Identity, diplomacy and nationalism: Are we really better than the UAE?

When it comes to nationalism and acceptance on a societal level, Israel has a ways to go.

Israeli flag. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israeli flag.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It seems that half of Israel is up in arms over the lack of sportsmanship shown at the Abu Dhabi Judo Grand Slam in October. Israeli athletes were not allowed to have any national emblems shown and the conference organizers refused to play Israel’s national anthem for the Israeli medalists. It’s a sad day when politics trumps diplomacy.
I can relate. In 2012 I traveled to Dubai to participate in an international competition. As a Model UN student I represented Egypt, but at the Global Village fair my friend and I hoped to bring some Israeli representation to the UAE. Unfortunately we were stopped by the conference organizers, who were concerned about running afoul of authorities.
Such censorship doesn’t work. I used social media to share my presentation with fellow participants, many of whom were from countries with which Israel lacks full diplomatic relations. And we had many fruitful and thoughtful discussions during and following the conference. Countries can ban flags and anthems, but through interpersonal relationships, ideas and debates can still flow.
But beyond the frustration and the righteous indignation, we as Israelis should use this opportunity to look in the mirror and ask whether we are really much better. To some it is sacrilege to even ask that question; it’s a basic Israel advocacy talking point that we are the only democracy in the Middle East, lack a partner for peace, are a beacon of light. As a liberal democracy, Israel does have much to teach its neighbors. But when it comes to nationalism and acceptance on a societal level, we too have a ways to go.
Running Jewish-Arab Model UN conferences over the past few years, I’ve gotten a special insight into many communities throughout Israel. I’ve had many interesting experiences, some positive and some negative, but all opportunities to learn. One of these was the “flag incident” – when the Palestinian flag was removed from a row of flags to avoid controversy at a Jewish school hosting a conference.
Of course such controversies cannot really be avoided, and removing the flag didn’t end the debate. But we learned from this, and now require that schools hang the Israeli and Palestinian flags side by side at the entrance. If that necessitates a school-wide discussion on the two-state solution or national identities, all the better. If IDF generals and Israeli government representatives can sit at a table with the Palestinian flag and shake hands with their counterparts, then surely our schools can handle a simulated discussion. Or so one would hope.
In reality, I’ve been sorely disappointed. Not by the Arab schools in Israel, who leap at the opportunity to host conferences. No, as a Jewish Zionist, I’ve been disappointed by Jewish schools who hem and haw and ultimately decide that it’s easier to hide flags in classrooms than explain to the student body that the Palestinian flag can hang side by side with the Israeli flag, that simulated negotiations toward lasting peace with our neighbors is a good thing.
It seems a fundamental educational failure – we need to teach future generations to do better than current leaders, yet even relatively progressive, pluralistic schools can’t meet minimal standards of diplomacy that the Israeli government manages.
I wish this were an aberration. Overwhelmingly, hesitancy to participate in interfaith and coexistence programs comes from Jewish families – parents who don’t want students going to Arab cities or schools, who don’t see the value, or harbor fear or skepticism. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but on the whole the Arab parents I deal with, from Beduin villages south of Beersheva to towns all over the north, are enthusiastic about sending their children to have lunch in my sukka, to attend Friday night synagogue services, and certainly to make Jewish friends. To a significant degree the same enthusiasm is replaced by fear and skepticism on the Jewish side.
I believe the Arab behavior in Israel is a reflection of the choice made to live within a shared society, to maintain linguistic, religions and cultural heritage while fully participating in higher education and the national economy which necessitates full interaction with Jewish peers and colleagues. And as the majority, Jewish Israelis don’t have to make that choice. But we should.
It’s wrong to prevent Israeli athletes from wearing the Israeli flag at an international event. But we have our own issues to deal with at home, like educating for peace, and improving our own society. It’s easy to share a headline and blame someone else. It takes far more courage to look in the mirror and question our own willingness to have open discussions about identity, nationalism and inclusiveness, or to take a bus to a town several hours away to learn about someone who is a little different than you. In that regard, we have a lot of work to do.
The author is founder and co-director of Debate for Peace.