I’ve been thinking a lot about the recent bouts of Arab and Jewish violence. As a left-wing person, it’s very easy for me to point out the structural inequalities in Israel that helped to stoke tensions.
But that’s not what I want to do, because I’m tired of listing them all, and my voice has grown hoarse from shouting.
Instead, I want to focus on a different problem: The de facto segregation of Israeli society.
Often, it is a geographic segregation. But the area where there is violence between Jews and Arabs right now is specifically the area where both groups live together.
So I want to talk about a different type of segregation: Jews and Arabs attend separate schools. Jews go to the army; Arabs don’t. This then impacts the types of jobs Arabs have access to, since many high-quality jobs will take military experience into account when looking at candidates -an example of how social segregation reinforces systemic inequality. The different jobs, of course, means more social segregation, so the cycle becomes self-perpetuating.
I was listening recently to a podcast where Ezra Klein interviewed Senator Chuck Schumer. One of the things Senator Schumer said, which stood out to me, was that he sees desegregating schools as key to fighting structural inequality, because once society is integrated, people won’t put up with that nonsense.
I think you could make a similar argument about Israeli society. As an American, it is mind-boggling to me that there are Jewish public religious schools, Jewish public secular schools, and Arab public schools. At first, I didn’t even understand how that could be legal.
It’s important to note: Opposition to integrating Jews and Arabs into the same schools would not only come from Israeli Jews. It would also come from Israeli Arabs.
When I moved here, I thought of the situation as being analogous to the 1960s America: Of course Arabs wanted to live in Jewish neighborhoods and go to Jewish schools. But as I actually got to know both Jews and Arabs, I found that the opposition to this type of integration was often mutual. I realized that my analogy was wrong, because Arab schools are nowhere near as underfunded as African-American schools under Jim Crow, and Israeli Arabs can actually vote and have equality under the law.
And there is an argument to be made that school integration would, in fact, force Arab students to give into Jewish Israeli cultural hegemony, instead of being allowed to preserve their culture. This is the type of pluralism that Israel favors: Give each culture its own space and funding, and you wind up with a multicultural society. But this type of multiculturalism carries a steep social price-stag.
Each side’s leaders have an interest in maintaining the status quo: They get their political power from being seen as representing their constituents: religious Jews, secular Jews, religious Muslims, secular Arabs, etc. If tomorrow, Israel’s identity politics system fell apart, then the political parties would fall apart as well. Imagine an Israel in which a Jew and an Arab both vote for the same party, based on its economic policies. Such an Israel would have a completely different electoral map, resulting in the death of old parties and the birth of new ones.
But this is where I see a moment of hope: Political leaders, Arab and Jewish, have condemned the recent bouts of violence -across the political spectrum, from the Islamist Raam party, to the nationalist Religious Zionism party.
Out of the ashes of this violence, maybe we finally have the chance to work together, to create an equal and just society. The building blocks are already there. We merely have to sift for them among the tinder, and then, to painstakingly begin the work of adding our own bricks to the pile.
I learned in kindergarten, that every time we do an act of kindness, we build a stone in the Temple. Maybe, every time we do an act of coexistence, we build a stone in the society we want to be.