Arkadi Mazin
Arkadi Mazin

Israel’s Failure at Nation-Building

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A school in the supposedly liberal town of Herzliya did the unthinkable: it hired an Arab as a “homeroom teacher” for second graders, entrusting her with teaching a variety of subjects, including Hebrew and the Bible. This provoked the wrath of the parents who, having never met the teacher, complained that she would not be able to instill Jewish values in their children. The administration quickly caved in and picked a Jew to teach the youngsters Hebrew and Torah.

The parents are probably right: an Arab teacher is hardly the best choice for teaching “Jewish values”. She should be teaching “Arab values” to Arab children. Or maybe she should be teaching Israeli values to Israeli children? Oh, what a silly notion!

In addition to its immediate ugliness, this incident says a lot about how miserably Israel has failed at nation-building. A country should equally belong to all its citizens. Everyone should feel part of the collective. And yet, there is no Israeli nation to speak of. Israel is the home to Jews, not to Israelis. At least 20% of its population are second-class citizens who are allowed to tag along while enduring alienation and discrimination.

I am saying “at least” because there is another population that does not feel like it fully belongs – non-Jews who are not Arabs, like myself. My father is a Jew, and my mother is not, which puts me somewhere between pure-blooded Jews and Arabs on the social ladder. Our situation (and there are hundreds of thousands of us) is much better than that of Israeli Arabs, yet we still suffer from discrimination, like the inability to marry in our own country, and are perceived as unwanted by large swaths of the population, even when we bring home Olympic medals.

To quote one parent, “this isn’t racism or discrimination, there’s a difference in the value system – just as they wouldn’t let me give a class about the Nakba in an Arab school”. Thank you, the anonymous first-class Israeli citizen, for this keen observation. Indeed, no common value system exists in Israel, as well as no common narrative. Arabs and Jews have vastly different accounts of the country’s past and present. Jewish children are taught the noble tale of fighting for their God-given land, while Arab children are told stories of expulsion and dispossession. And there is much more truth in the Arab narrative.

As to the values, according to the infamous Nation-State Law, “the state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value”. Unfortunately, this is not a value Israeli Arabs can share. They would probably prefer their state to view improving the fortunes of all its citizens as a national value, regardless of their ethnicity. What would happen if a Jewish child heard something like that from its Arab teacher? We cannot allow that, can we?

Admittedly, split narratives exist in many countries, including the US where I currently live – just look at our recent culture wars. But here, a consensus has been painfully forged on the main issues. At the very least, Americans universally agree that slavery, segregation, and other forms of overt racial oppression were horrible. This is being taught to both White and Black children. It would be inconceivable for a bunch of white parents to demand sacking a Black teacher because she cannot teach their children “White values” and “White history”. Yet, this is exactly what’s going on in Israel under the decaying façade of an advanced democracy.

Many believe that this is the price Israel must pay for being home to the world Jewry. To stay a Jewish haven, it must not develop an Israeli nation. And yet, in the long run, this is self-defeating, since fewer and fewer Jews are willing and able to associate themselves with such a country. Paradoxically, to continue to attract Jews in the 21st century, Israel must become the state of Israelis, which includes finally coming to terms with its past and creating common values and a common narrative that could be taught by teachers of any ethnicity to children of any ethnicity.

About the Author
Arkadi Mazin began his career in journalism in the 1990s, joining the ranks of Vesti, the leading Israeli publication in Russian. As a freelancer, he collaborated with major Israeli media outlets, including Yedioth Aharonoth, Haaretz, and YNET. Today, he is a contributor to Re:Levant Israeli website in Russian and a staff science journalist at Lifespan.io, a leading source of news on longevity research.
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