‘Self-ghettoization’ in the State of Israel

Ze’ev Jabotinsky was a fierce critic of the majority-rule interpretation of democracy.

Benjamin Ze'ev Herzl (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Benjamin Ze'ev Herzl
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Judaism in many ways is a collective religion. A community is needed to facilitate many of the proscriptions of the Torah, from study in hevruta (study in pairs) to prayer in a minyan to burial in a community cemetery. But when Jews were exiled 2,000 years ago from Eretz Israel, halachic laws were instituted to keep the community separate from the surrounding population in order 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 for Jews in 1084 to spur 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 the non-Jewish communities.
In Zionism, there is an interesting dichotomy. In The Jewish State, Theodor Herzl wrote that the purpose of a Jewish state was to “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.”
All 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 just 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 rule. Democracy is far more than that. It entails among other things freedom of 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 rule, such as Nazi Germany.
Ze’ev Jabotinsky was a fierce critic of the majority-rule 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.’” Ghettoization and democracy – what does Shmita (the sabbatical year) have to do with Mount Sinai, as Rashi asks in his famous commentary on Parshat Behar? Having now returned to Eretz 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 accelerating self-imposed ghettoization, an exclusion of the “other” and a very narrow definition of “we.” Internally, that self-ghettoization is threatening our democracy and externally it 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 ourselves.
One sees this in so many areas.
First, there are an estimated 100,000 Russians who made aliya, 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 the seed of Israel) halachically and are 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 local religious courts 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 formally be 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 high-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 shows only 150 Druse engineers employed in large hightech companies. Today, close to 20 percent of the graduates from 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 high-tech community.
Third, there is a horrible expression that has cropped up and which I believe can be traced to the Religious Zionist movement, and that is “hatzibur shelanu,” or “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 knitted kippah 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. Imagine a Canadian prime minister telling English-speaking Canadians to run to the polls because the turnout in Quebec was high, or a US president telling white Protestant voters to vote because Hispanic voters were voting in droves. What could be more antithetical to Jabotinsky’s vision of the State of Israel than fearmongering against a minority? All these stories trace back to a common theme: self-imposed ghettoization to exclude the “other.” Whether at home, work or 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.
The best explanation for this tendency toward self-imposed ghettoization came from Rav Sharon Shalom, who I had the honor of hearing speak at our synagogue in Jerusalem on Tisha Be’av this year. His topic was sinat hinam, baseless hatred (the reason given by the sages for the destruction of the Second Temple), and the failure of the integration of the Ethiopian community in the broader Israeli society. Rav Shalom was born in Tigris, Ethiopia, made aliya in 1981, spent many of his formative years in an absorption center in Afula and then received his rabbinical ordination from Rav Amital, then rosh yeshiva at the Gush, the pre-eminent yeshiva of the Religious Zionism. Rav Shalom is not just a rabbi, he is also a genuine scholar and thinker and now spiritual leader of a leading Ashkenazi synagogue.
Despite all his accomplishments, Rav Shalom described being ignored by the rabbinic establishment and others every day.
Among the many stories he told were two glaring ones.
First, he related how a prominent rabbi, a relative of the bride at a wedding ceremony Rav Shalom was to perform, was not prepared to let him officiate despite the fact that he was invited to do so by the groom’s family with the bride’s acquiescence. This rabbi replaced Rav Shalom in the middle of the ceremony.
The second incident occurred as he stood in line for a flight to Israel; he was continuously passed by other Israeli passengers, who just assumed that he worked for the airport (despite having no uniform).
Rav Shalom attributes this conduct to fear. 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 hatzibur shelanu” to being the Jewish and democratic state that Jabotinsky and the Declaration of Independence contemplated.
The author is the managing partner of an Israeli private equity firm and is a board member of several non-profits.