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The Pew Report and Israel’s separation-integration problem

Israelis' yearning for community is natural -- they also need ways to engage meaningfully with other groups

Many of Israel’s current woes, both internal and external, stem from a misconceived polarization in how the country deals with difference. Whether the issue is the conflict with the Palestinians, the education of religious and secular Jews, or questions of civic and national identity for Israeli Arabs, Israeli policy ends up as a tug-of-war between two extremes: total separation and total integration. This polarization of policy is mistaken, and a thoughtful middle path is needed, one which recognizes the need for separateness of communities, but also demands regular and deep interaction between communities.

Let’s begin with Israel’s school system. As has been well-documented and criticized, Israel’s school system is divided into (at least) four distinct sectors: Secular, National Religious, ultra-Orthodox, and Arab. Students in each of these systems live in separate neighborhoods, learn different curricula, and grow up in complete isolation from and ignorance of each other. And the school system is a microcosm: Israel itself is characterized by multiple communities that exist almost in isolation from each other. The recently-published Pew Report on Israeli Society sheds painful light on this culture of separation and its results.

In this culture, separation is a response to and solution for difference. Israel is made up of many communities that are all extremely different from each other: religiously, culturally, and politically. The Pew Report makes that very clear. But Israel’s response to this sociological datum has always been the blunt tool of separation. If each of these groups sees the world differently, understands Israeliness differently (if at all), and advocates different educational canons to which they want their children to be exposed, then, so Israel’s response has been, let’s separate them into mutually exclusive living and educational arrangements, and let each group do its own thing, unhindered by interaction with the others. The result, according to Pew: different Israeli sub-groups “inhabit largely separate social worlds.”

It’s true that secular and national-religious Israelis encounter each other on equal terms when they get to the army, but that only comes after 18 years of separation and stereotyping, and it does not provide a solution to their separation from the ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities. This has led to well-documented and disastrous results for Israeli society. A common civic narrative of “what it means to be an Israeli citizen” has been, at best, elusive, and at worst (which has been most of the time), so far beyond the realm of reality that it sounds like science fiction. The recent controversy over the new civics curriculum is just the latest manifestation of this failure.

There are some efforts to break this culture of separation, but these efforts are usually rooted in the opposite philosophical pole: full integration. The most well-known examples are the Hand-in-Hand bi-lingual Arab-Jewish school network and the Meitarim mixed religious-secular school network. These networks, inspired by the American educational integration revolution of the 1960s, appeal to a minority of Israelis who are interested in full integration. But they do not appeal to most Israelis, who fear that they will lose more than they will gain. If separation and integration are a zero-sum, either-or choice, they’ll opt for separation, out of a desire to preserve their own cultural or religious heritage, and to raise their children together with other like-minded children, without the assimilatory pressures of full integration at a young age.

We must recognize that Israel is made up of radically different communities, which, in turn, consist of people who prefer to build their lives with like-minded people. No doubt, some reactions to the Pew Report will call for a melting-pot social integration policy, but that is never going to be the right fit for Israel’s sociological reality. Israelis want to remain immersed in their own communities. And that’s okay. Human beings crave community. Research shows that people who live in supportive intentional communities are happier and even healthier than those who do not.

But the desire for home community has become an unhealthy separation. Communities need gateways to other communities; they shouldn’t exist in impermeable bubbles. Israel needs to find the way to create opportunities for people from different communities to meet and get to know each other in safe, mutually enriching ways. From that base, they must think together about how to build a society that they can all feel part of, a society that works for the common good of diverse sectors.

We need to acknowledge the legitimate desire of parents to have their children schooled in a culturally or religiously appropriate home community, while also providing a nationally-mandated educational structure, containing both formal and experiential elements that will enable children to learn about, meet, and engage with children from other Israeli communities. I would term this a system of “linked communities.” In a system of linked communities, Israeli parents would have the right to send their children to a school whose community is more or less homogenous and “like-minded.” But just as all children have to take Math and English, so too all children, in every grade, would have to take a curriculum in other Israeli communities, and this curriculum would include not just academic study about other communities, but also regular visits to other schools, and extended learning projects with learners from other schools that create inter-dependency and co-operative learning with the other.

Many parents fear that encountering children from different backgrounds will threaten the identity of their own children. This fear is legitimate and must be taken seriously. As the sociologist Peter Berger has taught us, exposure to different “plausibility structures” has the tendency to weaken the plausibility structure of one’s own community. That’s why a total integration policy will never work in Israel, and even this model of linked communities may be a step outside the comfort zone for many Israelis. Nevertheless, it’s a social policy that Israel desperately needs to enact and embed. The picture of society painted by Pew is not sustainable.

This model of “linked communities” as a third way between “separation” and “integration” can be applied to every aspect of Israeli life, whether it’s the youth movement system, the ultra-Orthodox employment crisis, or a dozen other issues.

It’s also a model that can show us a way forward in the conflict with the Palestinians, which is also stuck between solutions advocating either total separation or total integration.

The separation barrier between Israel and the Palestinians has been a reality for some years. Built as a response to the wave of suicide bombings in the Second Intifada, its length is now around 500 km (300 miles), about 2/3 of its planned final length. The vast majority of Jewish Israelis, this writer included, approve of the barrier, and point to the reduction in suicide attacks since 2006 as proof that the barrier has been a major factor in the increase in Israel’s security in recent years.

The barrier has come at a cost, though, and that cost is the now almost-total separation between ordinary Israelis and ordinary Palestinians. Older Palestinians talk nostalgically about the pre-separation days, when Israelis would shop in Jenin and Palestinians would work in Israel. These older Palestinians speak Hebrew, know Israel, and sometimes even fondly remember Israeli friends or acquaintances as a result of these interactions; very few young Palestinians do.

Faced with the devastating security situation during the Second Intifada, Israel adopted a policy of physical, but also social and cultural, separation. But this policy did not suddenly manifest itself as a result of Israel’s frustration with Palestinian terrorism. The military-political policy of separation has only been its most recent manifestation; as I’ve argued above, separation has been a core social policy within Israel since its foundation.

The latest proponent of this policy, is, of course, Labor leader Isaac Herzog, whose new peace plan is explicitly framed as a policy of total separation.

Those who argue against separation, however, jump straight to the other pole: full integration. Ironically, this philosophical approach makes strange bedfellows of one-state right-wingers and the few New-Middle-East left-wingers who still haven’t given up the ghost. Both of these groups harbor visions of Israeli-Palestinian integration that are at odds with the current possibilities.

What is needed is a policy of linked communities. The conflict with the Palestinians is a more acute problem than the Israeli school system, but the conceptual solution is the same.

A policy of linked communities with regards to the conflict with the Palestinians would acknowledge that we must abandon the destructive policy of total separation that has governed the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. That does not mean a one-state solution with a melting-pot binational state (right-wing integration). It also doesn’t mean being naïve about our security needs (left-wing integration). It means that we must conceive of the Israelis and the Palestinians as separate but linked communities.

The separation barrier may be crucial to Israel’s security in the short and even long term, but there are many ways in which appropriate cultural, social, and educational community gateways could be put in place without compromising Israel’s security. Until we establish such linked community gateways, we’ll never get to know them and they’ll never get to know us, and peace will remain elusive and fragile.

For example, the Israeli school system should mandate regular mifgashim, encounters, between Jewish Israelis, Palestinian Israelis, and Palestinians in the West Bank. My oldest child is 14, has gone through the Israeli school system from grade 1, and has never met a Palestinian of his own age. That is insane from a political perspective; and from an educational perspective, it’s unforgiveable.

Encounters between groups in conflict are not easy educational programs to create and manage, and they may arouse feelings of anxiety and fear in some parents. Again, these feelings are legitimate and must be taken seriously. There are several organizations that already do this work on a small scale, and even do so in collaboration with the Israeli Ministry of Education. Clearly, to make this happen on a national scale would require enormous investment in the training of facilitators, building of safe facilities, and development of curricula. But there are people in Israel and in the world who know how to do this work: it’s not a pipe dream. And, crucially, it would not come at the expense of security or of the emotional security of one’s home community. It’s a model neither of full separation nor full integration, but of linked communities.

The Pew Report has done us all a huge favor, by putting the results of Israel’s disastrous separation policy in front of our eyes. We can’t go on like this. But our reactions to Pew can’t jump to the other extreme either. Whether it’s the conflict with the Palestinians or the internal divisions of Israeli society, we need to learn how to remain safely within our own communities, even as we enrich our lives through interaction with those who are different. Israel needs to break out of the separation-integration dichotomy and develop models of linked communities.

Dr Alex Sinclair is Senior Advisor for Diaspora Relations at Shaharit, an Israeli non-profit which advocates for political and civic models that transcend traditional communal boundaries. He is also Director of Programs in Israel Education for the Jewish Theological Seminary, and the author of Loving the Real Israel: An Educational Agenda for Liberal Zionism. He lives in Modiin, Israel.

About the Author
Dr. Alex Sinclair is Senior Advisor for International Development and English Language Content at Shaharit, an Israeli non-profit that advocates for political and civic models which transcend traditional communal boundaries. He is also Director of Programs in Israel Education for the Jewish Theological Seminary, and the author of Loving the Real Israel: An Educational Agenda for Liberal Zionism. He lives in Modiin, Israel.
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