TERRA INCOGNITA: Beware Israeli parochialism: From the first Knesset to today

Israel is not well served by a political class that scoffs at the world or sees foreign lands only as riddled with anti-Semitism.

IDF troops take part in a military parade in Jerusalem for the 25th anniversary of Israel’s independence in 1973. This was the final year such parades were held in Israel. (photo credit: UPI/JERUSALEM POST ARCHIVES)
IDF troops take part in a military parade in Jerusalem for the 25th anniversary of Israel’s independence in 1973. This was the final year such parades were held in Israel.
Israel’s first foreign minister was born pretty much in the same region as its last. Moshe Shertok was born in Kherson in what is now Ukraine in 1894; Avigdor Liberman was born in Chisinau in today’s Moldova in 1958. By car it is about a five-hour drive between the two. But their similarities end there.
Shertok, who later changed his name to Sharret, studied law in Istanbul and at the London School of Economics.
He spoke fluent Arabic and Turkish, received Ottoman citizenship and served in the First World War as an interpreter.
The differences are symbolic of a larger trend in Israeli history. Part of the Zionist state-building process was to take an ostensibly wandering and rootless people and return them to their land in Israel. Regardless of whether you agree with all the tenets of this narrative, what is indisputable is that the immigrants to the land that became Israel brought with them an incredible cultural and educational diversity.
Data and anecdotal evidence show an stark decline in Jewish intellectual and cultural diversity in Israel over time. The brash politics of the state, the semi-ignorant statements of politicians, the extremism found among the intellectual elites, the banal arguments put forth in local newspapers all beggar discussion.
A study by the Central Bureau of Statistics entitled “Equal opportunity in education” found disturbing trends. One of the most scandalous was the fact that only 28 percent of Jews of Mizrahi origin born in Israel had obtained an academic degree. 31% of their parents, who were born abroad, had obtained degrees.
Or Kashti at Haaretz called this “disturbing” and noted that this cohort had grown up entirely in Israel and Israel alone was responsible for their lack of educational achievement. “This constitutes the strongest evidence of the failure of local educational authorities to repair the gaps,” wrote Kashti.
However, it isn’t just a question of “gaps.” Israelis from an Ashkenazi or European background have less educational attainments than their Jewish peers in America (49% receive advanced degrees in Israel compared to 58% in America.) The degree to which Israel has come to degrade rather than celebrate the academic and cultural achievements of immigrants became clear during the Soviet aliya, which the country is “celebrating” 25 years of.
Martin Fletcher in Walking Israel notes that he once hired construction workers to renovate his home. A Russian architect, an actor and a stunt-man showed up to do menial labor. “Many of the Soviet immigrants who arrived in Israel lacked jobs... doctors worked as kindergarten teachers and scientists as night watchmen,” he said.
The overall trend in Israel, contrary to the general trend of the Jewish people in the past several hundred years, has been to decrease academic achievement and turn cultural diversity into parochialism. Perhaps that is the nature of ethnic nation states – no state can be a made up entirely of philosophers. Someone has to dig ditches, after all. But one gets the sense actually that the general trend bodes ill for the country. The Gulf Arab states, for example, have been investing in culture and the arts, academic achievement and financial prowess.
SYMBOLIC OF the changes Israeli society has wrought is a comparison between the first Knesset and the current one. On the surface things look good: around 73% of the current Knesset members have a first degree, compared to only 45% for the first Knesset.
In the first Knesset 13 people had PhDs, whereas today only 12 do.
In the first Knesset 17 members had only completed traditional Jewish “heder” and 10 had gone on to study in yeshivas or other religious academies. In today’s Knesset only six listed religious and high-level Talmud study on their Knesset website, although the true number of those who studied in yeshiva is probably slightly higher. The supposedly “secular” first Knesset was thus much more rooted in Jewish religious tradition than today’s, which is often portrayed as being more religious. When it came to international education it is no surprise that many of the first Knesset members studied “abroad” since they almost all grew up outside what was then Palestine. Only 13 of the members of the current Knesset seem to have gone abroad for their education, whereas the first Knesset brought with it a rich diversity of educational backgrounds, from places such as Beirut, Cairo, Switzerland, London, St. Petersburg, Warsaw, Paris, Harbin, China, South Africa and other places.
One could measure the local educational background of Israel’s leaders as indicative of Israel’s success at building an impressive university system. But what about knowledge of foreign languages? According to their own claims on the Knesset website, 85% of the Knesset members claim to speak English. A total of 26 claim to speak Arabic, 10 speak Russian, four Spanish, four French, one Italian, several Yiddish and one German, Polish and Amharic. By contrast some 75% of the first Knesset spoke Yiddish, 21 spoke Russian and 20 German. Several spoke English, Turkish, Arabic and French. One spoke Greek. Most spoke several European languages, which is what differentiates them from their current peers. They traveled in a world of different languages and cultures. Compared to the current Knesset where only 19 were born abroad, only 16 of those in the first Knesset had been born in what is now Israel.
The picture drawn is that of a very Israeli Israel. On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with that. The question is whether this localization will have longterm effects on Israel’s relations with its neighbors and the world. Israel has tended to value assimilation over diversity, the sabra over the multi-cultural. The question is whether the local culture that people are asked to shoe-horn their cultural heritage into is self-destructive.
Instead of building on the vast and beautiful cultures that people brought with them to Israel, the concept is often to turn them rapidly into “Israelis” and make them feel that their heritage belongs abroad.
This has had profound effects, for example the failure to preserve the languages that Jews brought with them.
What happened to the Arabic spoken by hundreds of thousands of immigrants? What of the German? The Russian? The Amharic? Each of these languages serves as a bridge between Israel and the world, and yet each is slowly replaced by a bare grasp of English as a second language. Israel is toying with the idea of trying to increase the level of spoken Arabic in elementary schools, but why didn’t it have the long-term vision to preserve the Arabic spoken by the hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Egypt? Parochial Israel loses the rich Jewish heritage that many Jewish immigrants brought with them and doesn’t replace it with an equally rich local heritage.
Ironically if you want to find students learning French or German in high school in Israel, you’ve got to go to the private Christian educational institutions that cater to Arabs, such as Rosary Sisters in Jerusalem. Probably more Palestinians speak a smattering of French than do Israelis (at least, Israelis not born in France).
Parochialism also breeds contempt for foreign cultures. It breeds a brutish chauvinism that prizes localism and dismisses outsiders. This manifests itself throughout Israel in a kind of disdain for anything foreign. Whether it is petty hatred for French, American or Russian immigrants, or hatred for Arabs, the mass culture tends to scoff at anything that is not “us.”
It’s no surprise Israeli comedy sketches still employ blackface for comedic effect; such is the ignorant and basically racist comedy in Israel, that relies on making fun of culture and race.
The long-term effects of parochialism at the political level means a narrowing of Israel’s foreign relations.
Those like Moshe Sharret or Yitzhak Ben-Zvi had traded their European place of birth to be ensconced in the Middle East, learning Turkish and studying in Istanbul.
Israel is not well served by a political class that scoffs at the world or sees foreign lands only as riddled with anti-Semitism.
Follow the author on Twitter @Sfrantzman