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Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

National Viability and Vitality: The Israeli Case (4) – Shared Opportunity

Last week I discussed in-depth the second of seven factors – “Unified National Identity” – underlying national competitiveness and dynamism (https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/national-viability-and-vitality-the-israeli-case-3-unified-national-identity/) in order to evaluate Israel’s potential for continued growth and flourishing in the coming decades. Here I will analyze the third factor: Shared (Equal) Opportunity.

From Herzl onwards, Zionist ideology called for equal opportunity, especially regarding gender. In theory, this sounded fine; its practice left much to be desired. Kibbutz women were mostly relegated to the kitchen, childcare, and other “female” tasks; the men ran the show, although (or: even though) women had an equal vote regarding who would do what and where the kibbutz should be going. Similarly, on the (pre-State) “national” level voting suffrage was granted to women from the first elections in 1920 (after a struggle with the ultra-Orthodox parties), but here too few managed to gain a central role in leading the new State. Golda Meir was the exception that proved the rule – not the rule itself (as Ben-Gurion’s remark suggested: “Golda is the only man in the Cabinet”).

Shared opportunity was almost non-existent for several ethnic groups. Little need be said about Arabs having little opportunity to advance under Israel’s military administration until right before the Six Day War. More problematic was the fact that the Jews from Arab countries who immigrated after 1948 were de facto “segregated” residentially, educationally and professionally – for two related reasons: almost all had education levels well beneath that of the Ashkenazi mainstream; the latter considered the former to be “inferior” in every respect.

If all this sounds bad – it was (past tense). However, the question before us relates to the present and future. And here the picture becomes far rosier, if not yet ideal by any means.

In politics, for well over a decade, women have been leading several parties: large (Tzipi Livni: Kadima), medium (Meirav Michaeli: Labor) and small (Zehava Galon: Meretz). Others are central actors in their parties e.g., Ayelet Shaked (Yamina), Miri Regev (Likud), Meirav Ben-Ami (Yesh Atid), Yifat Shasha-Biton (Tikva Khadasha) – altogether there are 39 female MKs out of 120; almost a third. Israeli women have well over 50% of all academic degrees – including PhDs! And protections have increased too: major political figures (State President; IDF general; high-level police officer; etc.) have spent time in jail for sexual molestation or harassment of women in their professional domain.

Perhaps the most important recent political development regarding shared opportunity – for Israel, certainly the most revolutionary – was the Arab party Ra’am joining the government. This did not come out of the blue but rather was based on a tectonic shift within Israel’s Arab community as a whole: greater integration into the Israeli economy and to a somewhat lesser extent, into Israeli society (e.g., Arabs moving into Jewish neighborhoods). The Supreme Court has an Arab judge; the Israeli Cabinet has had a few for several years (including Likud’s tenure), and even the IDF has high level Arab (usually Druze) officers.

This is not to say that there aren’t obstacles to full equality of opportunity. The major stumbling block is education: the Arab educational system is under-financed, and the teachers tend to be of lesser quality than in the Jewish public school system. The most egregious example of lack of opportunity is found among the ultra-Orthodox, but there it is self-imposed (by the all-male leadership): they refuse to allow their male pupils to learn English and Math (forget about “science”!), and the females get only a rudimentary education in these economically critical subjects. The present government started making moves (under Finance Minister Lieberman) to force “core subjects” into the haredi curriculum but didn’t have enough time to complete the project.

Looking towards the future, this is one of the most important issues regarding Israel’s future, given current demographic trends (high haredi birthrates). One might add, albeit regarding a group with a smaller population base but extremely high fertility, that much the same problem is found among Israel’s Bedouin communities (Galilee and Negev) – here too for reasons of maintaining their cultural norms in the face of Israeli secular modernization.

Perhaps the trickiest “equal opportunity” divide to deconstruct is the intra-Jewish, ethnic one: western Ashkenazim and eastern/north African Edot Ha’mizrakh. In many fields of intellectual endeavor – higher education, law, journalism – there still exists a significant gap between the two. However, this is largely not a function of overt or systemic discrimination (after all, the Edot Ha’mizrakh have entered politics and the IDF in a big way). It might well be, at least in part, a residue of historical factors (there was very little higher education to speak of in the Arab countries) or cultural predisposition (Israeli Jews from Arab countries prefer to excel in the “hands-on” fields of construction, trade and commerce). In any case, with intra-Jewish “intermarriage” between these two main ethnic groups continuing to climb – and as Israeli society continues to combine elements of both cultures – the categories Ashkenazi and Edot Ha’mizrakh will continue to lose their salience as Israel moves into the future, thereby gradually negating any residual “opportunity” deficits.

A group at the bottom of Israel’s socio-economic totem pole are the Ethiopian Jews. However, the last forty years (since they started arriving in significant numbers) are a mirror reflection of the rest of Israeli society, as noted above. Although inroads have been slow, Israel now has Ethiopian members of Knesset, and even PhDs – despite the very low educational level of the earlier immigrants. Racism does exist in Israel, but the Ethiopians themselves are fighting back vociferously, especially against police discriminatory “activism” against them. Nevertheless, given their dark skin and the inherent racism among several other Israeli ethnic groups, it will be a long and arduous process for them to fully avail themselves of Israeli equal opportunity.

Finally, a word about people with special needs. In large part due to the heavy toll wars have taken on Israel’s soldiers the country is one of the world leaders in equal opportunity with those suffering from handicaps. All government offices are mandated to provide access; its internet sites also are handicapped accessible; the IDF has a unit in its Intelligence Corps for autistic people who have specific map-location abilities; Social Security is mandated to give monthly stipends for those suffering mental illness or significant physical challenges; etc. Unsurprisingly, Israel garners loads of medals at the Para-Olympics!

In short, as a generalization, when it comes to “shared opportunity” there is a growing gap in Israel between what was, what is, and what (probably) will be. Over time, the country has managed to open itself up as a land of greater equal opportunity for its citizenry: female/male; Arab/Jew; ethnic background. Pockets of serious discrimination and lack of progress still exist, but the very fact that in most cases Israel is aware of these problem areas and is trying to ameliorate them, is promising in and of itself. Continued movement in this direction makes this general factor a net-plus looking towards Israel’s future.

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. His new book is VIRTUALITY AND HUMANITY: VIRTUAL PRACTICE AND ITS EVOLUTION FROM PRE-HISTORY TO THE 21ST CENTURY (Springer Nature, Dec. 2021): The book's description, substantive Preface and full Table of Contents can be freely accessed here: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-981-16-6526-4#toc. For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com
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