Earlier this week far-right MK Bezalel Smotrich (leader of the Religious Zionism party) attacked the Arab members of Knesset and by inference at least, all Arab citizens of Israel saying, “You’re here by mistake, it’s a mistake that Ben-Gurion didn’t finish the job and didn’t throw you out in 1948.” The appalling cultural resonance of that remark makes the lack of condemnation by mainstream Jewish leaders all the more shameful. The fact that such racist, bigoted statements are freely voiced in the Israeli parliament is reprehensible – but sadly no longer surprising.
Smotrich went on to say, “I have no dialogue with you!” In the framework of our work at the Rossing Center, in the last four days, I have met over 35 Jewish and Arab principals from the 50 schools with whom we are working this year. And I want to say to Smotrich: The fact that you have no dialogue with the Arab citizens of Israel is your loss — and to your detriment. The school principals I met are committed to dialogue, committed to learning about each other, and learning about the different religious and national groups that make up the population of the state. They are committed to listening to each other, even when they disagree. They are dedicated to the task entrusted to them by the Ministry of Education — to promote dialogue among students about conflictual topics. Their lives are enriched by the encounter with the other.
And when they spoke this week of what brought them to choose our programs for their schools, they spoke about the need for dialogue; their desire to get to know other groups within the population — and their responsibility to educate their students for a future which will include living and working in a multicultural reality. Many of them mentioned the events of last May (when there were many examples of intercommunal violence in mixed cities) as a wakeup call, when they realized that we have to address Jewish-Arab relations within the state. Some voiced the recognition that neither they nor their teaching staff have the tools they need to address these contentious issues.
Bezalel Smotrich probably felt he was being clever when he invoked the name of Israel’s founding Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion. By doing so, he was suggesting that the extreme positions he articulates today have their roots in the first days of Israel’s existence. He has a point (although Ben-Gurion would no doubt have been appalled to find his name used in this way). The question we face today, over 70 years later, is how to overcome fantasies of mutual destruction and replace them with workable visions of shared society.
The Ministry of Education stipulates that schools should promote free discussion and conversation “provided that this discourse does not call for incitement, racism, violence or exclusion of various groups in Israeli society or de-legitimization of the institutions of the state.” The Knesset in general and MK Smotrich in particular would do well to pay heed to the instructions of the Ministry of Education. If his version of good citizenship is allowed to prevail, all of Israeli society will fail to make the grade. If we replace his diatribe with true dialogue, we may yet pass with flying colors.