Sometimes you read an article (like Stewart Weiss’s “Survival Syndrome”, Jerusalem Post, Jan. 20, 2012) about the way Israelis cut lines and drive wildly, attributing these anti-social behaviors to the Jewish historical experience of surviving hostile neighbors and antagonistic governments. But the occasionally abrasive interactions of daily life in Israel should be viewed as part of a much larger issue in our society.
The problem is the gradual but inexorable breakdown of the rule of law, preceded by the erosion of equality before the law, in the Jewish state. There are many reasons, including a dysfunctional electoral system resulting in a gridlocked legislature and increasingly ungovernable society; poor leadership; an overloaded, besieged and slow-moving judicial system; strong sectoral interests without any real concern for national needs; concentration of wealth and influence in fewer and fewer hands; and the pathological evolution of powerful groups prepared to defy the law and use violence in pursuit of their goals.
Unless you insist on remaining in denial, here are some of the symptoms, whose dots should be connected:
1. The status of haredim in Israeli society. This is in itself a massive violation of equality before the law, and an explosive example of unfair positive discrimination in favor of a group seen to one extent or another as taking without giving back. Their constantly escalating aggressiveness in imposing their will in matters of marriage and divorce, Jewish identity, work force participation, army service, women’s rights, and gender separation in public places is leading to major social conflict. Their contempt for the state and its laws, except in terms of what they can extract from it for their sustenance and institutions, and notwithstanding exemplary bodies such as Yad Sarah, Zaka and Ezra LaMarpeh, is ideological. With their demographic expansion, this issue is reaching unprecedented and uncontainable dimensions.
2. The status of settlers in the West Bank. From the beginning, they have worked in opposition to laws and governments, in obedience to a higher calling of redeeming the Greater Land of Israel. Their rabbis, some or many of them (I won’t debate the point), justify land theft, dispossession of Palestinians, refusal of army discipline, violence against non-Jews, leading inevitably – I contend – to violence against Jews. Their political lobby provides cover and retroactive legitimization of their actions. Their “price tag” thugs started out as a tiny minority, and have long since become far more than that. Despite protestations, no one is effectively restraining them in their brutal, continuous terrorization of Palestinian civilians. Many feel that the settlers have already succeeded in making the two-state solution impossible to implement.
3. Corruption. The parade of Israeli politicians being charged and convicted is the tip of the iceberg. The system stinks from the top down. If you need a permit from a government office at any level, you often employ the services of facilitators (“machers”), a profession whose very existence is a scandal. The prevalence all around us of blatant building code violations, corrupt government officials, fixed soccer games, you-name-it, is demoralizing.
4. The Israeli underworld. It seems to function with very little trouble from law enforcement. Gang warfare is pursued in public places, and tough luck for those caught in the crossfire. A ghastly white slave trade and drug trafficking go on and on with minimal interruption by the police.
5. Illegal immigrants. Attempts are being made to deal with this enormous humanitarian problem, but there are still several hundred thousand “illegals” here, streaming over the border from Egypt and being exploited ruthlessly for their unskilled labor.
6. Israeli Arabs. A much more complex example, since they are discriminated against in so many areas of Israeli life, as a visit to any Arab town or village makes very clear. Their political leadership has become radicalized and a very small but apparently growing minority is being drawn into anti-Israel activity.
With all this going on, is there any wonder that Israelis cut lines? The law is supposedly indivisible, and when it is undermined in one sector, its deterioration in others follows inevitably. How much can our system be contorted and compromised before it breaks? How long can the center hold against the stresses ripping it apart? Many respond with complacency, hedonism, or cynicism, but there is a real sense that we cannot go on like this.
In the early years of statehood, Ben-Gurion strove to instill a sense of national or civic consciousness, of a basic commitment to the new state which had to supercede our historical divisiveness, if we were to survive. For example, he suppressed both the Irgun and the Palmach, and enforced a single army of the state. We can’t afford to lose that awareness.
Jews seem to be so capable as individuals, and so deficient as a collective, in nurturing and strengthening our precious state and its democratic institutions. The rule of law and equality before the law are not luxuries, they are survival necessities and the only alternative to either chaos or totalitarianism.
A constitution and bill of rights seem more necessary than ever for Israel, and I wish I knew how to get us there. We must give all this our maximum attention before it’s too late, lest we replicate – God forbid! – the catastrophic experience of our ancestors. Connecting the dots is a good place to start.