Israeli Bill Threatens Dreams of Community Cohesion

Alex Stein

religious-nationalist community moving into the area. At the same time, the Israeli parliament began debating a measure which would allow small villages to select residents by using the undefined concept of “social suitability”, a move seen as a stealth measure to prevent Arabs from joining elite communities around the country.
Many are familiar with Israel’s discriminatory attitude towards its Arab minority. The rulings by the rabbis in Safed and other towns banning property-owners from renting to Arabs are one recent example. But discrimination is not confined to the Arab-Jewish divide. South Tel Aviv sees regular protests by local Israelis against African refugees and North Tel Aviv sees occasional protests by secular Jews against ultra-Orthodox Jews.
All instances of exclusion are unacceptable: the disparate communities in Israel need to learn how to live together.
Many left-of-centre critics allege that the developments outlined above represent the inevitable descent of Zionism into outright racism. But the problem is far more complicated. The course of Zionist history bears some responsibility for these outbursts of intolerance, but not in the way that the reflexive critics argue.
In the early days of Israel, the government tried to unite the different Jewish ethnic groups in the melting-pot of “Israeli-ness”. The Arab community, which lived under military rule at the time, were excluded from this nation-building. But even within Jewish society, this relentless policy of trying to mould Israel into a unitary, Hebrew-speaking state necessitated discrimination against minorities, with Mizrachi (Jews from Arab countries) and Yiddish-speaking immigrants particularly affected.
Eventually, though, the experiment was all but abandoned. By the end of the 1990s, the melting pot had been abandoned. It was no longer seen as necessary; there was now a sufficiently robust Zionist-Hebrew majority. Israel, a country once famous for its socialism (most popularly manifested by the kibbutz), had now signed up to the neo-liberal consensus, and personal advancement was preeminent. It was accepted that different groups would live separately, with their own culture, rituals and languages.
Whenever anyone has tried to challenge the status quo, whether it is ultra-Orthodox Jews in the largely secular neighbourhood of Ramat Aviv, moderately Orthodox Jews in ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods of Beit Shemesh, or Arabs in northern communities, there has been conflict.
According to the defenders of this policy, there’s a certain realism in acknowledging people’s differences and allowing them to live separately and develop their own identity autonomously. To call this racism – the issue of discrimination with regard to government funding notwithstanding – is to abuse the word. After all, they argue, don't the Arabs want to live separately just as much as the Jews?
The problem, though, is that it tacitly reveals Zionism’s failure to create a normalised state according to the promise of Israel’s founding document, known as the Declaration of Independence, with “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” Building a normal society means struggling to ensure that disparate communities have at least a modicum of a shared national life, that there is some thread to connect everyone within the nation, regardless of their ethnicity or religious practice. For Israel to work, this urgent national mission cannot be abandoned.
Selection committees should be outlawed. Religious Jews should be welcome in Jaffa. Arabs should be welcome in the neighbouring Jewish Bat Yam. Ultra-Orthodox Jews should be welcome in Ramat Aviv. But they should come on the basis of parity and not of conquest. There should be no demographic infighting. We must strongly support the work of civil society organisations such as Merchavim or the Abraham, which work towards democratic pluralism and equality between the Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel.
Instead of withdrawing into our caves, we need to work towards a shared Israeli identity.
I live in Tel Aviv’s Yemenite quarter, where Orthodox Jews, secular hipsters and the occasional foreign worker live happily side-by-side. The Jewish Shabbat is a quieter time, but nobody is reprimanded for listening to loud music. Walking along the beach last Shabbat, I saw a religious Jewish family watching happily as a group of secular Israelis danced to blaring music. Their secularism in no way detracted from the watching family’s orthodoxy. For Israel to thrive, we have to stop living in settlements and get to know one another, in all our wonderful variety. Alex Stein (alex.stein@talk21.com) lives in Tel Aviv and is an activist with Combatants for Peace. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).