Internal strife unsettles Israel, ex-Knesset member says

"For years, the theory was that external strife enabled Israel to overcome internal strife," said Yehuda Ben-Meir, former Israeli deputy foreign minister and a Knesset member for 13 years.

Today, Israel has made great strides toward resolving the external threat, he said during a talk earlier this month at the South Peninsula Hebrew Day School in Sunnyvale.

"Philosophically and historically, the more difficult issue is how to live with ourselves in a just, strong Israeli society — with everyone feeling a part of the whole despite differences."

Ben-Meir, a practicing attorney and a social psychologist who has lived in Israel since 1950, is currently a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University.

Rabbi Yochanan Kirschenboim, director of Hebrew and Judaic studies for the day school and spiritual leader of Sunnyvale's Bar Yohay Sephardic Minyan, introduced Ben-Meir's talk with a brief reminder of the significance of Jews gathering together throughout the centuries.

Expanding on that concept, Ben-Meir pointed out that "the root of the word Knesset is knos, meaning 'to gather.'"

Israel, which has gathered in Jews from all over the world, has also gathered together the striking differences that they reflect — politically, culturally, religiously and economically.

When Ben-Meir was a child in Israel, residents grappled with ethnic, socioeconomic and religious differences. Today, with Israel 88 percent Jewish, "Arab minorities within Israel struggle with dual loyalty — torn between their preference for Israeli prosperity and security, and their sympathy with the Palestinians," he said.

Such stresses are accompanied by long-existing strains between Ashkenazi Jews from Europe and Sephardi Jews from the Middle East and North Africa.

"These tensions are not unique to Israel," Ben-Meir reminded the audience. "Europeans have always struggled with ethnic and religious differences."

Pointing out that Israel is divided almost evenly between the two Jewish traditions, Ben-Meir said that although cultural clashes "may still have the potential to flare up, this problem is on its way to being solved, largely through intermarriage between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews."

He also predicts "total assimilation" between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews within another generation, adding that Sephardic Jews — who did not on the whole have positions of power in Israel's early years and were largely on the lower end of the economic spectrum — are now in the highest circles of government.

"Among university students, there is almost an even division of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews today," he said. "Although Ashkenazi Jews still predominate at the graduate school level, that difference will soon be gone."

Economically, he said, Israel is strong and getting stronger, noting that Israel's gross domestic product equals that of all of its neighbors combined. "The people of Israel are socially committed to minimizing inequality. The tax system reconciles the most extreme differences between rich and poor."

Turning to religious dissension, Ben-Meir said it dates back to the Second Aliyah in 1905, when young immigrants from Europe rebelled against the pious traditions of their parents. By the time of the overwhelmingly Zionist Third Aliyah of the 1920s, "secularism was an identity, an ideology — almost a religion in itself — a religion of labor…Today, the 'old tradition' [of secularism] is simply not as strong."

His own research, he said, shows that 90 percent of the Jews in Israel are observant in the sense that they hold a seder and refrain from eating bread during Passover, fast on Yom Kippur and celebrate Chanukah. "They might not observe every element of the Passover tradition. But they do not embrace the secular ideology."

Instead, the majority of Israeli Jews consider themselves "religious" or "traditional," with those calling themselves "secular" numbering between 35 and 40 percent.

"Today, religion tension is the No. 1 problem in Israel," Ben-Meir said, adding that three common perceptions complicate the problem further:

The first is the belief by both sides — secular and fervently religious — that "the tide is turning against them" and that "the press is biased" against them.

The second is that power is unfairly divided. The fervently religious feel they are being discriminated against — receiving less public money for their schools, for example, while secular and liberal Jews feel the opposite is true.

The third element of religious tension surrounds the issue of "Who is a Jew?" That issue, he said, is complicated by the large number of Soviet emigres and the desire of the Reform and Conservative Jews for more equitable treatment.

Legally, he said, resolving the question "Who is a Jew?" is critical because there are two basic privileges in Israel that are only open to Jews: the Law of Return and citizenship.

"In my opinion, we have to enable all groups to live and pray as they see fit," he said. "We must live in a pluralistic society."