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While Israel is in turmoil, tonight it marks its 75th Independence Day

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Israel is marking its 75th Independence Day, and the country is in turmoil. It has its most ultranationalist religious government ever. Street protests have exposed deep internal divisions, and even after 75 years, there is no consensus over what kind of country Israel should be. NPR's Daniel Estrin brings us a portrait of Israelis reflecting on their future.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Israeli protesters marched through a devout Jewish religious neighborhood a few weeks ago, wearing hard hats, worried they'd be pelted with eggs. Instead, they were greeted with religious music and engaged in debates.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: I watch a military veteran tell a young ultra-Orthodox man he shouldn't be exempt from military service that secular Israelis have to perform. The ultra-Orthodox man says, just like the Army has special forces, studying Torah is my special contribution. As their country turns 75, Israelis are debating how their country can be a Jewish state and still offer equality for those who are secular or not even Jewish. I visited two families who reflect how, even among Jews, the country's identity is unresolved.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

ESTRIN: I met the Carmeli family on their porch in their kibbutz, one of the communal villages founded in Israel's early years by secular Jews.

KARIN CARMELI: This is - I think it's our next war. It's the independence war for the nonreligious people from the religious people. We've been serving them, fighting their wars, having our families' members killed for them, and for what? I'm not happy about this Independence Day.

ESTRIN: Karin Carmeli works in pharmaceuticals. Her husband's in tech. They and their teenage daughters have been attending street protests against the far-right religious government.

K CARMELI: It's, like, a slippery slope. Iran was - in the '70s, it was a country like Israel. You see pictures. They were in swimming suits, women in swimming suits on the beach. They don't have it anymore. And it's happening in a blink of an eye that it happens.

ESTRIN: Many secular Jews see religious populations growing and worry they'll be sidelined. Last month, her husband, Alon, prepared a Plan B for the family in case they decide to leave.

ALON CARMELI: I just want to show you. You see, this is our new - this is my certificate that I'm a Romanian...

ESTRIN: Citizen.

A CARMELI: ...Citizen.

K CARMELI: This is our Plan B.

A CARMELI: You know?

K CARMELI: This is our Plan B.

ESTRIN: Alon's grandparents survived the Holocaust and fled Europe to Israel. That informs his vision of what Israel should be.

A CARMELI: It's the place where Jews can be safe, secure, survive. But it's not only for Jews. That's what I'm saying. It's not a very popular statement today because people say this is the Jewish country. It's only for Jewish.

ESTRIN: His kibbutz is surrounded by Arab cities. Palestinian Arab citizens are a fifth of Israel's population. They face widespread discrimination, but he sees them as equals. Today, his kibbutz even has a rare Muslim member. He even says he could see himself voting for an Arab prime minister one day. We walk through their backyard.

A CARMELI: All the avocado fields here.

ESTRIN: And right across the fields is Israel's concrete separation wall with the West Bank, where Palestinians are under Israeli occupation. In about a month, Palestinians there will mark Israel's founding as the catastrophe of their mass displacement. They lack independence.

A CARMELI: See this wall? This is the whole story of Israel - why it's not open, why we need all those gates, walls and everything, you know? For me, it's a sad story, you know?

ESTRIN: We're staring at the Palestinian city across the wall where in his military days Alon laid surveillance infrastructure for Israeli intelligence. He says the solution is not military. It's negotiation.

A CARMELI: And I'm not sure that we have people skilled enough in Israel who wants even to open their mind, speaking about and looking on a situation where wide open.

ESTRIN: Alon Carmeli has a friend in the city of Caesarea who thinks differently - Yaniv Benami (ph), who does sales for a big tech company.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: He's been going to synagogue to recite prayers for his mother since she died recently. He's not religious, but he's trying to follow more Jewish traditions. He voted for a religious party, including far-right figures. He says he wishes Israel's far-right government would tone things down. But he also thinks the street protesters are exaggerating.

YANIV BENAMI: The red lines of each one of us is not that far away from each other. We want the Jewish country. We need to maybe improve it, but it's pretty free.

ESTRIN: What concerns him is changes in Israel's population, which pose unresolved challenges to Israel's Jewish character. In the military reserves, he apprehended African migrants fleeing to Israel. They're Muslim and Christian.

BENAMI: I have arrested roughly 300, 400, 500. I could not remember. What happened is that all of them stayed here, having their own babies, which this is really a tragedy because their babies who have been born in Israel, have been raised in Israel, and now they speak Hebrew - they are not even aware that they are not Jews. Now, I'm not saying it's bad. I'm saying that the demography is changing.

ESTRIN: And he's worried about the young generation of Arab citizens in Israel.

BENAMI: I'm trying not to generalize, but it looks like most of it do not accept Israel as Israel.

ESTRIN: But he does think a Jewish country can embrace its Arab citizens if they're willing to embrace it.

BENAMI: If you're with us, you're with us because we have - we want to survive together as a country together.

ESTRIN: And during the current upheaval, he says, he took advice from his rabbi.

BENAMI: He's always saying, you know what I did? I stopped listening to the media.

ESTRIN: The media has been covering the street protests, and it's been reporting on fears of a civil war between Jews in the country, which he says won't happen. After all, he's still friends with Alon Carmeli, even during this politically divided time.

BENAMI: If there will be a war tomorrow against Iran - I don't know - what do you think would happen? Alon and me would not fight together against Iran? Of course. That's why we are brothers. Doesn't matter what we think.

ESTRIN: As the country marks Independence Day, Yaniv Benami is hanging a lot of Israeli flags on his house. It's his call for unity in Israel.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Caesarea, Israel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.