Israel celebrates its 75th anniversary this week in a fractious and uncertain mood, overshadowed by a battle over the judiciary that has opened up some of the deepest social divisions since the foundation of the country in 1948.
Memorial Day on Tuesday, honouring the country’s military dead, and Independence Day a day later have traditionally served as markers of unity in a nation that has fought repeated wars since its creation.
This year, the mood is different.
“I am convinced that there is no greater existential threat to our people than the one that comes from within: Our own polarization and alienation from one another,” President Isaac Herzog told the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in Tel Aviv this week.
Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets weekly since the start of the year to protest plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s nationalist-religious government to push through curbs on the judiciary they see as an existential threat to democracy.
The government and its supporters say the changes are needed to rein in activist judges who have intruded aggressively into the sphere of parliament and the executive but agreed last month to pause the plans to allow for more consultation.
But the protests have continued and for many Israelis, the standoff has opened up profound questions about their country that go beyond the makeup of the Supreme Court and the power of the executive to override its decisions.
Uzy Zwebner, an entrepreneur from Tel Aviv who creates high tech business parks, calls himself a patriot from a Zionist family that came to what is now Israel in the 19th century.
A veteran of the 1973 Yom Kippur war who was wounded in action a day after one of his brothers was killed fighting the Egyptians in the Sinai, he represents a section of society that has been deeply alienated by the new government.
“What kind of country are we going to be?” he said. “Are we going to be a democracy, a modern country? (One where) everyone serves in the army? Or are we going to be like other countries around us?”
Behind his anxiety lies a fear of a sharp deepening of divisions which have always existed in Israel between European Ashkenazis and Middle Eastern Mizrahi, between religious Jerusalem and laid back Tel Aviv and between right-wing settlers and urban liberals.
Israel’s Arab citizens, who make up a fifth of the population, have largely stayed out of the debate, which many Palestinians say ignores their concerns and the decades-long occupation of areas they want as the core of a future state.
But the growing power of the religious parties that helped Netanyahu to power last year has alarmed many secular Israelis, who often resent the special conditions and subsidies that enable many Orthodox men to avoid military service and study in Torah schools rather than take paid employment.
The nationalist right in turn accuses its critics of failing to respect democracy and an increasingly poisonous political climate has fed on the anger between “populists” and the “liberal elite” seen across the Western world.
According to a survey by Channel 12 News last week, around 51% of Israelis are pessimistic about the future of the country, which has grown from a poor, largely agricultural territory to a high-tech powerhouse in the space of a lifetime.
“There’s a lot of fear in the air that gives way to hatred sometimes,” said Elisheva Blum, a resident of Eli, a settlement in the occupied West Bank. Born in the United States, she came with her religious family to Israel in 1988 and said there was no reason for Israelis to hate each other.
But she said she was alienated by signs from the protesters who have filled central Tel Aviv every week, quoting lines from Israel’s national anthem such as: “To be a free people in our land.”
“It bothers me because one has nothing to do with the other, that’s how I see it,” she said. “The slogans are very close to home, we can all agree we want to be a free people in our land. But what does that mean?”