Upgrading Israel’s democracy

Israel’s most popular political slogan – “The People Want Social Justice” – needs two more words: “For All.”

Social justice protest 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Social justice protest 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Israel’s most popular political slogan – “The People Want Social Justice” – needs two more words: “For All.” In the American context, those two words confirm the Pledge of Allegiance’s definition of the US as a truly democratic republic based on liberty and justice for all its citizens.
In the contemporary Israeli context, they would extend the call for a more equitable distribution of wealth beyond the so-called “middle class” alone. (A more accurate term for the intended and worthy beneficiaries would be “the working class.”)
This proposed verbal supplement is all the more relevant in Israel’s case now that the activists who staged last year’s protests against this country’s high cost of living and the consequent difficulties in making ends meet are about to renew their campaign.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s recent claim – that most Israelis enjoy adequate income while their Arab and ultra-orthodox Jewish fellow-citizens (the so-called “haredim”) do not – exposes a very serious shortcoming here. Israeli Arabs comprise nearly 20 percent and the haredim nearly 10% of Israel’s population.
Rather than just admit that they have social and economic problems, Netanyahu should be trying to do something about them.
On paper, Israel’s Arab citizens enjoy equal rights and are eligible for the same quality of services from the governmental authorities – local and national – as their Jewish counterparts. But this is not reflected in day-to-day life.
The unemployment rate is substantially higher among Israeli Arabs than among Israeli Jews, especially insofar as Arab women are concerned. This is because the incumbent and previous governments have failed to direct manufacturing firms toward the cities, towns and villages where Arabs live. Therefore, opportunities for Arab women to find jobs near their homes are woefully insufficient.
In general, industries whose output is earmarked for Israel’s armed forces or are owned outright by the military defense establishment do not hire Arabs. Prior service in the armed forces is a prerequisite. And since Israeli Arabs are not conscripted (although they can and some do volunteer) they cannot qualify.
The production of weaponry and aircraft constitutes a major segment of Israel’s industrial base and requires a substantial number of employees. All of the jobs in that category are filled by Jews. The state provides elementary and secondary education to Arab girls and boys, but the academic level evidently is lower than in the Jewish sector. This is reflected in the results of the annual matriculation tests which are an important factor in applications for admission to the country’s colleges and universities.
These matters are within the scope of governmental activity and should be addressed by the national leadership, including Netanyahu.
The situation of the haredim is complicated by subtle if not secret deals in accordance with which ultra-orthodox schools are subsidized by the government in return for parliamentary support by the various religious political parties.
In addition, the succession of Israeli governments, since the days of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, have allocated ample funding to the various rabbinical institutions, especially those in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak.
The ministry of education exerts little if any influence on their curricula or pedagogical methods.
With regard to the latter, most of the learning is by rote and there is little if any emphasis on independent thinking or analysis with regard to social issues.
The most serious defect in the haredi sector is that secular subjects such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology and foreign languages simply are not taught. These shortcomings make it difficult if not impossible for graduates of religious schools (known in Hebrew as yeshivot) to enter the scientific professions. Their prospects for gainful income in general are limited to whatever jobs may be available in the ultra-orthodox sector and make them dependent on the rabbinical leadership for the rest of their lives.
Here too there is good reason for the ministry of education to intervene and implement badly-needed and long-overdue reforms. Otherwise, the current situation in which more than 30 per cent of the ultra-orthodox community’s males are unemployed and therefore are dependent on indirect government handouts for their survival and that of their families will persist.
This state of affairs is not something that the prime minister simply can mention in the course of a random summation of the economic status quo. It is an unfortunate and lamentable reality with which he and his cabinet most cope. And the sooner the better.
With regard to Israeli Arabs, one cannot but recall the optimism that prevailed during the prelude to the UN General Assembly’s historic vote for the partition of Palestine, November 29, 1947, and the concurrent endorsement of Jewish statehood. Ardent Zionists in the United States predicted that once the Jewish state came into being, it would set an example for the rest of the world because of its enlightened and considerate treatment of the minorities within its domain. Regrettably, that has not happened... yet.
In the 1930s, when Jewish statehood was still far from realization, Chaim Weizmann – who was destined to become its first president – was quoted as saying that its democratic nature would be confirmed when an Arab citizen was chosen as its prime minister. That event appears very far off.
The writer is a veteran foreign correspondent.