It comes as no surprise that the Covid pandemic has placed significant strain on the already frayed fabric of Israeli society, as it has on most others around the globe.
True, there have been some positives. Two prominent examples are the heightened visibility and stature of Arab citizens as front-line health care workers and cooperation between the Home Command of the Israel Defense Forces and many Ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities.
But nobody should be surprised by the exacerbation of already strained inter-communal relations when the language used to discuss the pandemic is precisely the language which has historically shaped and continues to reflect, sustain, and aggravate these troubled relations.
Even the best-meaning political, medical and media pundits routinely describe the pandemic much as sports commentators would a tournament between three competing teams: “The General Public”, “The Arabs” and “The Ultra-Orthodox”.
Performance “stats” on infections, vaccinations, deaths, closure transgressions and more are collated and compared. Who among us has not felt a tingle of pride when our “team” moves ahead and twinges of self-righteous rage and vicarious satisfaction at the setbacks of the opposition?
None of this is to argue that analysis of a country’s population by any number of categories — nationality, ethnicity, gender, income, religion, race, religiosity, health and so on — is inherently wrong. It is often entirely legitimate and invaluable. The decisive factors are motivation and impact; in this instance for advancing the inter-connected and inter-dependent goals of strengthening the fabric of Israeli society and beating Covid.
Of course, levels of social cohesion — the characteristics of relations among all a state’s citizens providing them the best prospects for a successful shared future — are not shaped by language alone.
Advancing social cohesion is also related to the cultivation of a range of conditions that in Israel — for many reasons — all need urgent attention. These include the nurturing of trust among citizens of all communities, the forging of greater trust between different communities and state institutions, the narrowing of socio-economic gaps and the cultivation of a more mature democratic culture that respects diversity and accommodates legitimate disagreements.
But language plays a decisive part in each of these endeavours by shaping awareness, behaviour, and reality; whether more collaborative and constructive or more adversarial and corrosive.
The inevitable results of speaking about Israel’s nine million citizens as belonging to three competing teams are to further erode Israel’s already low level of social cohesion and to undermine our response to the collective challenge presented by the pandemic. It does this by reinforcing the sense of entitlement within “The General Population” and the sense of exclusion, discrimination, and mistrust across much of the Arab and Ultra-Orthodox communities, approaching 40% of all Israeli citizens.
In Israel (and not only in Israel) the nurturing of trust and a meaningful sense of emotional civic belonging depend on the development of a consensual and inclusive civic language that overcomes communal barriers and nurtures a meaningful sense of shared citizenship.
The fact is that in complete contrast to sport, when fighting pandemics and building more successful societies, there can never be only one winner. The sooner we collectively grasp and verbalize this difference; the quicker we will overcome the pandemic and more effectively cooperate to build a more successful shared future.