TEL AVIV — Inside, it was all hand-wringing, guilt and self-absorption: intellectuals, artists and entertainers pleading for Israel to save itself from itself by giving up the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and fulfilling its destiny as God's chosen land.
Outside, it was all belligerence, anger and self-righteousness: young religious Jews demanding that Israel save itself from itself by crushing Arab protesters, annexing the territories and fulfilling its destiny as God's chosen land.
The scene, played out on a rainy night at a downtown Tel Aviv theater, was more than drama. It was the totality of Israel, a nation tearing itself in two over its handling of the Arab uprising against the 20-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
As the people crowded into the Tzavta Theater listened in silence, blind poet Erez Biton compared the dehumanization and oppression he said the Arabs suffer under occupation with the alienation and hopelessness he said is overcoming Israelis who stand against the occupation.
"We now belong to the 'other Israel,' " he said, alluding to the philosophical concept that a human being is able to act brutally by dehumanizing a foe and seeing him only as "the other."
On the other side of the glass doors, Dov Reichman, a 23-year-old university student, was stomping his feet in anger, his bearded face trembling as he offered an allusion of his own.
"The only peace for Israel is an Israel without Arabs," he said. "Those people (inside) are no better than the Arabs."
Sipping Wine, Dripping Scorn
It is a scene repeated over and over, throughout the land. Half a mile away, in a fashionable beach apartment, guests stood beside walls covered with primitive South American art, sipped wine and dripped scorn and hatred over one another, but in the quiet tones of the cultivated elite.
A middle-aged man wearing a beautifully cut suit and speaking in the manner of the worldly talked of the "need to crush the hands of the rock throwers" who are demonstrating violently against Israeli troops.
"You people (guests who had criticized some of the Israeli army tactics) are fools at best," he said. "I know the Arabs. They want to destroy us. This isn't a question of the West Bank and Gaza, it is a question of our national survival. If we give up the territories, they will be throwing rocks in the streets of Tel Aviv, and you liberals will be looking for a way to give them what they want."
Across the room, near a buffet table with ceramic pots of chili and other Mexican-style food, Avram Granot lighted his pipe and said to a journalist, "What you just heard is the voice of Jewish fascism, and it isn't a lonely voice."
The Israelis on either side of the Tzavta Theater's glass doors, and those on opposite sides of the chic drawing room at the beach, are not extreme examples.
Interviews with people of different economic, educational and religious attitudes throughout the country have made it clear that the extreme is becoming the norm. The middle ground is disappearing into a single dimension of rancor.
Ido Dissentshik, the editor of Maariv, an influential daily newspaper, said, "There are only two people here: the person who wants to annex the territories regardless of the cost and the person who wants to give them back regardless of the cost."
Philosopher Avishy Margalit put it this way: "There are two basic emotions running the country: one, kill the Arabs; two, give up the territories. There is nothing left of politics, no social content--only, how do you treat the Arabs and the territories?"
Key Issues Ignored
Meanwhile, Israel's increasing economic problems are ignored in the press and on the floor of the Knesset, or Parliament. A three-week strike that nearly destroyed hospital care was barely mentioned. Regularly scheduled radio news programs usually deal only with "the situation," as the uprising is called, unless there is a soccer game to report.
Even on the question of how much force is acceptable to meet the violence of the Arab protesters, polls show little flexibility, with people saying either that any level of force is acceptable, including beatings and killings, or that there is no excuse for any force at all.
Still, despite the polarization, there are efforts to restore at least a measure of normality, to put back shades of color where there has been only black and white.
Land Needed for Security
Yehuda Amichi, a poet and a critic of both the policy of occupation and the level of force used to combat the uprising, said in an interview: "We have to give back the territories--not all of it, but most of it. We need some of the land for our security."
Editor Dissentshik tries for the middle ground, in his private comments and in signed editorials.
"We can't keep on like we are," he said, "but we can't just give up the territory without getting something in return. That would not end our problems. There has to be compromise."