Israel and Multiculturalism

Throughout history, the Land of Israel has given birth to many spiritual and material innovations that have enriched the human experience. Israel is the birthplace of both Judaism and Christianity, and of the monotheistic tradition that spawned other faiths such as Islam and Sikhism. In the modern era, the Jewish State has become synonymous with innovation and high-tech, as documented in the 2009 bestseller Start-up Nation and similar works.

Nevertheless, Israel must never lose its willingness to learn from even the humblest of places. In this case, friends of the Jewish State can take two important cues from Winnipeg, an unheralded city of approximately 700,000 nestled in the heart of the Canadian Prairie.

From August 5th to August 18th, the city of Winnipeg hosted Folklorama, its annual summer celebration of diversity and multiculturalism. Folklorama consists of two distinct weeks showcasing pavilions maintained by the city’s various ethnic communities. Each pavilion features food, drink, an educational cultural display and a main entertainment event, which usually features local singers and dancers. Admission to any pavilion is only six dollars, while food and beverages require additional payment.

Winnipeg’s 17,000-strong Jewish community is a proud participant, hosting the perennially popular Israel Pavilion-Shalom Square, this year dubbed “the gold standard” of the festival. The pungent smell of falafel and potato borekas hovers through the air as the Sarah Sommer Chai Folk Ensemble dazzles the audience with its fantastic show, one of the very best in Folklorama. This year, I had the great pleasure of serving as a pavilion host, having served as an official ambassador in previous years.

So what does this quaint ode to Israeli culture and multiculturalism have to do with the State of Israel, as it faces terror and chaos along almost every border, a renewed Palestinian push for unilateral statehood via the United Nations, and the threat of war with an insane Iranian regime pursuing nuclear arms?

Quite a bit, actually. Like any modern nation, Israel can not afford to rely exclusively on hard power, that is to say, on its military might and economic prowess. Rather, it must appreciate the benefits of soft power, of fostering international good-will through attraction instead of force.

As I guided visitors through our informative cultural display with its panels on Israeli medical advances, the Dead Sea and the Holy City of Jerusalem, I watched with pride as my guests’ eyes lit up and they finally recognized the positive, uplifting side of the Israeli narrative. By momentarily looking past the Israeli-Arab conflict and emphasizing the peaceful side of the Jewish State, we were able to build goodwill among all visitors, from the loftiest local politician to the Average Joe.

In my humble opinion, our Israel Pavilion stands out as a glowing beacon of benign Israeli messaging in a dark sea of media bias and casual, even fashionable hostility toward the Jewish State.

By not exporting this Winnipeg product, we are letting a glorious hasbarah opportunity go to waste. A few other Canadian cities, such as Saskatoon and Mississauga, have similar multicultural festivals. It goes without saying that all such festivals ought to include an Israel Pavilion.

But that’s not enough. Every Diaspora city with a sizable Jewish population should have an Israel Pavilion of some sort, even if the local jurisdiction doesn’t sponsor a multicultural festival. In that case, the Israeli Departments of Tourism and Diaspora Affairs should subsidize local Israel Pavilions to keep them affordable for the average blue-collar worker. This would be money well spent, as pro-Israel voters encourage pro-Israel stances and policies by local governments.

On a deeper level, Folklorama has taught me the precious value of multiculturalism. In the Israeli context, multiculturalism is too often misunderstood as a tired left-wing ideology that could lead to sharia law in Britain and an intensifying anti-Israel trend in Europe. In fact, multiculturalism can become one of Israeli society’s greatest assets.

At the Israel Pavilion, I always conclude my tours with a panel showcasing the diverse faces of Israel, from Indian Jews such as singer Liel Kolet to Israeli Arabs such as military hero Abd al-Majid Hidr. I explain that Israel is both the nation-state of the Jewish People and a multicultural society like Canada, maintaining a delicate balance between two worlds.

Israel desperately needs its own Folklorama-style festival. As the violent incidents of the past week have painfully demonstrated, the ties between the individual groups in Israel’s cultural arena are fraying. For too many Israelis, the term “Haredi” now denotes a stone-wielding, insult-spewing zealot in Beit Shemesh, while “Israeli Arab” conjures up images of the October 2000 disturbances, as well as dark mutterings of a “demographic threat”.

But while regional neighbours such as Lebanon, Iraq and now Syria have descended into paroxysms of violence and terror based on ethnic and sectarian fault lines, Israel’s multicultural mosaic remains intact – so far. This small victory is worth celebrating, and simultaneously strengthening. Israeli Jews desperately need to feel comfortable munching on kibbeh with their Arab compatriots in Um Al-Fahm, and vice versa.

One of the keys rules of Folklorama is that pavilions are forbidden to highlight present or historical conflicts with other groups, thus establishing a neutral, relaxed atmosphere for cultural sharing and learning. This simple formula would build bonds of peace and friendship among Israel’s disparate communities, rather than bitter memories of violence and betrayal.

In addition, Israel’s small size would allow pavilions to be feasibly located all over the land, rather than being limited to a single city. A month-long extravaganza could feature a Yemenite Pavilion in Tel Aviv’s famed Kerem HaTeimanim, a Druze Pavilion in Beit Jann, and even a Samaritan Pavilion in Holon, among others. With a little bit of government help, ethnic communities, especially those which have historically perceived themselves as victims of discrimination, would be eager to throw open their doors for curious onlookers.

An Israeli Folklorama would showcase Israel’s tolerance and multiculturalism on the world stage, while helping to heal a fractured Israeli society. Not bad for a simple idea from Canada, eh?



Note: The opinions expressed herein belong solely to the author, and should not be attributed to the Israel Pavilion – Shalom Square or Folklorama as a whole.

About the Author
Aidan Fishman is a student of International Relations and Near and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Toronto. Born and raised in Winnipeg, he seeks to inject a touch of Canadian civility into Israeli and Jewish discourse, while still maintaining a debater's ear for sound logic and an enthusiast's eye for stories and solutions hidden beneath the headlines.