It’s trite, but patently true; over time, no state can be stronger than the social fabric that comprises it. Yugoslavia no longer exists: its social fabric was flawed beyond repair. Libya and Syria are two contemporary examples of states with apparently irreparably frayed social fabrics. In each case, deep-seated tribalism has trumped a fragile sense of common civic identity and purpose.
It should therefore be of great concern to all who care about the State of Israel that, for all our achievements, Israel recently placed 28th among 32 EU and OECD member states in the annual “social cohesion” study, undertaken by the Bertelsmann Foundation and conducted by Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany.
A cohesive society, as defined on the Bertelsmann Foundation web-site, is “characterized by resilient social relationships, a positive emotional connectedness between its members and the community and a pronounced focus on the common good”. The study measured such variables as “social networks, trust in people, acceptance of diversity, identification, trust in institutions, perception of fairness, solidarity and helpfulness, respect for social rules, and civic participation”.
The resulting cohesion table was headed by Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland, while the only states to fair worse than Israel were Cyprus, Lithuania, Latvia, Bulgaria, Greece and Romania.
As an Israeli educator promoting the idea of shared citizenship as a common foundation for better inter-group relations between Israel’s 7.7 million citizens, the findings merely reinforced our research, experience and deep concern for Israel’s social fabric and hence the State of Israel’s future.
While diversity was not itself a necessary indicator of low social cohesion in the Bertelsmann Foundation study, it is no surprise that in Israel, where distinct communities generally live and study separately, with low levels of inter-group familiarity and high levels of inter-group fear, it is a contributory factor. It is also not surprising that in the shadow of the ongoing conflict, relations between Israel’s 80% Jewish majority and 20% Arab minority are especially strained.
Reflecting the findings of the Bertellsman Foundation, research commissioned for a major society-building initiative led by Merchavim called “Kulanana”, identified a profound lack of any commonly held sense of civic identity. When many young citizens of Israel are asked “Who is an Israeli?”, the answers are far too often factually inaccurate and resonate with a sense of exclusion and alienation. Especially worrying, young Israelis were found to be less comfortable with diversity than former generations!
Reflecting and sustaining this fractured reality, Israel since its establishment has maintained four distinct state school streams: Jewish-secular, religious, ultra-Orthodox and Arab – each one in turn with its own sub-divisions. This presents a severe structural challenge for educators working to promote respectful familiarity and cooperation between all groups.
So how can the State of Israel and all who care about its well-being and sustainability respond to such a big problem?
The shaping of a strong society requires the development of a consensual civic language as a critical first step: a cooperatively developed language that enables all Israel’s major groups to embrace citizenship without threatening other highly-valued identities.
Further, a strong society requires an appreciation of the interdependent nature of its communities and social challenges: most conflict-mitigation and society-building approaches in Israel have been dominated by single-issue organizations working in separate silos, with under-served groups often inadvertently pulling in separate directions. We need to learn to work together to make Israel fairer for all, if we want it to be fairer for “our” community.
Education is one of the most important vehicles for change. Despite the structural challenge to shaping a cohesive society presented by Israel’s separate school streams, it is essential that we develop effective educational strategies from kindergarten through high school. All Israel’s citizens need to graduate their schools with an informed and comfortable familiarity with fellow communities. This work is challenging and expensive but the ultimate cost to Israeli society – and hence the State of Israel – is nothing compared to that of non-implementation.
Neither can shared citizenship education be limited to the school system. Young people learn 24/7 through multiple platforms and educators have to find creative new approaches beyond the school-day.
Strategic cooperation is also required between NGOs, government, philanthropy and business, because the challenges of inclusive society-building are simply too big and complex for any one agency to address. Kulanana, for example, aspires to create a “sphere of influence” in which like-minded individuals and agencies, equipped with a common consensual language and civic-brand, can act separately, jointly and sustainably to make unprecedented change.
Starkly stated, 65 years after statehood, and for all our achievements, Israeli society remains measurably weak. It is now the responsibility of everyone who cares about the future of the state of Israel to work together to weave a sustainable and strong social fabric.