Mending walls

As Western civilization seeks ways to accommodate the ‘other,’ Amnon Rubinstein’s scholarship, insight, experience and humanity add up to a priceless guide for a better world.

FIFTH GRADERS from Weizmann Elementary, a multi- cultural school in Jaffa, dance the tango during rehearsals as part of a social development program in 2011 (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
FIFTH GRADERS from Weizmann Elementary, a multi- cultural school in Jaffa, dance the tango during rehearsals as part of a social development program in 2011
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
It was one of the most remarkable political careers Israel has ever seen.
What began when a 38-year-old law professor, unsettled by the Yom Kippur War, climbed down the ivory tower to start a protest movement produced 25 years of public office that left an indelible, if unsung, imprint on the Jewish state.
Amnon Rubinstein’s political years both inspired and informed his 15th nonfiction work (besides six novels), a remarkable analysis and plan of action concerning Israel’s multicultural challenges.
Though essentially an intellectual, Rubinstein was also an effective politician, and impacted Israeli history in at least three significant ways.
As communications minister in 1984, he created the telephone company Bezeq, thus ending the government’s management of the telephone industry and sparking Israel’s privatization revolution.
In 1992, as a lawmaker, he spearheaded Israel’s constitutional revolution, gathering the multi-partisan majority that passed Basic Laws “Human Dignity and Liberty” and “Freedom of Occupation,” which shine as Israel’s substitute for a bill of rights.
Lastly, as education minister in the mid-’90s, Rubinstein deregulated higher education, giving rise to dozens of new colleges that made higher education accessible to new populations.
This political biography is vital for appreciating the authority of Rubinstein’s insights and the pragmatism of his proposals.
HAVING RETURNED to academia at 71 to head the Interdisciplinary Center’s law school, the 86-year-old Israel Prize laureate for law set out to map the Jewish state’s relations with what he calls “the tribes of Israel,” with a focus on how to improve such relations.
The dilemma Rubinstein tackles is the one Americans faced while journeying from Israel Zangwill’s melting-pot idea, which idealized America’s abandonment of its pre-American pasts, to Horace Kallen’s cultural pluralism, which encouraged Americans to preserve their previous identities.
Multiculturalism assumed an entirely new urgency following the traumas of World War II, as Rubinstein notes in the book’s first section, a structured and bright analysis of this ideal, which is then followed by an exploration of Israel’s situation.
Limiting his discussion from the outset to Israel’s citizenry, and thus excluding Palestinians in the West Bank, Rubinstein lists as “the tribes of Israel” 14 groups, ranging from secular, ultra-Orthodox and messianic Jews to Muslim, Christian, Druse and Beduin Arabs.
While this mapping is technically debatable – some of these groups are not biological “tribes” – Rubinstein’s analysis of the Israeli situation leaves almost no stone unturned, from sectarian education and labor discrimination to gender segregation and “Who is a Jew?” legislation.
The book’s guiding principle is the view that Israel’s cultural partitions, while impossible to fully remove, can and should be lowered. In fact, he shows, they already are lower than many assume.
CITING POLLS indicating that 65% of Israeli Arabs are proud to be Israeli, and that most of them prefer that Israel resemble Western rather than Arab countries, Rubinstein shows that Arab citizens’ relations with Israel are better than commonly believed.
For instance, their share of university students, 7% in the mid-1990s, is now more than 14%. Arab jurists serve as Israeli judges; Arab doctors run hospital departments; Arab soccer players play on “Jewish” teams and vice versa; Arab mayors openly attack Arab lawmakers’ anti-Israeli militancy; and the number of Arabs in Israel’s civil service (3,184 last decade) reached 6,100 in 2015.
A veteran supporter of the two-state solution, Rubinstein still thinks a settlement with the Palestinians would reboot a sense of civic duty among Israeli Arabs, but he says some things can be done already now, like formally recognizing them as a national minority, and incentivizing joint Arab-Jewish businesses.
The long-term model for Israeli-Arab integration is already intact, he argues, and has been put forth by the Druse community. Hailing the IDF as an engine of multicultural harmony, Rubinstein notes that the Druse community’s service evolved gradually before producing colonels and generals.
The Druse model, according to Rubinstein, is workable because, while saluting communal preservation, it nurtures identification with the state. Multiculturalism is realized when all citizens pay the duties and reap the benefits of the national institutions they share, most notably by contributing to the state’s self-defense, he says.
Ironically, the quest for such common ground is in some ways more frustrating when it comes to intra- Jewish relations.
ULTRA-ORTHODOXY challenges the multicultural ideal in various ways, from its resistance of universal military service to its residential seclusion and war on non-Orthodox Judaism.
Yet the worst tragedy concerning Israeli ultra-Orthodoxy is its leaders’ blocking of core curriculum studies in their schools, according to Rubinstein. This, he argues, robs haredi youths of a tool they deserve constitutionally, namely the key for leaving their community, a choice that becomes much more difficult without basic math, English and history.
More broadly, Israel’s multiple school systems are cultural dividers, cultivating sectarianism not only for haredi children but also for secular, religious Zionist, and haredi Zionist Jews as well as Muslim, Christian and Druse Arabs.
Yet here, too, Rubinstein finds silver linings.
With Christian schools that are willing to embrace the government’s core curriculum he finds a model for other religious communities. In mixed cities like Jaffa and Haifa he finds a growing number of Jews and Arabs attending the same high schools, a trend he believes will grow, as Israeli and Arab communities expand and become geographically closer to one another.
In Jewish Israel, he sees the Meitarim network’s 60 schools, which mix children from religious and secular backgrounds, as a harbinger of a broader lowering of educational walls between secular and modern-Orthodox Israelis.
This is the kind of middle ground that Rubinstein’s multicultural formulas seek, whether in prescribing teaching Hebrew and Arabic to all Israelis from first grade, or in suggesting that Israel recognize non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism performed in “recognized communities,” whether in Israel or abroad.
In both its diagnoses and prognoses, then, Rubinstein’s latest work is a paragon of multicultural conviction and practicality – so much like the political career that preceded it.
As an increasingly embattled Western civilization seeks ways to accommodate the other while defending its values, Rubinstein’s scholarship, insight, experience and humanity add up to a priceless road map for a better world.