Critics of Zionism point to Israel’s Jewish and democratic identity as an oxymoron. There’s the adage, attributed to member of Knesset Ahmed Tibi, that Israel is “democratic toward Jews, and Jewish toward Arabs.” Avrum Burg, long part of the Zionist establishment, now speaks (most recently in a Partners for Progressive Israel podcast) of the need to end “Jewish privilege.”
And in reporting on the Israeli Labor party’s recent convention, Ha’aretz columnist Gideon Levy wrote, “One says Jewish and another says democratic, and all together they fail to understand that the two concepts massively contradict the other.”
While the occupation arguably impugns Israel’s democratic character, and, despite the pessimism that imbues more and more expert analysis each day, Israel could still withdraw from the West Bank and remain intact in its national project. But the criticisms issued by Tibi, Burg, Levy and others cut to the heart of Israel’s national identity.
One of the main ways democracies transmit their values is through education. Unlike a melting-pot model where minorities are expected to acculturate to the hegemonic majority, Israel does encourage its Palestinian minority (now numbering roughly 20 per cent of the population) to educate its children in Arabic. There is an Arabic school stream alongside three Hebrew ones: state, state-religious and independent (haredi).
But there is a soft underbelly to this hyper-multiculturalism. While Arabic-speaking parents are in no danger of having their children lose academic and cultural affinity with their own language, there is a troubling lack of cross-contact between children across the Arab-Jewish divide. This also means that while Palestinian citizens of Israel naturally become fluent in Hebrew (since it is the working language of the country), the reverse is not the case. Few Israeli Jews speak Arabic. (An added issue is the frequent complaint from Palestinian lawmakers that they are not sufficiently included in shaping their own Arabic schools’ curriculum, including around contentious issues of Palestinian history.)
As reported in +972 magazine, on Feb. 12 a group of parents from Jaffa – a historically mixed Arab-Jewish section of Tel Aviv – protested at Tel Aviv’s City Hall to demand bilingual education through Grade 2. These parents chanted, “The Other is Me!” Signs were held aloft in Hebrew and Arabic. One sign said: “Want to find an end to the conflict? The solution lies in education.” (In Hebrew, it rhymes.) Like the Hand in Hand community – an independent network of schools representing 1,000 students and for which parents pay nominal annual tuition, these parents want a school that honours all three religions and both languages equally.
Ha’aretz columnist Akiva Eldar, has written about Hand in Hand, where his grandchildren attend. The school is also featured in Dane Elon’s powerful documentary film P.S. Jerusalem.
Hand in Hand attracts a particular group of idealistic parents who value bilingualism and multiculturalism. But the powerful thing about public education is that it shapes attitudes in democratic directions, even among citizens who are reluctant to embrace the Other in their midst.
Those Jaffa parents are probably wise to start small: demanding bilingual education for the early years only. But what if a groundswell of support was encouraged for Israelis to consider their children’s education as a portal into deeper cultural understanding across the cultural, linguistic and political divide? What if every Israeli was guaranteed to be raised bilingually, with a sensitivity toward the Other that can only come from cross-cultural immersion?
Rather than see a country with a frustrated linguistic and cultural minority, we might see a country where Hebrew and Arabic – and the historical experience of both Israelis and Palestinians, one alongside the other – are elevated to represent a new model of Israeli identity. Girded by internal Israeli-Palestinian understanding, this new Israel would be better poised to seek peace and coexistence with whatever form a post-occupation West Bank one day takes.