Nearly 300 people sacrificed most of a beautiful Sunday (October 20) to participate in the New York leg of a multi-city program of the New Israel Fund (NIF) entitled “Towards a Progressive Vision for Israel.” Hosted at New York University’s strikingly-modern Kimmel Center for University Life, overlooking Washington Square, this was an unusually polite forum on difficult issues.
Book-ended by opening and closing plenary sessions, small-group discussions focused upon a myriad of topics relating to Israel and social change: multiculturalism and Israeli identity, religious pluralism, religious feminism, global climate change, environmental peacemaking, human rights and security, the status of migrant workers and non-Jewish refugees, Israeli-Ethiopian identity, multiculturalism in the Negev and the place of Israel in contemporary American-Jewish identity.
According to the keynoter, the former Knesset deputy speaker and Meretz MK Naomi Chazan, Israel has a per capita income of $33,000, exceeding that of Belgium. But as she also pointed out, Israel has recently surpassed the United States for the widest income gap between rich and poor in the developed world. Twenty percent of the population lives below the poverty line, as do one of every three Israeli children.
Dr. Chazan indicated that Israel began as the only underdeveloped country of the many that achieved independence after World War II that has become a fully industrialized society. She also noted that Israel, together with India, are virtually the only examples from among these newly independent states that have remained democratic. Having begun impoverished in the late 1940s and the ‘50s, Israel’s been an enormous success, but the social divides remain daunting — among rich and poor, secular and religious, Ashkenazi and Mizrachi and especially between Arab and Jew.
According to Prof. Chazan, nearly 90 percent of Israeli Arabs and Jews never socialize with each other and (perhaps more shocking) 80 percent of secular children don’t even know a fellow Israeli who wears a kippa. “Israel is a multicultural society and doesn’t know it,” she declared, adding that it does not have a “multicultural ethic.”
By this she meant that Israelis need to learn to respect their compatriots with different backgrounds, beliefs and values, rather than to necessarily regard them as wrong or unenlightened. Israelis don’t understand that “democracy is about the rules of the game for dealing with disagreement.”
The day’s events returned frequently to this central concern of building an Israel with a citizenry as diverse as it is, that is more engaged with each other and society as a whole, to overcome apathy, distrust and alienation. This was discussed in the context of a “Jewish state,” what is meant by this term and how this relates to American Jews. In this connection, Eliezer Yaari, executive director of the NIF in Israel, stated a preference for a factual description of Israel as being a “state of Jews” rather than the ideological construct of a Jewish state— but this thought was not fleshed out much, even after Yaari was challenged; my impression isn’t that Yaari was hiding anything but that it can be a genuinely difficult issue even for one to think through on one’s own. Click to continue
I think that’s a fascinting idea: not a Jewish State but a state of Jews. We should try to develop this concept further. Perhaps that is a way of getting beyond archaic theocracy and of the 19th century idea of nation-state.