Columns

Whose country is this anyway?



As Israel struggles to put together a ruling coalition, I was struck by a television report there that a senior ultra-Orthodox rabbi and spiritual leader of the United Torah Judaism party said he’d prefer a government propped up by Israel’s Islamist Raam party than one with leftist Jewish parties, because Israeli Arab lawmakers were less likely to turn everyone secular.

That pretty well sums up how polarized Israeli politics is today — and why Israel just held its fourth inconclusive election in under two years and could soon be heading for a fifth, which must be some kind of Guinness world record for democratic electoral haplessness.

I follow Israeli politics closely, not only for itself, but because I’ve noticed over the years that Israeli political trends are to Western politics what off-Broadway is to Broadway. Stuff often happens in miniature there first.

What is playing out in Israel is the same political fragmentation/polarization that is hobbling America: the loss of a shared national narrative to inspire and bind the country as it journeys into the 21st century.

While Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, on Tuesday gave Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu the first shot at forging a new government out of all the parties that won seats in the last election, Rivlin said “no candidate has a realistic chance of forming” a ruling coalition. Earlier Rivlin had said Israel needed a leader who could “heal the divides between us” as well as “pass a budget and extricate the state institutions from political paralysis.”

Sound familiar?

Israel and America are both nations “that gave birth to themselves in the name of self-proclaimed ideas and ideals,” noted Dov Seidman, author of the book “How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything.” “When your country is a grand, aspirational human project like that, it requires sharing some very deep things — foundational principles like liberty and justice for all and an animating ethos like America’s e pluribus unum. Right now, in both countries, those deep things not only have been fractured, they are actively being fractured by a polarization industry that assaults the truth and trust necessary for these projects to flourish.”

This, understandably, added Seidman, is prompting a lot of Israelis and Americans to ask: “What is the unifying basis of our shared association going forward?

In America, it’s projected that the country will become “majority minority” around 2045, when whites will make up roughly 49.9% of the population. The new majority will be about 25% Hispanic, 13% Black, 8% Asian descent and some 4% multiracial.

This has intensified polarization, as the Trump GOP has played on the fears of that tipping point and sought to constrict legal and illegal immigration and, more recently, voting rights to preserve the powers of the shrinking white majority. The left has gone to the other extreme, increasingly defining people by their race, religion, sexual orientation or power/powerlessness status, not by what we all have in common as Americans.

Israel’s most important demographic tipping point, though, is not the one you think — i.e., not just with the Arabs — it’s with its exploding ultra-Orthodox Jewish population, argues Dan Ben-David, a Tel Aviv University economist, who heads the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research.

In short, to thrive in the 21st century both America and Israel need to define anew what it means to be a pluralistic democracy — with big, idealistic aspirations — at a time when their populations have become so much more diverse.

Right now, too many Americans and Israelis are walking around asking, quietly or loudly, “Hey, whose country is this anyway?” instead of, “Hey, see what we can do when we’re together?” Both will remain stuck unless their focus is on the latter question.

Thomas L. Friedman is a New York Times columnist.

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