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In America one often hears the lament that neighborhoods are too segregated. The ideal situation would be a societally representative mixture of ethnicities all living together. In fact, one of my American friends just the other day commented to me during a discussion of current events how integrated their neighborhood was – that they had a family from Mexico living to one side and a family from the former Soviet Union on the other side. Alas, they had no blacks in their neighbourhood, they admitted, and felt honestly bad about it. And that’s fine. Its a laudable sentiment and I’m sure representative of a large percentage of Americans.
But here in Israel things are a bit different. As you drive around the country, outside the major cities of Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv, and Haifa where there are some mixed neighborhoods, you begin to notice that there are Jewish towns, such as Ra’anana where we live, as well as some Arab towns. You can see the Arab towns from a distance because they always have a big mosque in the center of town, a large dome with a high thin tower. To Americans, even to myself, this seems a bit weird at first. I think all Americans when they first come here and realize how the cities are segregated have this strange sense of racial discord that they have to suppress, letting it pass as just something different about this foreign country. But I think there’s often a feeling nonetheless that the locals here are just a bit less civilized, a bit less enlightened, a bit more savage; that they just haven’t progressed quite as far yet as we in America have. There’s a tiny bit of surprise and even horror, to even allow yourself to be seeing something like this and giving it a pass – something that is so frightfully un-American and antithetical to the American ideal. I mean, can you imagine if there were entire black-only or latino-only, or white-only towns in the United States? It’s so unimaginable its almost hard for me to even write it down.
But here’s the thing. Some of the Jews like living in their own towns and some of the Arabs like living in their own towns. When I walk back from shul on Friday evening, when shabbat has just started, I like the fact that the streets are quiet, that there’s hardly any traffic because most people in the area don’t drive on shabbat. It makes it feel different than the rest of the week. And I imagine that the Arabs like living in towns where they hear the muslim call to prayer in the streets, where they all can partake in the Iftar meal together because most of the people there celebrate Ramadan. That doesn’t mean Arabs and Jews can’t or shouldn’t mix. It doesn’t mean all Jews and Arabs should be forcibly pushed into separate cities and towns. On the contrary, there are many mixed towns, both small and large. And it certainly doesn’t mean (or doesn’t have to mean) that Jews and Arabs don’t like each other or respect each other. And it isn’t racist. (I’m not saying there aren’t individual Jews or Arabs who may be racist, just that the fact of living in separate towns is not a priori a racist concept.) Perhaps the ideal here would be for people to be able to live in separate towns (or in mixed towns if they prefer) and yet for the Jews to visit the Arab towns to eat at the local hummus bar and have a cup of Turkish coffee. And for the Arabs to visit the Jewish towns to shop or sell their merchandise or whatever. The point is that the ideal here might look different than in the United States. Living in separate cities may be what some people prefer, and yet that doesn’t preclude their being friendly with each other.
In the American ideal (and there is only one) you have many different individuals all living together in a mixed situation. In that setting, each individual has constitutionally guaranteed rights and liberties. In the Israeli model the same thing applies, however there is in addition another layer of collective liberty. That is to say, the Arab town as a whole has a degree of liberty that is different and greater than what could be experienced by the individual in the American model. The city as a whole has the liberty to run its affairs as it sees fit. It perhaps can have Arabic names only on the street signs. It perhaps could forgo noise ordinances at night to allow for the muslim call to prayer to be heard as they wish. Things could be different in Jewish towns. In Ra’anana for example, all the restaurants on the main street are required to be kosher. Perhaps an Arab town could do something similar but using the halal standard instead of our kosher standard.
When we talk about equality in Israel; about how the Arabs can’t be treated equally unless they either have their own state or Israel becomes a binational state, as opposed to a situation where Israel is the sovereign, it behooves us to realize that even though the Arabs don’t have collective sovereignty inside of Israel (it is after all, a Jewish state), the level of liberties that Israel could grant to the Arabs would include not only individual liberties, as in the American model, but also collective liberties as described above in their own towns. The sum total of the individual liberties and the collective liberties offered by Israel to its minorities is quite large (larger in fact than that offered in the American model of purely mixed living), and while not the same as sovereignty, on a day-to-day basis may not look and feel so far from it. In this way we are able to maximise the liberties granted to minorities within the bounds of a Jewish state.
When people say things like, “Israel can’t be both Jewish and democratic,” or ”Israel is in danger of becoming an apartheid state if it continues controlling the lives of millions of Arabs who lack basic rights,” those statements can be true only if one assumes the worst case scenario regarding treatment of minorities, and only if one assumes an American ideal. In other words, if Arabs lived only within fully integrated towns, such as in the ideal American model but within a Jewish state, they would be forced to eat at kosher restaurants, would not be allowed to have Arabic-only street signs, may have limitations on their call to prayer, etc. And many would call that situation unfair, even racist. However, Americans who like to comment on Israel must bear in mind that the living arrangements here are not the same as in the United States, and despite its “unAmericanness”, this situation may actually end up allowing for greater liberties to be given to minorities, thus rendering the “undemocratic” or “apartheid” accusations simply untrue.