United, we stand divided...

It seems the only thing Israeli society has in common is prejudice against ‘the other’.

Gay pride in Israel (Jerusalem) 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Gay pride in Israel (Jerusalem) 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I have spent far much too much time over the past 13 years consoling Israeli friends and colleagues about offense caused to their community by other groups of Israeli citizens and state institutions. However, it seems that the past few weeks have set a new record with few groups left unscathed.
Israeli-Ethiopians were the target of a racist campaign in Kiryat Malachi, Arab- Israelis were let down by the Supreme Court’s majority decision to uphold restrictions on their home-making with (non-Israeli) Palestinians, Israel’s haredim (ultra-Orthodox) were affronted by being lumped-in with an extremist minority in Beit Shemesh. Israeli women across the spectrum were more or less horrified at their increasing exclusion from public spaces.
Admittedly, I haven’t had to console any friends and colleagues from the LGBT, progressive, Russian, Mizrachi or settler communities this past week in the face of generalized vilification – but I fear I will have adequate opportunity over the coming weeks.
Taken as a whole, it is safe to assume that an overwhelming majority of Israel’s 7.7 million citizens have quite frequently found themselves the victims of crude generalizations, prejudice and stereotypes at the hands of other groups of their fellow citizens.
The fact that experiences like these are shared by so many is obviously a source of great personal upset and collective concern for the future of Israeli society, but also possibly a paradoxical source of some hope. But only if we all – together, as Israeli citizens – begin to take shared responsibility for what currently feel like our particular misfortunes. The reality is that the corrosive state of intergroup relations in Israel is not only about particular attitudes toward Arabs, secular, religious, orthodox and progressive Jews, gays and heterosexuals, immigrants and veterans, men and women; it is also about our overwhelmingly negative attitudes to everyone different from ourselves.
I have long got over my surprise that even members of obviously weaker groups in Israeli society who routinely suffer from prejudice, like Arabs, Ethiopians and the LGBT communities, are – by the admission of many friends and colleagues from these communities – at least as prejudiced toward each other as are their tormentors towards them.
Laws and their enforcement against prejudice and discrimination are important, but these should be generalized, not particularized. We often hear calls after racist incidents to draft new laws to protect a certain group and its rights, but that trend could continue ad absurdum. If we were to learn of discrimination against a gay Ethiopian blind person, should we draft new laws to ban that?
TO MAKE progress we have to understand that all these attacks are inter-connected by shared negative attitudes to “others,” held by many or all groups across Israeli society. We need to cultivate a collective culture of acceptance of diversity. This is not only of basic moral importance, but according to all our traditions, it is absolutely essential for our collective survival and success as we are all part of a society which is, above all else, characterized by its diversity.
Recent research conducted for a major society-building initiative called Kulanana, which my organization is leading, shows the extent of the problem. In Israel, fear of “others” is high, familiarity is low and attitudes are generally negative. Indeed it is important to understand the close and poisonous relationship that exists between the separate lives we live – in our homes, schools, the IDF and in the work-place – and both our fears and prejudices.
This is not the place to discuss the many powerful historical and contextual causes of this situation, of which – quite clearly – the unresolved regional conflict is a dominant factor.
However, faced with the threat of still-greater fragmentation, this is certainly the time to call for a broad recognition of our overwhelmingly shared shortcoming as concerns our attitudes to others. We urgently need to begin to work hard – together! – to develop educational, social, economic and other strategies to overcome our shared attitudinal barrier to a higher quality of life for all of us and the collective success of Israeli society and the State of Israel.
Key to making change is the creation of many more opportunities for Israelis of all backgrounds to gain a comfortable familiarity. From experience, this will quickly reveal shared identities, values and interests, reduce our prejudices and fears, and pave the way to building a far better shared future.
The writer is director and founder of Merchavim – the Institute for the Advancement of Shared Citizenship in Israel and initiator of Kulanana.