Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Corona: From the Mosaic Society Back to a Melting Pot

The Corona pandemic has caused much change in our lives: education, personal interaction, etc. Yet the greatest impact might well be something that is not easily discernible at this stage: the end of the “mosaic society” ideal.

Decades ago, the US and Israel left the “melting pot” creed for a “mosaic” form of social and national entity. The melting pot idea is to take all immigrants and remove from them most unique elements so that they can assimilate into the broader culture of their new country. That makes sense when it comes to core aspects such as language (we do want all citizens to be able to at least communicate with each other) but is not workable or even advisable when taken to an extreme, given that different ways of thinking and living have proven to be a net plus for any society (or corporation for that matter). The mosaic society, then, took its place in America around the 1960s and in Israel’s Jewish sector somewhat later: each social group retains much of its core culture but still remains part of the larger society – just as one can see the individual tiles of a mosaic, yet they all form a clear picture.

Corona, though, has pushed us back to a melting pot environment because in the modern world one cannot hermetically seal oneself off from others – not economically, not culturally and certainly not regarding public health in a pandemic. We are all inextricably bound up one with the other. To take but one area of life: transportation. The U.S. cannot really restrict travel between states (Constitutionally very difficult; practically almost impossible); in Israel, different communities literally border one the other (e.g. Haredim in Bnei Brak, literally across the street from secular Ramat Gan).

The paradox, though, is that on the face of it, the Corona pandemic has exacerbated the cleavages short-term. In America, maskless Red states vs. masked/social-distanced Blue States, and in some cases within the state itself, e.g. “Red” northern Florida panhandle vs. “Blue” Miami/Dade County. In Jerusalem, Haredi neighborhoods vs. their secular counterparts. This last example is perhaps the greatest “new rift” of all: Israeli secular society is incensed (no other weaker synonym will do, except perhaps for “enraged”) by the explicit noncompliance of several Haredi sub-communities (”khatzerim”) – mostly on the Ashkenazi side; the Edot Ha’Mizrakh ultra-Orthodox have been quite obedient regarding the Israeli government’s Corona regulations. Much the same can be said of American gentiles living in the general area (e.g. NYC) of ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and townships.

Over the long-term this type of social cleavage is unsustainable, politically and practically. Corona is an excellent example. Politically, a backlash is already in evidence. In the US, NY Gov. Cuomo and NYC Mayor de Blasio restricting movement within certain Haredi neighborhoods; in Israel, several (Likud!) ministers calling for very large civil penalties for Haredi yeshivas and synagogues that disobey Corona guidelines. Practically, there is no real possibility of self-ghettoizing from the rest of one’s country (never mind one’s city), certainly not for any length of time.

Of course, Corona isn’t the only phenomenon undercutting the separation of “social tiles”. One recent example should suffice: wildfires in California brought heavy smoke all the way to the East Coast! Global warming knows no borders: fossil fuels burned in New England will cause greater warming in Arizona and increased hurricane fury hitting Florida and Louisiana.

Thus, the very concept of a “mosaic” society – philosophically and especially in practice – has been rendered irrelevant and unworkable by modern technological and social developments. Not that the change will be immediate. The Children of Israel started out as a mosaic of 12 tribes, and it took hundreds of years until they could be brought into some real form of national unity. Similarly, the contemporary return to a “melting pot” will take time.

Several Israeli social trends in that direction are already discernible. Virtually all Israeli Haredim today speak Hebrew in their daily life – something that would have been considered sacrilege at the founding of the State of Israel; more than half of their men and three-quarters of their women have joined the workforce; more and more are serving in the army and going to college. Perhaps most “jarring” is the fact that there are clearly Haredi reporters on the TV news channels! Given these trends, it does not take a leap of faith to envision even greater social (not necessarily religious) “assimilation” of the ultra-Orthodox into Israeli society in the not-too-distant future. As for the U.S., Biden’s victory might well be an electoral statement by most Americans that they seek a closer-knit society.

Corona has been a shock for all concerned: for secular Israel and America, viewing with abhorrence the highly irresponsible, pandemic behavior of the ultra-Orthodox in their midst; for the Haredim themselves, seeing how they have become pariahs in their country and sensing the political danger of trying to maintain their own specific “tile”, separate from the overall mosaic. Of course, “melting pot” does not mean that everyone ends up looking, thinking and behaving exactly the same. Just as one can see and taste the egg, potatoes, beans and meat pieces in a tub of cholent, so too in a melting pot the various ingredients still maintain a semblance of their original flavor. But all together, they taste a heck of a lot better than when each is cooked and served separately.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. For more information and other publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com
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