The Tribes of Israel

From Dr Hamid Hussain

16 September 2023

I’m doing a series of risk analysis reports about Israeli state and society in the context of Abraham Accord. My own view is that people to people interactions at various forums will create the firm foundation for a long-term sustained effort for social and economic normalcy in the region despite differences.

This is second of the series of about half a dozen reports.


New Tribes of Israel

Hamid Hussain

“Our future does not depend on what the gentiles will say but on what the Jews will do.”           David ben Gurion; Israel’s founding father.

Israel is a diverse society and individual identities include religion, ethnicity, ideological and political views. Despite this diversity, Israel born amid existential security threat emerged as a strong country built on a firm democratic foundation.  State accommodated different perspectives and allowed autonomy in personal and religious spheres.  Crisis of governance and starkly contrasting positions not only on political but also many public policy questions, including marriage, divorce, religious conversion, military conscription, and gender segregation is polarizing Israeli society.

In 2015, Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, gave a speech that became known as the “The Four Tribes Speech.” He argued that Israeli society has evolved into four groups or tribes each charting its own course. The four tribes consist of secular Jews, national – religious Jews, ultra-orthodox Haredi Jews, and Arabs. He described this ‘new Israeli order’ as not an apocalyptic prophecy but a reality that could already be seen in the composition of the first-grade classes in the Israeli education system. He was referring to the separate education systems run by the four tribes.  Israeli schools are divided into four different tracks: state-secular (Mamlachti), state-religious (Mamlachti Dati), independent religious (Ḥinuch Atzmai or Haredi), and Arab. Haredi and Arabs are exempt from compulsory military service therefore they do not have the opportunity to work and live together with other groups outside of their own spheres.

The proportions of children attending schools in the Haredi and Arab sectors are increasing and it is estimated that by 2030 close to 40% of Israel’s elementary school population will be Haredi and Arab. Today, it is common for students to never meet someone who is “different” until they enter the adult world. The distance and alienation between these tribes is growing at an alarming rate.

Secular Israeli Tribe

 “Good deeds are better than creeds.”      The Talmud

According to 2015 Pew survey, forty nine percent of Israeli Jews identify themselves as Hiloni (secular). They view their Jewish identity as cultural in contrast to religious Israelis who view the identity in religious terms both in creed and practice. Politically they are in the center and left but many also vote for rightist parties.

Secular Israelis are the product of modernism, Jewish enlightenment (Haskala), socialism, and Zionism of 19th and 20 centuries. Once upon a time, secular Israel stood socially and politically dominant controlling the destiny of the country. They had earned it by sacrificing their careers, economic prosperity and putting their lives on the frontlines of survival battles. The founding fathers of Israel fully aware of the disasters brought upon by messianic movements in Jewish history avoided it like a plague. Their project was creation of the ‘New Jew’; proud, confident, and willing to defend himself in his homeland while at the same time member of the elite western world. This was in stark contrast to the ‘old ghetto Jew’; insulted and humiliated by the majority around him and living in fear but holding on dearly to his religion and traditions.

Secular ruling elite demanded new Jewish immigrants especially Mizrahim (Eastern) from Middel East, Iran, and North Africa to shed their old identity, language and traditions and merge in new Israeli identity. Ultra-orthodox self-segregated in their own communities were initially small in numbers and ignored.  Increased visibility of ultra-orthodox due to rising numbers generated only resentment and scorn from secular Israelis.  This created a sense of superiority among secular Israelis and discrimination against Mizrahim.  Although Mizrahim has overcome many hurdles but there is still resentment about this treatment. Ultra-orthodox still self-segregating themselves have also not forgiven the secular Israelis.

Secular Israelis have woken up to the reality that although still a majority in state apparatus they are not in control of the government. They are dominant in large scale protests against government policies, especially judicial reforms.  However, they must accept the fact that demography is catching up and they are now one of the tribe in the arena.  They must accept the diversity and find new common grounds with other groups. This rude awakening will energize the center and left towards political re-organization and efforts to bring back the country from extreme right direction and closer to the center. Women will be the key partners in the coming realignment of Israeli society.

“When man appears before the Throne of Judgment, the first question he is asked is not: “Have you believed in God?” or “Have you prayed and observed the ritual?” He is asked: “Have you dealt honorably and faithfully in all your dealings with your fellow man?”      The Talmud

Religious-Zionist Israeli Tribe

“What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and study it.”      The Talmud

National Religious component of Israeli society considers Zionism as an essential component of orthodox Judaism. In their view, the state is part of an unfolding divine plan, and they are the instruments that are speeding up the process of coming of the messianic age. That explains their prominence among West Bank settlers. In their view, the state is imperfect and flawed but an essential intermediate step towards final redemption. They are increasingly taking roles in politics and in the army as they view it essential for the state business to be run in accordance with religious principles. They view secular progressive values of the society as alien to Jewish religion and this foreign element needs to be pushed back. They run their own educational institutions that include yeshivot (religious seminaries) as well as Mamlachti Dati (state-religious) schools. They also run Hesder program that combines military service with religious study.

Religious-Zionist community voted mainly for Likud.  In 2000s a more moderate faction left the extreme wing to form Ha’Yamin He’Hadash (New Right) party and tried to bring the community along with secular right under the same tent. In the last two decades, more extreme elements have gained strength. Religious-Zionist Party (RZP) and Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) are two major political parties representing Religious-Zionist community and part of current government coalition.

They are deeply suspicious of the secular elite dominant in security services, judiciary, and academia. They have broken the taboo and now openly criticize the police and army. Their messianic zeal is the major hurdle not only in Israeli-Palestinian conflict but also clash with fellow Israelis about the destiny of the country. If one group who needs to reflect on Jewish history, it is religious-Zionist group for false messiahs brought great disasters for their community throughout Jewish history. The fear and anger generated among a large segment of Israeli population may isolate the more extreme wing of the religious-Zionist camp and pushing others more towards ‘normal right’.

“The Lord is not with him who, while possessing great knowledge, has no sense of duty”.     The Talmud

Ultra-Orthodox Israeli Tribe

“He who devoted himself to the mere study of religion without engaging in works of love and mercy is like one who has no God.”          The Talmud

This tribe has two clans based on ethnic heritage.  Sephardim consists of Jews from Iberian Peninsula, Middle East, North Africa and Iran and Ashkenazim with European heritage. The dominant ultra-orthodox attitude toward the state is ‘bipolar’. The state of Israel has no religious significance, and its authority is legitimate only to the extent that non-Jewish governments are legitimate.  However, instruments of the state can be used to advance service to Torah.  These measures include extracting resources for the community engaged in religious study and using coercive powers of the Rabbinate to enforce its interpretations of the halacha (Jewish law).

The two clans fearing that the militant secular founding fathers of the state of Israel may end their Torah world; the shattered remnants of which they brought in the aftermath of Holocaust in Europe and expulsion from the Arab lands; their new enemy.  Though deeply suspicious of the ruling elite, Sephardic and Ashkenazi Rabbis argued for participation in political process under the banner of Agudat Israel (Union of Israel) to preserve their religious society. Agudat’s political involvement was limited to partnership in the coalition and chairmanship of the Finance, Labor and Social Welfare Committees of the Knesset which play a key role in budget allocations. Their success in securing more government funding for their communities also hastened the split over allocation of funds. Sephardim protesting discrimination and receiving less funds left the big ultra-orthodox tent to chart its own course.

Sephardic ultra-orthodox migrated to Isarel during 1940s and 1950s. They were at the margins of society for the first three decades as the newly founded country was run by Ashkenazi elite. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef established a vast network of schools and social services to promote Sephardic culture. He established a political party called Shas (an acronym for Shomrei Safa’rad, meaning Sephardic Guardians). All Shas voters are not ultra-orthodox. Many are traditional Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews who feel that other parties don’t represent their “Middle Eastern culture” or neglect their economic discrimination.

United Torah Judaism (UTJ) was formed in 1992 as an alliance of two Ashkenazi Haredi political parties; Lithuanian Degel Ha’Torah (Banner of the Torah) and Hasidic Haredim Agud’at Israel.

UTJ and Shas had flexible attitude towards Palestinian question. This allowed them to move across the political axis easily and they joined coalition governments of right, center and left political orientations. The ultra-orthodox parties were considered an ideal coalition partner, easily bought off and never attempting to force their viewpoint on vital security and economic issues.

In the past two decades, ultra-orthodox parties have moved to the right, believing that they have found their natural partner with Likud. In April 2019 elections, when Blue and White party, led by Benny Gantz, emerged as the largest party, and decided to form a government with ultra-orthodox parties, but the group of religious parties refused to negotiate with Gantz forcing another election in September 2019 when they entered a coalition government headed by Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu.

Haredi leadership while making political alliance with Likud and Religious-Zionist parties to secure its interests also fears that they may lose their youth to the far-right political parties and Rabbis will lose control over them. This is the reason that ultra-orthodox Rabbis while entering in backroom deals during coalition agreements publicly caution their flock to avoid participation in political events of Likud and Religious-Zionist parties.

The concessions that ultra-orthodox extract as a price for their alliance includes money for their yeshivot (religious seminaries), legislation that would make Haredi exemption from the military draft permanent, seeking enhanced powers for the rabbinical courts and general enforcement of mitzvot (biblical commands).  Increased political bargaining power emboldened ultra-orthodox to increase religious demands especially keeping exclusive control over conversions, marriage, divorce, kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) and strict observance of Jewish rest day of Shabbat. State institutions and even public transport are closed on Shabbat but now they demand that all construction work should be stopped, small grocery stores closed and even soccer games should not be held on Shabbat.

Non-Haredi Israeli population representing right, center, and left views these demands as perpetuating forced self-segregation of Haredi community from Israeli mainstream that is unsustainable in the long run and coercion in religious matters. The most alarming statement was from former head of Israel’s external intelligence agency Mossad Efraim Halevy (1998-2002) warning that ‘the radicalism of the ultra-orthodox represents a greater existential threat than the danger of a nuclear Iran’.

Haredim should always remember that they wanted to remain faithful to Jewish traditions and self-segregated from wider Israeli society.  The large majority though not agreeing with their worldview sympathized with them in the context of Holocaust and allowed military exemption and supported them with their taxes. Now, Haredim taking these advantages as divine right and claiming to make the homeland for Jews a true Jewish state run by halacha as they interpret is bound to have a backlash and massive protests on the streets are the first sign.

Haredi society is changing due to pressures from the modern world around them. Many aware of the impact of lifelong Torah study by males on perpetual poverty of the community (44 percent of Haredi households live below the poverty line that is double compared to other groups) are trying to find the balance in a new movement called ‘New Haredim’.  Population pressure forcing Haredi to live in mixed neighborhoods results in social integration of many Haredi families. Increased work force participation and increased Haredi female education and entry in work force is also changing the gender roles in Haredi communities that is having impact on birth rate and education standards. These internal changes may moderate views of Haredi community and help bridge the gap with other Israeli groups.

“With the pious God is strict, even to a hair’s breadth”.       The Talmud

 Russian Israeli Tribe

“Don’t go to another monastery with your own rules.”      Russian Proverb

This is a relatively new tribe coming to the land of Israel.  In early 1970s, about 165’000 Soviet Jews migrated to Israel.  In 1989, Former Soviet Union (FSU) allowed departure of Jews through the transit point of Vienna and the process sowed the seeds of mistrust from the beginning.  The first shock to Israelis was when over eighty percent of Jews allowed to leave chose United States over Israel. Israeli right and left were outraged, and Israeli government worked behind the scenes to close the American door and direct all Jews towards Israel. There was bitterness among Russian Jews as they felt that Israel was scuttling their freedom to choose for a prosperous American destination. Over the next several years about 600,000 Jews from FSU migrated to Israel. A third of the newcomers came from Russia proper, a third from Ukraine, and the rest from the smaller Soviet republics. Now, this population and their descendants is around 1.3 million. The first migrants of early 1970s had strong Jewish identity and commitment to Zionism.  The migrants who came in the aftermath of collapse of Soviet Union were less religious many even practicing Russian Orthodox Christians, from mixed marriages and prime motivation was uncertainty about future in a collapsed power and economic hardship.

Ashkenaz ruling elite fearful of the fading dream of European Jewish elite due to increasing population of Mizrahim welcomed Russian Jews who were secular and well educated.  They hoped that new Russian immigrants will shift the demographic balance of what they saw as Levantinization of the country.

Mizrahim fearing that the newcomers with better education will stall their progress to break into the Israeli mainstream opposed the migration.  Ultra-orthodox also opposed Russian migration as they viewed non-practicing Russian Jews with doubtful Jewish pedigree as practically gentiles.  They were also concerned with  dilution of their electoral power as it was expected that secular Russian Jews will increase the vote bank of the center and left.

Most of the immigrants who arrived from the FSU were urban and well-educated and made invaluable contributions to Israeli society, particularly in science, computers, medical and education fields.  However, they chose to preserve their language and culture as they viewed it superior to Israeli culture especially in view of quite visible oriental outlook of Mizrahim. They were raised in the Soviet system where the state, though omnipresent and oppressive, did not provide answers to their problems. They were used to solving their problems and they took similar approach in Isarel.  They opened their own businesses, restaurants, clubs, politics parties and established Russian language newspapers, television stations, and social media outlets. They run their own schools with heavy emphasis on mathematics, science, and computers but also teach Russian history, arts, music, and literature.

The Law of Return allows migration of anyone with one Jewish grandparent known as Grandchild clause.  This allowed many Jews from FSU who are not practicing Jews and married to non-Jews to migrate to Israel.  The main conflict of Russian Jews is with the orthodox parties as Rabbinic authorities use halacha for the definition of who is a Jew and almost 400,000 Russian immigrants and their descendants are considered as non-Jews as they refused to bow down to the Rabbinate and go through orthodox conversion. In the Israeli confessional system, they are categorized as ‘others’.

In 1996 Natan Sharansky established Yisrael B’Aliyah (Immigration to Israel) representing Russian Jews. The earlier generation of Russian Jews voted for Likud and Yisrael B’Aliyah disappointing the left. Later, when Yisrael B’Aliyah merged with Likud then Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) led by Avigdor Lieberman got part of this support.  The younger generation is more assimilated and votes for secular, religious-Zionist, Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu. The younger generation whose Jewishness is being questioned due to mixed heritage is estranged.

Russian Jews have changed Israeli melting pot policy of assimilating migrants from across the globe and by refusing to assimilate have contributed towards a pluralistic Israeli society that accepted immigrant’s unique culture. Their experience and struggle may pave the way for a new Israeli identity that respects diversity and encourage other communities to contribute towards nation’s economic prosperity and social cohesion while adhering to their traditions.

“If men could foresee the future, they would still behave as they do now”.

                                                                                                   Russian proverb

Arab Israeli Tribe

“Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success”.       Arab Proverb

Arabs under Israeli control fall into four categories; three of them stateless.  Arabs who live in Israel’s boundaries of 1948 according to United Nations partition plan number about 2 million (20% of population) and have Israeli citizenship.  They are called Arab-Israelis and elect their own members to Israeli parliament Knesset. They live with many disabilities and face discrimination but still have many rights as citizens and are better off than other groups. Three other populations of Arabs under Israeli control are stateless and have different sets of control. In East Jerusalem 350’000 Arabs live with a special status fully under the control of the Israeli state, in West Bank 2.5 million Arabs administered by Palestinian Authority but security of Jewish settlements under Israeli control and separated from Israel with a security barrier and 1.9 million Arabs in Gaza under the rule of Hamas and completely blockaded by Israel on one side and strict control from Egyptian side in coordination with Israel but no direct Israeli presence inside.

Arab Israeli tribe is faced with multi-dimensional dilemmas including religious, ideological, social, and economic. Majority are Muslims and due to large scale migration, the number of Christian Arabs is dwindling.  Politically, they are divided among nationalist identifying with Palestinian cause, secular including Communist and Islamist.  BaladRa’amHadash and Ta’al political parties represent these political trends. Like their Jewish cousins, these diverse political goals prevent Arab Israelis to develop a cohesive political force and only make tactical alliances.  When they join hands and run on a joint list, they become a credible political force even making it the third largest party of Knesset (2015, 2019, 2020). However, the political outlook is so divergent that it is not able to maintain its cohesion and each party ends up with a small fraction of the share in Knesset.

Gradual shift of Israeli politics towards right with now extremist right wing in powerful positions has increased pessimism among Israeli Arabs.  In 2013, roughly three-quarters of Israeli Arabs (74%) said a peaceful two-state solution was possible but merely two years later in 2015, only 50% said such an outcome is possible. That proportion has significantly declined further.  Combining this number with almost half of Israeli Jews now stating that Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel and one can easily imagine that prospects of any meaningful peace process are very bleak. Arab Israeli member Knesset Ahmad Tibi summed it up neatly that ‘this country is democratic and Jewish; democratic toward Jews and Jewish toward Arabs”.

The major crisis of Israeli Arabs is social with complete breakdown of social order.  Organized crime and protection rackets are deeply entrenched in their communities with devastating violence that has shattered the confidence of the community. In 2023, this Arab-on-Arab crime has cost 155 lives compared to 200 Palestinians who died in Israeli-Palestinian violence.  Israeli-Arab violence grabs local and international headlines, but Arab-on-Arab violence is ignored.  Israeli Arabs need introspection and a civil society awakening to address this crisis of their community. Israeli Arabs need intellectual renaissance and serious discussion about their own future where the dilemma of identity needs to be reconciled with possible political future within Israeli society.

They need to seriously consider the formula of maintaining religious sovereignty over their places of worship, cultural and linguistic autonomy within their own community under the umbrella of political sovereignty of a Jewish Israeli state. In this scheme of things, they will be able to use state’s resources to improve their position within Isarel and mitigate discrimination while at the same time contribute towards social and economic health of the state. One example will be serving in national service (health care, schools, and day cares) in lieu of compulsory military service. This will provide them necessary skills for economic advancement as well as making alliances with segments of Israeli Jews for issues and concerns that are common to the communities. A peaceful, confident, economically stable, and politically integrated Israeli Arab community will have a positive impact on the cause of Palestinians under Israeli control.

“A successful man is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks others have thrown at him”.      Arab proverb

Empowerment of the right by alliance of Religious-Zionist, ultra-orthodox and Likud and coalition agreements to address interests of individual parties resulted in legislative agenda that has deepened the fissures of Israeli society.  In 2018, the Nation-State Law was passed (62-55) amid a bitter dispute with protests from secular Israelis Jews, Jewish diaspora, Arabs, and Druze.  The law stipulates that the right to exercise national self-determination was unique only to Jews.  It established Hebrew as only national language by downgrading Arabic from other official language to a special status and established Jewish settlement as a national value and mandated the state to promote its establishment and development.  In 2023, passage of Judicial reforms law ignited the fears of Israelis that the ship of state has taken a sharp right turn and increased role of religion in state affairs is going to deeply impact their personal life and choices.

The internal divisions within Israeli society, rooted in historical, religious, ethnic, political, and socio-economic factors, present complex challenges for the nation. Israel is fully equipped to deal with any external threat and there is consensus among Israeli strategic community on this question.  However, they are now concerned that internal divisions within Israeli society will have far-reaching implications for the country’s stability, governance, and social cohesion. These divisions are hindering effective policymaking and can lead to a lack of consensus on critical issues.

In the last two decades, robust security and intelligence apparatus securing external borders and a heavy surveillance and extreme restrictive order to control movement of Palestinians under Israeli control and near collapse of Palestinian resistance generated a sense of hubris where Israelis have relegated Palestinian elephant in the room to a mere nuisance.  Occupation of Palestinians is a major factor in Israeli political discourse and Israeli society cannot escape it.  Whatever the solution each side is proposing from two state solution to assured minority rights under Jewish sovereignty to outright annexation or even expulsion of Arab inhabitants, but Israelis must address it. This conversation cannot be postponed as it is inevitably linked with the destiny of Isarel. In the absence of it, Israel will be an apartheid state in a best-case scenario and ethno-religious-nationalist autocracy or a Jewish state that may not look or feel Jewish to the wrong denomination of the Judaism in a worst-case scenario.

Each tribe considers itself as ‘minority’ and suspicious of the intentions of the other tribes.  The crisis of governance with repeated elections and very low confidence in politicians of all colors creates a disconnect from the state itself.  In such a situation, it is relatively easy for a political party to ‘divide and conquer’ by highlighting the wrongs done to the one group and demonizing the opponents. This is the true challenge for the leadership of all tribes. In the short term, pull back from extreme legislative agenda and sustained dialogue among various group will decrease the widening gulf.  In the medium and long term, Israel must work on integration or at least overlap of school systems so that next generation has meaningful interaction with fellow citizens outside of their own spheres.

This month, Jews will be celebrating the new year Rosh Hashanah followed by ten days of repentance and ending in the day of atonement Yom Kippur.  On Rosh Hashanah, the names of the irredeemable wicked are placed in the book of death and the names of the righteous in the book of life. They are few in numbers and majority are placed in the intermediate state where commitment to individual actions in the next ten days determines whether one ends up in the book of life or death. This is unique as most trials determine responsibility for past deeds, but this determines what can be done about future deeds.  The piyyut (religious poem) for these days tells us that to avert a severe decree one needs sincere repentance that includes repairing the misdeed and determination to change.  In this year’s high holy days, Israel needs this change more than ever before.

“A homeland cannot be bought with money or conquered with a sword. You have to create it with the sweat of a brow.”      David ben Gurion

Acknowledgement: Author thanks many from diverse backgrounds and well versed with the issues for their input over several years.

Selected Readings:

 For text of President Reuven Rivlin 2015 speech, see,

 Israel Democracy Institute is a non-partisan think tank and an excellent source on Israelis society.

  1. Israeli Bureau of Statistics is a very good source of information about population and economic indicators of the society.

  1. Jewish Virtual Library is a one stop shop of all things Jewish for a quick information on any topic related to Judaism and Israel.

  1. For a comprehensive account of evolution of Haredi political journey, see,

  1. For survey of Mizrahi society, see,

  1. For details about Russian Diaspora, see,

  1. 2015 PEW survey of Israeli society

Hamid Hussain

10 September 2023

Defence Journal, October 2023

Published by

Omar Ali

I am a physician interested in obesity and insulin resistance, and in particular in the genetics and epigenetics of obesity As a blogger, I am more interested in history, Islam, India, the ideology of Pakistan, and whatever catches my fancy. My opinions can change.

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