Sadly, cabinet members of the three right-wing parties in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition government voted on Sunday to explicitly promote in the Knesset, the concept of Jewish nationhood over Israel’s traditional view of itself as “Jewish and democratic.” Ministers from the two centrist partners in the coalition, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and Tzipi Livni’s Hatenua, voted against. According to a NY Times news article, Lapid wondered what is said with this legislation to the family of the Druze policeman killed resisting last week’s terror attack on a Jerusalem synagogue; Livni responded to the bill by posting Israel’s Declaration of Independence (with its pledge to defend the rights of all its citizens) on its Facebook page.
Efforts to officially define Israel in terms of its Jewish majority, including a demotion of Arabic from its current status as an official language, are not particularly different than most of its neighbors’ self-definition as Arab or Islamic. Similar to the bill’s intent to enshrine Hebrew religious texts as inspiration for legislation (although not exactly the same as enshrining Halacha — Jewish law), is the practice in majority Muslim countries (like Pakistan, Iraq or Afghanistan) to cite the Koran as a source for legislation. But how does this help Israel, especially now at this tense time?
It’s obvious to me that Israel’s interest lies in working to make its 20% Arab minority feel at home in the country they share with Jewish fellow citizens. The Manhattan JCC’s annual Other Israel Film Festival is invaluable for highlighting stories and discussions about Israel’s diverse ethnic and religious nature. Occasionally one may question the festival’s good judgment, as I did last week. But more often than not, its selections enrich our knowledge while providing first-rate entertainment.
One such instance was “Almost Friends,” a documentary that focuses upon two Israeli teenagers: Samar is an Arab girl who lives in the mixed Jewish-Arab town of Lod and attends a predominantly Jewish secular public school; Linor is from a religious Jewish family that were among the settlers removed from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Linor attends a religious school in Tlamim in the northern Negev.
We first meet Samar in a scene with her mother, baking a cake and speaking of themselves as Arabs living in a mostly Jewish environment. (Lod was the Arab city of Lydda, cruelly conquered by the IDF in July, 1948, as described by Ari Shavit in My Promised Land.) Although she knows Arabic, it becomes clear that Hebrew is Samar’s primary language; when they visit relatives (from her father’s side) in the West Bank, her young cousins ask which she likes better — “here or there.” Without hesitation, she responds, “there,” meaning Israel.
|Samar (left) and Linor (right)
The girls are brought together as part of a program that seeks to get Israel’s children from diverse communities to learn about each other in a personal way. After skyping and emailing for a while (what it means to be “pen pals” nowadays), a busload of students from Lod visits the Rav Kuk School in Tlamim. In a trust-building exercise, the children pair off facing each other; it becomes clear immediately that Samar and Linor are hitting it off. In fact, Samar feels so comfortable that she reveals something she’s never spoken of to anyone: that some years ago, her father was murdered in the street under very murky circumstances. She cries and Linor comforts her very sweetly. When they part hours later, they are arm in arm.
|Arm in arm
Yet something happens to Linor back home. Her mother encourages her when she asks if it’s alright to be friendly with an Arab girl. But her grandmother warns her that Arabs are untrustworthy: there’s a “sting” between Arabs & Jews, and Arabs will stab you in the back, given the chance. Earlier in the film, Linor argues (in her sweet way) with her classmates that Arabs should not be seen as scary, that they are just like themselves; but she is shown later explaining that unlike Jews, Arabs do not have a soul, they only have a “spark.”
So Linor is influenced by her grandmother to reject further contact with Samar. At the JCC, one of the filmmakers explained that while Samar and her mother have appeared at public screenings of the film, Linor’s family has refused. But she sees hope for renewed contact between the two one day in that Linor has asked about Samar. In the meantime, the program of pairing schools continues.