Binyamin Netanyahu may not have expected the international reaction he received when he accused opponents of Jewish settlements in the West Bank of supporting the ethnic cleansing of Jews. While he went too far, there is some truth to be learned from the fallout.
The Israeli prime minister made the comments in a video, where he noted that nobody suggests that two million Arab citizens of Israel are an obstacle to peace. Yet the presence of Jews in the areas most people assume will eventually be Palestine under a two-state solution, he said, is repeatedly held up as proof that Israel is not acting in good faith toward a two-state objective.
Netanyahu was pointing out one of the glaring hypocrisies in the discussion of an eventual peace agreement and a two-state solution. He was intentionally inflammatory but, in the process, he set off a reaction that is illuminating and worth consideration.
First, we need to understand this basic fact: nobody expects Jews living outside the Green Line to voluntarily become citizens of a future Palestinian state. The entire discussion is an exercise in rhetoric. But this fact, too, raises other issues. Not many believe that Jews in an independent Palestine could live as citizens the way Arab citizens of Israel do under law (however imperfect this ideal might be in practice), partly because it’s probable that nobody would be free in an independent Palestine. If history is any measure, an independent Palestine might be a theocracy run by Hamas, a kleptocracy run by Fatah or some hybrid thereof. Regardless, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, among others, has insisted that no Jews will be permitted to live in an independent Palestine. The world ignores these racist statements, or excuses them as the legitimate reaction of a people long oppressed by the Jewish state.
Since most Jews would flee of their own volition if they found their homes outside the new borders of Israel, Netanyahu’s claims of ethnic cleansing can be seen as inflammatory and false, since it is not the Palestinians who would evacuate the Jews from the West Bank, but the West Bank Jews themselves, knowing the place held no future for them. But, while Netanyahu should be criticized for exploiting the term ethnic cleansing, perhaps to deflect criticism from the settlements, he has also drawn attention to the uncomfortable truth that the dream of Palestinian “freedom” for which so many in the world (including, for instance, most delegates to the recent Green Party of Canada convention) have devoted so much of their energies, is in fact a cause that may instead create a country that is nobody’s dream of a free and independent homeland.
Netanyahu is guilty of poking a hornet’s nest. However, his critics, too, should look at their own assumptions and motivations. The prime minister went too far in summoning imagery of mass deportations, but others have not gone far enough in addressing the reality that the movement for Palestinian independence in infused with unhealthy ideologies, of which excluding Jews from citizenship is just one.
English class at Shaked School in Raanana. The school participates in the Arab Teacher Integration in Jewish Schools program. The teacher’s name is Fatam and she is from the Arab town of Tayibe. (photo from Merchavim)
In a country of eight million, one-fifth of Israel’s population are Arabs. According to research published last year in the Jerusalem Post, 35% of Jewish teenagers have never spoken to an Arab peer and 27% of Arab Israelis reported never having spoken with a Jewish youth.
In a conflict-ridden political climate, there is no shortage of angry rhetoric. Reading this rhetoric, it is tempting to imagine that Israeli society is simply a dysfunctional collection of intergroup battles. Nonetheless, there are organizations that remain focused on Israel’s immense social capital, its long history of social innovation and the initiative and dedication of its educators. Guided by words like tolerance, fairness and mutual understanding, these organizations value diversity rather than emphasize differences, and continue to work to build a more egalitarian society.
Merchavim Institute is one such organization. Founded in 1998 and based in Lod, Merchavim promotes shared citizenship in several ways. It places Arab teachers in Jewish schools, to teach spoken Arabic. It offers a wealth of classroom materials to teachers and supports 500 schools and kindergartens in the Jewish-secular, Jewish-religious and Arab-Israeli school streams.
In a separate collaboration with the Ministry of Education, Merchavim also places Arab teachers of English, science and mathematics in Jewish schools. These teachers cover material on Arab culture and society.
Merchavim’s chief operating officer, Roi Maor, explained that “dialogue, shared culture, education and improved communication” are essential if one wants to stem the flood of anger and resentment on both sides. Rather than getting stuck on debates about the country’s flag, for example, he argued, “Israel’s best chance for growth and self-improvement is through programs that focus on enrichment.”
The Arabic Teacher Integration (ATI) program does just that, by giving Arab teachers an opportunity to work in and become part of a Jewish community. But, quite apart from meeting their curricular goals, these teachers – all of whom are women – are excellent role models, said Maor. He described them as resilient and “charismatic, with exceptional leadership skills.”
Nonetheless, he acknowledged, “There is a degree of concern or tension when an Arab teacher enters a Jewish school; half of these teachers wear headscarves. Often, the teacher herself has her own concerns and worries, concerns about how she will be integrated.” Since more than one teacher has been stopped by school security and refused entry, these concerns seem valid.
Fortunately for the teachers, Merchavim’s idealism is tempered with the clear-sighted pragmatism of lived experience. Encounters between Arab teachers and their Jewish students and colleagues follow a framework, leaving little to chance. Maor wants the ATI program to be “the gold standard” and explained how encounters must be continuous. “They have to happen in the context of a larger project and be a powerful, meaningful experience,” he said.
Maor also respects the students’ “legitimate desire to maintain and preserve [their] cultural identity.” He believes that one’s identity is a tool to meet the other, rather than a hindrance or a threat. “It allows you to understand and connect to your own identity better,” he said.
Of course, change does not happen overnight. Tamara Klinger-Levi, Merchavim’s director of resource development, reflected that, even with a wonderful start to the school year, acts of violence create a “public sentiment of hatred or prejudice,” which can be a tremendous setback for Merchavim staff and partners.
Rana Younis has been teaching at Gvanim Junior High School, Kadima-Zoran, for nine years. She related an incident in her school, where she had overheard a student speaking ill of Arabs. There had been a violent incident and emotions were running high. Having turned and seen her, the student apologized instantly. “I am sorry,” he said. “It’s not you.” Younis told him, “I understand, it’s not you and it’s not me, and he hugged me. It was so touching. I tell them: there are bad people and good people in Arab society, just like any society.”
Merchavim staff are well aware of this dynamic and their staff make regular visits to Gvanim. Younis is unequivocal in her praise of the support they offer. “They help me all the time. They are like my family,” she said.
A highlight of the program comes in the form of tours for overseas visitors. This is an example of the kind of “powerful, meaningful experience” described by Maor. “Children don’t have a strongly formulated notion of [Arabs]. All kinds of negative ideas flourish in isolation but [with Merchavim teachers] all that evaporates. They learn to regard each person as an individual. We are building a generation that doesn’t generalize.”
Younis’ observations confirm this. “Reality is not what you read,” she said. “Putting the idea of Arabs and Jews aside, I am just there to teach. I love my work as a teacher. I love my students.”
Younis’ voice conveys energy, dedication and love. She spoke of an upcoming collaboration between Israeli and Arab students, called
Living Together, for which only a limited number of places was available. “When some of the students didn’t get in, they cried, they were so disappointed,” she said.
About what her own family thought of her work, Younis laughed as she related her mother’s frequent questions. “Are you OK, are you happy? I tell her, I am happy! I have no problems.”
Merchavim’s contribution to Israeli education and society at large have gained recognition at home and abroad. The new language initiative of Israel’s education ministry, led by Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home), dovetails nicely with Merchavim’s vision. In this program, Arab students will learn Hebrew starting in kindergarten and continue right through high school. As Likud MK Oren Hazan said last year (Israel National News), “When the Jewish population understands Arabic the way the Arab public understands Hebrew, we will see better days.”
Thanks to the investments of Merchavim and other organizations, these ways of thinking could become the norm for a whole generation of children. These children will finish school and assume leadership positions in society. When they do, they will have communication skills, as well as the empathy and cultural capital needed to reinvest in a fair future for all Israelis.
Speaking of the wider Arab population, Maor said Merchavim’s program “sends a message to people back in the communities that they can be successful in Jewish society.” And, while Arab women meet the urgent need for more teachers in the Jewish system and find empowerment through work, their presence enriches the entire school site.
The Arab Teacher Integration program enjoys financial support from numerous philanthropic groups in Israel, all of which support civil rights, social justice and democracy in the country. These include the Moriah Fund, the Beracha Foundation and the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Foundation. Overseas funders include the Jewish Federations of North America and the Hadassah Foundation, which also works in Israel.
Nonetheless, even with this and the Ministry of Education support for Merchavim’s work, funding remains a challenge. Discretionary budgets for enrichment are small and programs like music are typically prioritized above Arabic electives. Maor, who finds it “outrageous” that Arabic is not a mandatory subject in Israeli schools, described this as a “missed opportunity for cross-cultural learning and huge advancement for the cause of shared society in Israel.”
However, Maor is optimistic about the future because “animosity and fear comes from ignorance.” With long-term, committed professional relationships between Arab and Jewish educators, and between Arab teachers and their Jewish students, Israeli society can change. “Citizenship is not just a piece of paper,” said Maor. “It’s about being part of a collective enterprise, in which we share a joint destiny.”
That destiny relies on every individual having the right to prosperity under egalitarian social and economic conditions. Once the majority of Israelis understand this, he said, they will also see that “the success of Israeli Arabs is not a separate phenomenon but a boon to all sectors of the population.”
Sirens always make me pause. I fall silent and count one off, praying that there won’t be another. Because two sirens, as we used to say, are not women in labor.
Distant memories from the Intifada segue into those of summer last. Somehow, the rise of conflict in Jerusalem always comes along with the rising temperatures. But after the emergency meetings, the touring politicians, the dramatic headlines, there comes the first rain, and everything calms down. Then the countdown begins for next summer.
Some, though, aren’t content with just counting the days. Jeremy made aliya from D.C. six years ago. A reserve paratrooper officer, he rides his bike to work, halfway across town, each time reassuring his mother, thousands of miles away, that he wasn’t anywhere near the most recent attack. Last month, he joined a crowd of 5,000 to watch Matisyahu, the famous Jewish-American rapper, perform beneath the Old City walls. “Jerusalem If I Forget You gets a whole new meaning these days,” he tweeted, referring to the ancient prayer borrowed by Matisyahu for one of his songs.
Michal is a mother of four. At night, after putting her own children to bed, she has been going downtown, where she volunteers for a group seeking out dialogue with angst-filled youth bent on revenge. To her ever-concerned sister, she vows never to leave Jerusalem, with its crisp, cool air and still-low crime rates. It’s her husband who drops off the kids at school the following morning, where they are taught about the complexities of living in a mixed city, where you have to defend yourself with one hand and reach out to your would-be enemies with the other.
Another person is Ibrahim, a Hebrew University law student, and also a resident of Ras el-Amud, a Palestinian suburb shaken by recent events. Intimidating glares by Hamas supporters notwithstanding, he goes online every day, trying to convince people to stop the cycle of violence. Despite the long-standing advice of friends to relocate to Ramallah or the United States, he clings on to his naïve faith that there’s still hope in this conflict. Meanwhile, he alerts the authorities to suspicious happenings and, a few weeks back, confiscated a knife off of a 15-year-old brainwashed neighbor kid.
Then there’s Batia. She is an ultra-Orthodox woman. Every day she walks to work at City Hall. Despite having recently bought a canister of tear gas as a precaution, she prefers to put her faith in G-d and in the ubiquitous policemen. Just before Shabbat, she often goes up to them, to deliver fish, meat and chicken and to make their shift a little more pleasant.
Jerusalem keeps going, not through pompous statements, but through the hard work and devotion of its people, some elected officials, some social entrepreneurs and some ordinary citizens, united by relentless optimism and a profound love for their city. When things started getting really bad, I put out a call for an emergency meeting of Jerusalem civil society organizations. Within three hours, representatives from 33 organizations sat around a conference table at City Hall. It came as no surprise; even during “normal” times, the amount of people willing to sign up for civilian “reserve duty” is astounding.
There are teenagers handing out Israeli flags. Elderly people handing out small gifts to security personnel. Psychologists supporting youth in distress, activists helping out local businesses, and a string of independent online campaigns. These ordinary citizens allow the city to keep on living its life: thousands of students going back to school, the basketball team fighting to retain its championship title, and Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, joining 2,000 people at the International Astronautical Congress last month.
This energy, this drive to take responsibility and think out of the box, are precisely what is needed to resolve the complexity of current events. We have to crack down on violence, while empowering moderate leaders; fight incitement on both sides and defend the right of every man and woman for freedom of worship; and make sure East and West Jerusalem get their share in infrastructure investments.
It’s time for this fresh perspective to rise from the bottom up. We are tired of instant solutions, quickly denounced by this side or the other of the political map. We are tired of those who take turns making political gains out of our hardship. Jerusalem is a different place, and requires a different point of view. The one we, young people of Jerusalem, discovered 10 years ago, when everyone else said the city was lost, and we formed Wake Up Jerusalem.
From this point of view, there is a lot of good to see. And even more to do.
Hanan Rubinis a Jerusalem city councilor and a co-founder of the solution-oriented political movement Wake Up Jerusalem, which focuses on quality of life issues for all Jerusalem residents.
Recent visitors to the Hummus Bar at the M Mall in Kfar Vitkin, near Netanya. The eatery is offering a 50% deal on its hummus for Jews and Arabs who share a table and eat together. (photo from facebook.com/Mhumusbar)
An Israeli eatery is making headlines across the globe for its latest menu deal: 50% off any hummus dishes served to tables seating Jews and Arabs together.
Breaking bread together throughout history has always been an act of sharing and reconciliation. So, in response to the latest wave of terror attacks and incitement in Israel, Hummus Bar at the M Mall in Kfar Vitkin, near the coastal city of Netanya, posted a Facebook call for customers to share pita and hummus together – and pay less if they do.
The Oct. 13 post reads: “Scared of Arabs? Scared of Jews? At our place, we don’t have Arabs! But we also don’t have Jews … we’ve got human beings! And genuine, excellent Arab hummus! And great Jewish falafel! And a free refill for every serving of hummus, whether you’re Arab, Jewish, Christian, Indian, etc.”
Speaking to local media, manager Kobi Tzafrir said there were a number of people taking up the offer from his restaurant, which is famous for its chickpea spread. But, he added, the short post also fueled interest from around Israel and the world.
Hummus eateries are countless in Israel, yet Tzafrir reported that visitors have come from around the country to show support for the Hummus Bar’s message of tolerance and camaraderie.
“If there’s anything that can bring together these peoples, it’s hummus,” Tzafrir told the Times of Israel.
Hummus Bar’s Facebook page continues to garner positive posts from abroad, as well.
“Love the idea of bringing people together with food! Love and food conquers all!!” writes Urbian Fitz-James from the Netherlands.
“I think it is amazing what you guys are doing to unite people!” posts Josh Friesen from Canada.
“Thank you. This is marvelous,” writes Samir Kanoun from Turkey.
There are other messages of support – including from the United Kingdom, the United States and Japan – on the eatery’s Facebook page.
Hummus, of course, is a national dish in Israel, from the point of view of both Muslim and Jewish communities in the country. The International Day of Hummus even began here.
And it’s not just hummus that brings tolerance and coexistence. There are also Arab-Jewish owned eateries serving up coexistence, including Maxim restaurant in Haifa and Bouza ice cream in Tarshiha.
Viva Sarah Press reports on the creativity, innovation and ingenuity taking place in Israel. Her work has been published by international media outlets including Israel Television, CNN, Reuters, Time Out and the Jerusalem Post. Israel21C is a nonprofit educational foundation with a mission to focus media and public attention on the 21st-century Israel that exists beyond the conflict. For more, or to donate, visit israel21c.org.
When it comes to Israel, many Diaspora Jews harbor a double standard. They want their own countries to embrace pluralism and multiculturalism, owing to the kind of fluid immigration that allowed their own grandparents and great-grandparents to build a better life in America and Canada and many other places across the West. But, when it comes to Israel, they are comfortable articulating their desire to maintain a Jewish majority. Israelis – even those on the left – have a term for this need: they openly refer to Palestinians (whether in the West Bank, whether refugees living abroad or whether Palestinian citizens of Israel itself) as a “demographic threat.”
Palestinian citizens of Israel are pouncing on this usage more than ever. Ayman Oudeh, head of the Joint List, has called it offensive. He wants Israeli citizens to view their Palestinian citizen brethren as partners in nation-building. Still, he is not looking for a melting-pot version of Israeli identity: he demands that Israel grant the Palestinian citizens “collective rights.” Since they already have their own school system, presumably, by collective rights he means at the very least equal funding for schools and towns, including removing the unequal bureaucratic barriers to gaining building permits, something I’ve written about at the Globe and Mail.
Yousef Munayyer is also distressed by the term “demographic threat,” and concludes that it is intrinsic to Zionism. Instead of having a demographic problem, Israel has a Zionism problem, he argued last March in The Nation. This, as Bibi was whipping up fear against the Arab minority on election day, claiming they were coming to the polls “in droves.”
The scope of the issue is more complex than these critiques – as important as they are – allow. There are at least three aspects at play.
First, strategy. There are reasons why a peace activist may choose to use the term “demographic threat” to sell the idea of withdrawal from the West Bank, for example. This kind of reasoning may appeal to those on the centre or even the right who, unfortunately, aren’t moved by human rights imperatives. When it comes to language and lobbying, we must not forget the game of persuasion.
This connects to the second aspect: emotions. Here, the question is this: without undermining democracy, can a majority population privately desire to maintain its majority status? And, in the event that these private desires are shared publicly – through art or literature, say – should the users be chastised as being anti-democratic?
Here, we need to recall what may be motivating these feelings. It may not be anti-democratic tendencies or racism or even a sense of national superiority. As a national liberation movement, Zionism was acutely concerned with Jewish self-determination, more than it was with undermining any other national group in its midst. And, along with the material gains of statehood has come the desire to sustain a modern Jewish national culture, most markedly in the form of Hebrew. To contemplate becoming a minority in one’s country is to consider the attrition of one’s national language, at the very least, if not the possibility of collective safety and self-determination. Even if the fears are unfounded, even, if, somehow, a post-Zionist Israel can engage in a project of radical multiculturalism such that Hebrew culture maintains its treasured place alongside Palestinian culture and Arabic language, the impulse is still understandable.
Finally, there are the public policies themselves. On this, there is clearly much room for improvement. Oudeh’s call for a high-profile “civics conference” in the tradition of other annual conferences in Israel on issues – including security, social issues and economics – is a good one. As is the urgent need to close the funding gap to Arab schools and towns, and to educate against casual racism, including some landlords not renting to Arabs and “social suitability” committees determining who can live where, the kind of practices outlined by Amjad Iraqi in +972 Magazine. These attitudes and the practices that stem from them are corrosive to democracy.
All this is to say that the creation and maintenance of national identity, particularly in a state as young as Israel, is an enormous project. Using the term “demographic threat” as a way of describing the actual collective emotions and preferences of some citizens is as useful as any analytic phrase. To censor it completely, therefore, would be anti-intellectual and anti-democratic. But, when it comes to policy advocacy, thoughtful Israelis should consider thinking twice about using these words. As citizens of democracies, we should at least strive to hear things as our fellow citizens hear them.
Mira Sucharovis an associate professor of political science at Carleton University. She blogs at Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward. A version of this article was originally published on haartez.com.
Road to Peace: left to right, Josh Morry of the Arab Jewish Dialogue on Campus, and AJD’s Howard Morry and Ab Freig. (photo by Rebeca Kuropatwa)
Founded in 2006, the Arab Jewish Dialogue (AJD) is a national organization based in Winnipeg with the goal of improving relations and respect between Arabs and Jews through dialogue and education. On Feb. 23, AJD co-founder and co-chair Ab Freig, co-chair Howard Morry and AJD on Campus founder Josh Morry spoke at the University of Manitoba on The Road to Peace in the Arab Israeli Conflict – A Conversation with the Arab Jewish Dialogue.
Of AJD on Campus compared to AJD, Josh Morry said, “We, too, discuss issues that are difficult and that often make us feel uncomfortable. The only difference is some policy statements that make our group more conducive to operating on campus.
“One of the things we added to our constitution, and I believe you can find it on the website, is that we abhor the use of name calling. Not only does this undermine policies, but it stops people from being able to engage in positive dialogue.”
The core campus group consists of six Arab members and six Jewish members. Plans are in the works for the organization to host a Middle East feast at the U of M.
Since AJD on Campus formed, Morry said, “I’ve seen firsthand a reduction in the hateful speech that undermines the policies. Jewish students feel much safer on campus now.”
About Arab and Jewish relations, Freig said, “We talk about what is the best case scenario: living in peace and harmony, prosperity, cooperation. We talk about that and understand it. Then we talk about the obstacles and how we can overcome them. We both need to identify what’s best for us.
“That’s the basics of what we do. In order for us to do that, we needed to dig deeper. No one seems to dig deeper to understand. So, I’ll meet with people and start with a discussion on how to take it from here.”
Freig has witnessed how what starts in the dialogue group passes onto children, cousins, and further.
Howard Morry provided an example of how, simply by acting from a humanistic level, he was able to restore trust within the group after one of the times Israel sent its military into Gaza. He told those gathered that the Jewish members were sorry for any loss of life during the operation. “Once I said that, it was as if the oxygen was put back in the room,” he explained. “The people that were sitting cross-armed changed their posture to a more open one. And then, continuing with this … we actually had a very productive talk – politically, strategically, and at every level. But, until that moment, we had lost all the trust in that room and we couldn’t move any further.”
Recently, AJD has been talking a lot about ISIS, working to understand who is supporting them, how they are getting the money and what is driving them. And, because of the violence that happened in France with Charlie Hebdo, they also took some time to discuss the Prophet Mohammed.
“There was a Muslim Arab in the group who explained [the concerns] to the other members,” said Freig. “We issued a statement. We condemn violence and we support freedom of expression and [the] press. We put together a press release, signed by the Jewish and Arab members.”
While AJD has been going strong for nine years, creating the same kind of openness and trust within a university setting will be a challenge. “Unless you’re a really bad student, you’re not going to be part of this group for nine years, because you graduate,” said Josh Morry. “I think before we expand across Canada, we have to expand across Winnipeg. So, it would be nice to a get a student here to set up a group at the University of Winnipeg (U of W).”
He noted that it may be easier for AJD on Campus to expand to schools on the East Coast. “People are much more eager to join student groups and get involved there,” he said. “Our model is easy to replicate. The constitution is easy to duplicate, using very general terms.”
Freig stressed that, within both groups, members do not “agree on everything, [but] we don’t really need to, to have a dialogue. We discuss difficult topics and keep talking about it, and hash over the issues until we get to an understanding. That’s what we try to achieve.
“It’s not necessarily an agreement, but an understanding – understanding each other’s narratives. There are some issues we are in too deep with, so we have one meeting after another, trying to get the other person to understand. If you don’t understand where the other person’s coming from, you won’t ever get over being at odds with one another. We still have work to do.”
Howard Morry added, “One of the great gifts of this group is that it gives you a chance to explain things more than once. In this group, we approach issues in different ways. Over time, listening to each other, there’s an understanding with some members, but not with others.
“I’ll tell you that the happiest moment I think I’ve had is when I’ve said something the 16th time over a two-year period, and I had one of the members come up to me and say, ‘Howard, you just changed my life.’”
Both groups hope to inspire the broader Canadian population with how well people – not only Arabs and Jews – can get along by speaking to each other respectfully, not jumping the gun, and not just trying to be right. They see their groups as a learning tool for life, teaching how to get along with others and to build trust.
“Our intention is to extend throughout Canada and then maybe we will inspire people in the Middle East,” said Freig.
Co-chair Morry added, “While we want there to be peace, our group is focused on Canadian Jews and Arabs.… We were concerned when we first started, not wanting to become like Europe. There was a lot more violence and disagreement and no dialogue at all.
“The idea is that when you get dialogue amongst the people who’ve chosen to live in Canada, over time, it will hopefully influence the rest [of the world].”