Terra Incognita: Whose Israel is it?

The tragedy of Israel is that it was not founded on inclusion. Despite voices to the contrary, inclusiveness has never been a national priority or value.

Jewish immigrants from Yemen in 1949 370 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Jewish immigrants from Yemen in 1949 370 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Since the foundation of the State of Israel, one of the hallmarks of Israeli society has been divisiveness.
This manifests itself in a variety of ways. One of the clearest expressions is the notion that “group X” must “integrate into Israeli society.”
Given that “Israeli society” has generally been taken to mean “Jewish society” and Israel is a Jewish state, founded on the legal premise that any Jew or person with Jewish ancestry may move to it, it is not clear why one group of Jews is necessarily considered outside that society while another is necessarily considered in. Unlike immigrants arriving in France who might logically be expected by the state to embrace “French values,” Israel is founded on a religious-ethnic principle.
For instance, Yael German, No. 3 on the Yesh Atid party’s Knesset list, noted that “the exclusion of women from politics by the ultra-Orthodox parties reflects a thoroughly backward, unenlightened position and is a grave risk to Israeli society.”
A risk to “Israeli society”? Are not the ultra-Orthodox part of Israeli society? When Theodor Herzl came to Ottoman Palestine to scope out his future state he saw Orthodox Jews, Sephardim and Ashkenazim. They were here before Zionism. In the first elections there were 17 Orthodox Knesset Members. In one form or another the Ashkenazi Orthodox party, Agudat Israel, has always served in the Knesset. And yet Yesh Atid, a party conjured up by a media personality in 2012, considers this group a danger to “society.”
Perhaps German has it wrong; perhaps it is the exclusivist ideology that is a danger to Israeli society.
AN IDEOLOGY that includes its own definition of what constitutes “society” necessarily entails the elimination, forceful integration, deportation, etc., of whoever falls outside the definition. Or, as with the attempt to ban the Orthodox parties from participation, the disenfranchisement of the unacceptable elements.
Such selective ideologies were tragically ingrained in Israel from the early years of the state. In 1953, the reporter Amos Elon went to Morocco to see Jews who were preparing to make aliya. According to Orit Rozin in her new book The Rise of the Individual in 1950s Israel, Elon wrote back that this was a group living “in a place of stench, degeneracy, disease and perversity.” He described them as rotting human flesh, as carriers of infectious diseases.
In short: These people must not come to the land of the Jews, even though they are Jews. Israel was to be a fortress for the European Jewish immigrants.
According to some, Jews from the Arab world were not wanted.
Rozin writes that these prospective Jewish immigrants from the Maghreb “arrived with venereal diseases, to which the old-timers [those already in Israel] reacted with particular revulsion.” Why is it that someone who came in 1944 was considered an “old timer” but a Jew arriving a mere six years later was considered a “new immigrant”? Elon himself had only come to Palestine in 1933, but already he considered himself the judge of which Jews belonged and which did not.
The immigrants from Yemen were accused of selling their women “for miserable pennies” into “abuse and slavery.”
Other new immigrants were said to have “a higher proportion of mentality ill persons than in standard populations.”
They were subjected to physical exams “meant to weed out people who might damage the Israeli social fabric.” Dr.
Haim Nassau of Ha’emek hospital in Afula claimed the new immigrants carried infectious diseases of such virility that they might spread through the air to the nearby kibbutzim and harm the Israelis.
Thus it wasn’t enough that the Jews from Morocco would never be admitted to a kibbutz by the discrimination/acceptance committee – even from several kilometers away, they could still harm the kibbutz Jews. It is ironic that despite all the stories about the toughness of the local Jews who had drained the malarial swamps, they feared dropping like flies at the hands of the diseases the Moroccans supposedly carried. According to period newspaper reports, Jews from India were said to have Elephantiasis and their immigration was prevented.
THIS IS shocking material, but it was the national mood in the 1950s. Those who had just gotten off at the port of Jaffa in 1947 had already ascribed to themselves an “Israeli social fabric,” and everyone else – some 80 percent of the world’s Jews – were not part of it.
It pains one to think of it, but the Nazis made films depicting Jewish “degeneracy” in Poland, showing the poverty and filth of ghetto life. But for some reason when one thinks of the Jews jammed into their ghettos in Europe one considers them victims. Israeli “society” considered Jews from Yemen and Morocco somehow to blame for their poverty; not people who deserved help, but people who were not “good human specimens,” not “the right sort of human material.”
A Jew just off the boat from Vienna might lay claim to Israel as his own, but the Jew of Yemenite descent who had actually been born in Jerusalem was said to be a foreigner, who might, if he was lucky, be allowed “to integrate into Israeli society.”
THE ORIGINAL Jewish society that was here in 1880 at the advent of Zionism was brushed aside in order to make way for the new socialist Zionist modern state of 1948. Subsequently, each wave of Jewish immigrants, all from countries in which they were minorities, has been led to believe the country can be remade in its image. And the “create my own society from scratch” concept is quite appealing; what other country can one immigrate to and become part of a dynamic community expanding the borders of the state, M-16 in one hand and shovel in the other? But this “the state is me” mentality also leads to the ironic situation in which a new immigrant from Boston or Manchester can ask, “How can we get the haredim to integrate into Israeli society?” The fact that a prominent member of a new political party like Yesh Atid can petition to have one of the state’s oldest political parties banned is a testament to this mentality. The problem is that this exclusivist attitude should be shunned, not welcomed.
THE STATE and its elite have never sufficiently expunged the dangerous and toxic sentiments of Elon, Nassau and others who were allowed to structure Israeli “society” based on the narrow definitions of their own German-Jewish background. How narrow? Well, it’s like saying American society only includes those within the cultural sphere of 5th Avenue and who read The New Yorker.
To some extent every society is shaped by the culture of the elite of the capital city, but is Ian Paisley more “English” than David Beckham or John Cleese? Inclusive societies know how to encourage the participation of all, rather than creating “bubble republics” in which most are viewed as “outsiders.”
Israel’s intellectuals, academics, media personalities, entertainers, writers, academics and politicians have never done enough to encourage an inclusive society, and in fact have done much to create a Balkanized framework of intolerance.
Moreover, it is the same “Israeli society” that bashes haredim for being a “danger to Israeli society” and then bashes them again for not sufficiently celebrating Independence Day. You can’t have it both ways. If they are a threat to “society,” they can’t be expected to wave society’s flag and rush to join society’s army.
America, too, crossed this bridge in the 1960s, as African-Americans wondered why they were being drafted for Vietnam but suffered discrimination at home.
The tragedy of Israel is that it was not founded on inclusion. Despite voices to the contrary, inclusiveness has never been a national priority or value. The so-called “civics” lessons high school students are subjected to don’t encourage it.