The challenges of multiculturalism in Israel’s shared society - opinion

The Israeli government has put forth as a priority the inclusion of marginalized sectors in higher education to advance societal opportunities, but this is easier said than done.

 STUDENTS FROM across Israel’s diverse demography, including Muslims and Orthodox Jews, study together at Ono Academic College (photo credit: ONO ACADEMIC COLLEGE)
STUDENTS FROM across Israel’s diverse demography, including Muslims and Orthodox Jews, study together at Ono Academic College
(photo credit: ONO ACADEMIC COLLEGE)

When navigating the challenges of multiculturalism in Israel, we often feel impossibly lost in a maze of conceptual building blocks stacked with promising intentions but no real blueprints or directions. 

Although integration and accessibility are straightforward in principle, the complex reality on the ground in Israel demands constant reorientation and shifts in perspective to guide effective social change, particularly in education and the workforce.

The Israeli government has put forth as a priority the inclusion of marginalized sectors in higher education to advance societal opportunities, but this is easier said than done. Our national landscape has been singed in a crossfire of fear, anger, and mistrust, a cycle fueled by resurgences in terror and bloodshed, unyielding social and religious dogmatism, and a bleak political outlook. Yet, we still hope, and believe, that progress is possible; we need a more tailored paradigm for bridging social gaps and invigorating multicultural partnerships.

When I joined Ono Academic College as its first dean of Humanities nearly a decade ago, my colleagues and I were determined to create academic programming that doesn’t merely dictate or lecture about the values of multiculturalism, but rather facilitates in practice innovative, applicable, and sustainable models of inclusivity in education, through academic research, classroom interaction, and unparalleled standards in culturally accessible administration.

The method to our madness begins with equitable enrollment and mindful introductions. Diverse faculty and students are welcomed with singular familiarity into multiple social laboratories and encouraged to engage others on campus in constructive dialogue that lets us carry our own truths without compromising identity. As part of this modality, a third of our faculty comes from Arab and ultra-Orthodox sectors, providing unique linguistic and cultural intimacy to the growing student body from these traditionally disadvantaged communities as they enter a shared society, many for the first time. 

 Ono Academic College (credit: PR) Ono Academic College (credit: PR)

Errors in judgment are inevitable and we learn the hardest lessons through trial and error. When implementation fails, we are duly troubled, but we never doubt the value or vision of inclusivity. Instead, we consider dynamic new educational approaches for investigation, evaluation, and practical application. 

Multiplicity is messy and there is no precise formula for applied multicultural curriculum: it’s an ongoing process requiring empirical research collected in creative, beautiful, and excruciating exchange. Multicultural education is a challenge faced in almost all countries. 

In Israel, this task is especially fraught: many feel trapped in a battle for the soul of our country and traditions, inheritors of a zero-sum game in which the triumphs and tragedies of divergent tribes are often adversely interwoven. The prism of our intersectional identity as an evolving multicultural democracy is distorted by trauma, both collective and individual.

Although difficult to admit, the respectful pluralism embraced by progressive Jewish thinkers of previous generations is losing grace in contemporary Israel. In the context of intensifying hegemony, tribalism, and strife, it has become far less plausible to expect so-called rivals to accept the mutual validity of opposing claims. As our multicultural society grows, the rules of the game naturally change; so too must the framework of conversation around the table.

Core to our dialogue at Ono is the discipline of “listening in stereo,” or, paying attention to a competing narrative while simultaneously reflecting on our own reactions. This is just a primary step, and while it’s no guarantee for civility in discourse, it is an essential tool for recognizing the duality of our own agency and vulnerability in every debate. Even the most prepared teacher or student can stumble; in constant exercise, we review, revise, and repeat.

IN ISRAEL, there is a clear and urgent need to foster multicultural education in both consciousness and skill, with no distinction between research and action. The very architecture on campuses must intentionally reflect these values, down to minutiae, to ensure that public spaces are welcoming and not alienating. When it came to our attention that Muslim students have been ritually cleansing in bathroom sinks before prayer, it was evident that the plans for Ono’s new campus in Savyon must include a designated purification room.

In the same vein, we recognized that the kitchen being built for our Culinary Arts Therapy program must be accessible to those with disabilities; otherwise, the classes are meaningless. As our student body surpasses 18,000, it’s crucial that our campuses not only accommodate growth in enrollment, but also articulate in design the varied vernacular of a shared society. 

Education, in essence, focuses on questions, not just answers. Ono is redefining the academy by expanding our lexicon of cultural inquiry and awareness, but there’s still paucity in our perceptions and observations. To this end, we actively recruit an amalgam of faculty and students committed to our mission of applied social study and transformation. Often, the most radical trailblazers emerge from the least expected spaces. 

When riots erupted last year between Arabs and Jews in Israeli cities, Muslim and haredi women studying together in our single-gender leadership course held co-ed focus groups at the Jerusalem campus, in a successful initiative to ease tensions through candid discussion. Faculty routinely attend roundtable training seminars to glean tools and insight for dealing with potential conflicts in cross-cultural collaboration. At times of crisis, like now, we cannot assume worldviews will change, but we must be willing to sit at the table and take part in those tough conversations.

The overlap of Passover, Ramadan, and Easter this year has given Israel’s diverse population a rare moment to share in celebration and introspection. Although these holidays are distinct in origin and observance, they are rooted in a common faith of renewal, reflection, and hospitality, and, above all, a conscious revelation that even the impossible can be possible.

The State of Israel was established with this hope and a yearning for freedom, justice, and peace after millennia of oppression and persecution. The founders of our country promised in their declaration of independence to foster development for the benefit of all inhabitants. In the absence of a national constitution, this declaration has become the basis for Israeli law. Israel will soon mark seventy-four years of independence, and still, this vision of equal opportunity and welfare is blurry.

We must create a new map to find our way through the labyrinth of multiculturalism in Israel. To paraphrase the great social theorist bell hooks, our collective survival depends on awareness of the separation between margin and center, and acknowledgment that each is a vital part of the whole. We must take that which is marginal and make it the center of possibility. When we are in a position of strength and power, it’s our responsibility to remember our own slavery and trauma, giving empathy and understanding a significant role in the multicultural process.

A productive shared society in Israel is possible, but to secure that, we must raze ivory towers and construct social think tanks instead. While our pasts may be shaped by competing narratives, we can learn to build a common future, through collaborative multicultural education that makes room at the table for all conversations, along with silence, discord, laughter, and tears.

The writer is the dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ono Academic College.