‘Self-ghettoization’ in the State of Israel

In Israel, we are afraid of the other, of those that are different than us.

A Jewish youth wears a 3D printed kippa made by computer science Prof. Craig Kaplan of University of Waterloo in Ontario (photo credit: CRAIG KAPLAN)
A Jewish youth wears a 3D printed kippa made by computer science Prof. Craig Kaplan of University of Waterloo in Ontario
(photo credit: CRAIG KAPLAN)
Judaism in many ways is a collective religion. A community is needed to facilitate many of the laws of the Torah, from study in hevruta [study partnership] to prayer in a minyan (quorum), to burial in a community cemetery. But when Jews were exiled 2,000 years ago from the Land of Israel, halachic laws were instituted to keep the community separate from the surrounding population to preserve the community.
Separation was essentially the defense mechanism of exile.
In the middle ages in Europe, this voluntary separation became mandatory, partly for protection, but mostly for subjugation.
Bishop Rüdiger Huzmann of Speyer established a protected settlement of Jews in 1084 in order to attract Jews for economic development (in effect, this was the first ghetto in Europe). In 1516, Jews in Venice were confined to a settlement, marking the first time that “voluntary” community or “protected” community was made mandatory by external forces. Jews did not have the option of remaining in close proximity; they were forced to do so. And more importantly, the Jewish community was not voluntarily separated from others; it was forced by the authorities to be separated from non-Jewish communities.
In Zionism, there is an interesting dichotomy.
In The Jewish State, Herzl wrote about the purpose of a Jewish state: “We shall live at last as free men on our own soil, and die peacefully in our own homes.”
At the same time, he presented a universal vision: “The world will be freed by our liberty, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness. And whatever we attempt there to accomplish for our own welfare, will react powerfully and beneficially for the good of humanity.”
This is reflected in the Declaration of Independence. On the one hand, it cites the particularity of the State of Israel’s formation as the culmination of the “natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state.”
There is also a universal message that “the State of Israel is prepared to do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East.”
But the Declaration of Independence did not merely set out a vision for the State’s “integration” into the family of nations.
More importantly and in fact primarily, it set out a vision of how we were to conduct ourselves internally. “[The state] will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.” Not only was Israel to be a Jewish state, it was to be a liberal and democratic one.
There is a tendency to define democracy very narrowly as “majority rules.” Democracy is far more than that. It entails among other things, freedom of the press, freedom of association, freedom from arbitrary arrest, and most importantly in my view, full minority rights. In fact, some of the most undemocratic governments in history started and ended with majority rules, such as Nazi Germany.
Jabotinsky was a fierce critic of the “majority rules” interpretation of democracy: “It is an incorrect view which states that government supported by the majority is democracy. The democratic concept is the result of a historical process, of struggles against governments of rule by the minority. This is not yet, however, true democracy.
Democracy means freedom. Even a government of majority rule can negate freedom; and where there are no guarantees for freedom of the individual, there can be no democracy... The Jewish State will have to be such, ensuring that the minority will not be rendered defenseless.
The aim of democracy is to guarantee that the minority too has influence on matters of state policy. After all, that minority comprises individuals who were also created ‘in the image of God.’” Having now returned to Israel and having realized the Zionist dream of a sovereign people in its own homeland, the defense mechanism of voluntary separation should no longer be necessary.
And yet, Israel is experiencing an acceleration self-imposed ghettoization, an exclusion of the “other” and a very narrow definition of the “we.” Internally, that self-ghettoization is threatening our democracy and externally is threatening our relationships with the rest of the world. In other words, what anti-Semitic regimes imposed on us since the days of the Venetian Ghetto of the 16th century, we are imposing on ourselves.
First, there are an estimated 100,000 Russians who made aliya who are technically not Jewish but would willingly convert if afforded a genuine opportunity.
Many of them have a Jewish father and are considered zera yisrael (of Jewish descent), and therefore subject to simpler and swifter conversion procedures.
Yet, after presenting breakthrough legislation, the so-called Tzohar Law, that would have helped solve this problem by moving conversion from the anti-conversion central conversion authority to religious courts in various cities, the current government is nullifying this legislation. There is no precedent in Jewish history for a central conversion authority. Conversion, from the time of Hillel and Shamai, was a local decision subject to the local beit din and did not require approval of the Sanhedrin. The Tzohar Law is consistent with both Jewish law and Jewish practice from time immemorial. However, the haredi (ultra- Orthodox) religious establishment has been doing whatever it can to block conversion, creating an environment of frustration and disconnection – from both the State and the Jewish people – of 100,000 citizens who want to be formally part of the Jewish people. Rather than making every effort to make this community part of the “we,” every effort is being made to make this community part of the “other.”
Second, both large and small companies are complaining of a shortage of R&D employees and the risk this poses to Israeli hi tech and industry generally, but well-educated haredim remain unemployed. And it is not just haredim – a manager of a leading R&D center in Israel told me that his data show only 150 Druse engineers employed in large hi-tech companies. Today, close to 20% of the graduates at the Technion come from the Arab community, but I can count on one hand the number of senior start-up executives that I have met from the Arab community in the course of 21 years in the tech industry. They too are part of the “other” and have no place in the hi-tech community.
Third, a horrible expression has cropped up that I believe can be traced to the religious Zionist movement: hatzibbur shelanu (our public), referring only to national religious Jews. As a religious Zionist, I made aliya to the national homeland of all the Jewish people. When did hatzibbur shelanu become only Jews with a crocheted kippa, and not the Jewish people as a whole – or for that matter all Israelis? Finally, and maybe the most glaring example, is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s playing the race card to get out the vote by highlighting the percentage vote of Arab citizens. What can be more antithetical to Jabotinsky’s vision of the State of Israel than fear-mongering against a minority? All these stories trace back to a common theme: self-imposed ghettoization to exclude the “other.” Whether at home, at work or in the synagogue, we are forcing ourselves into ghettos comprised only of people who look like us, think like us, have the same culture and the same level of religiosity.
In Israel, we are afraid of the other, of those that are different than us.
In order for us to get out of the self-ghettoization, we have to move away from fear of the “other,” to the acceptance and inclusion of the “other.” Instead of seeing the varied cultures and backgrounds in Israel as a risk, we have to see our varied cultures and backgrounds as an opportunity.
Being “different” should not be viewed as something to fear, but something to desire.
It will make our home lives richer, our work lives richer and most importantly, it will bring us back from the slippery slope of being the “State of hatzibbur shelanu” to being the Jewish and democratic state that Jabotinsky and the declaration of the State of Israel contemplated. ■ The writer is the managing partner of an Israeli private equity firm and is a board member of several non-profits.