mediates and reflects a deeper absence of solidarity within Israeli society itself. But in an important sense, in the most important sense, Israel is already unified, however masked that fact may be by our arguably worsening culture of political divisiveness, problems of social marginalization, growing economic and educational disparities, and all the other challenges we face.

For all their diversity, and amid the disaster and ruin of the region, Israeli Jews share a baseline historical consciousness, an ethos of togetherness and sacrifice, and a few fundamental beliefs about the meaning and demands of their Jewish identity: a kinship, in other words, that enables them to triumph and flourish, time and again.

Permit me to explain.


In The Origins of Political Order, Francis Fukuyama offers a suggestive analysis of the peculiar Muslim institution of military slavery: a cruel arrangement under which Christian and other non-Muslim children in Ottoman lands were abducted by the sultan’s men and taken for service in the imperial administration. What made this Muslim version of slavery exceptional, even in its time, was that the abducted were destined for service as the most senior officials and most elite soldiers in the realm.

What explains this seeming paradox? The Ottomans, like other Muslim imperial dynasties, faced an endemic tribalism rooted in clan-based kinship ties among the Arabs and other peoples under their yoke. For the Ottomans, these social structures constituted a dire threat: an alternative and more resonant source of loyalty. Military slaves, having been taken from their kin at a young age, had no such attachments. Their place in the hierarchy was determined through merit, not blood, and the impersonal nature of their office was preserved by the imperial regulation forbidding children from following their fathers into state service.

Fukuyama draws the lesson: in Muslim history, successful governance, political stability, and their attendant economic and military benefits correlate strongly with the capacity of a particular ruler or state to overcome or sidestep tribal structures. This tells us much about the growth and development of Muslim empires—and, in the modern period, Muslim dictatorships—and also much about their inherent fragility and potential for decay and self-destruction. It also helps frame the issue of Israel’s contrasting species of “tribal” unity.


Israeli Jewish identity is different from American Jewish identity. Whereas American Jews tend to see themselves, through a Protestant lens, as a community of choice bound together by some common values and customs, Israeli Jews, shaped by their origins either in Eastern Europe or in the Muslim world, partake of basic assumptions about the nature of Jewish belonging and the demands this places on individual Jews. In brief, Israeli identity is closer to the sort of tribal identity that characterizes other societies in the Middle East. History, language, calendar, religious tradition, land, and above all solidarity are the cords that bind this very specific, powerful, and organic brand of Jewishness.

And yet: in a stark departure from the Middle Eastern norm, Israel’s tribalism, though rooted in a collective identity that Israelis believe is the source of their strength, is also deeply meritocratic and individualistic, and Israel’s politics are liberal and unfettered. This balance, in which the “tribe” itself is pictured as larger and more impersonal than in any conventional form of tribalism, extending vastly beyond the confines of blood ties, enables Israel to avoid the potential for decay faced by actual kinship societies. Its sources lie in Zionism, in the eastern roots of half of Israel’s Jews, in ancient political notions gleaned from the traditional Jewish bookshelf, and more.

Nearly all Israeli Jews hail from non-democratic societies, and the country’s founders left behind little in the way of political theory or any philosophical treatises on human freedom. Nevertheless, Israel was founded, almost instinctively and without serious challenge, as a democracy. It could not really have been otherwise. As the historian Alexander Yakobson has written, the underlying impulse that made this possible was the peculiarly Jewish tribal conviction that it was unacceptable, indeed taboo, to kill or otherwise oppress one’s fellow Jews. That being the case, no other political order could be established but a democratic one.

From this civilizational choice flow many of Israel’s advantages. Democratic institutions almost necessarily mean a meritocratic military and public service and the economic freedoms that ensure prosperity. What begins in an innate ideology of tribal solidarity ends in a liberal national order: a civilizational answer to the weakness that defined and shaped the development of Islam’s greatest empires.

And that brings us back to the challenge of unity articulated by Edward Grossman, and to my argument that this unity already exists. During last summer’s campaign in Gaza, Jewish support for the government’s prosecution of the war polled at 92, 95, and 97 percent in three consecutive July surveys conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute. In other words, many if not most Israeli Jewish voters—left-wingers, right-wingers, or centrists, Sephardim or Ashkenazim, secularists or traditionalists or ultra-Orthodox—were as one.

It is not simply that Israelis rally to the flag in war. War, after all, is a permanent enough condition here to have grown tiresome as a rallying cry in and of itself. Golda Meir’s 1974 fall from power after the trauma of the Yom Kippur war, the ultimately successful public campaign for withdrawal from Lebanon, the inception of the Oslo peace process that followed the pressures of the first intifada—these and other developments testify to a sustained civic capacity, through decades of unrelenting military danger, for vigorous discussion and criticism of Israel’s leadership. Rather, Israeli Jews share a profound sense of standing shoulder to shoulder in a pitiless and often bloodthirsty world, a world that has impressed upon them the need to fend for each other, often alone; that same sense has empowered them to respond to a diverse set of threats in precisely the way that Grossman worries they cannot.

Some nations are made free and united by the efforts of a generation of spectacularly gifted founding fathers. We Israeli Jews had no Philadelphia Convention, no Federalist Papers. We had only each other, and—however grave the challenge—that has been enough.

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