I was very surprised to discover that comparing the complex issue of diversity in Israeli society to a famous British sandwich spread helped me to make sense of a tricky and thought-provoking situation. .
Marmite is a yeast-based sandwich spread that polarized opinions to such an extent that Marmite makers launched an entire marketing campaign with the slogan “Marmite — love it or hate it.” Eventually, “Marmite” became slang for an issue where people fall into two opposing camps, with little or no middle ground between them.
One of the most striking things I find living in Israel is that “diversity” is such a Marmite conversation. Don’t get me wrong — diversity in the United States and England is important. But it’s important as a value — it’s ingrained, it’s part of the culture, it’s there to be embraced and loved and held up as a driving light This is especially the case when creating educational and government policy. I find that this is not the case in Israel.
As a casual observer, I notice that many people cherish it and many people despise it – but there are very few people who have a neutral view of diversity. Whole communities and towns are built on promoting non-diversity amongst their population whilst there are many municipalities that pride themselves on promoting diversity in their jurisdiction. The “love it or hate it” approach to diversity in Israel was hammered home to me by a recent WhatsApp thread. Here’s the gist of it:
Some parents had the idea of opening a branch of a local scouts group that would be much closer to our neighborhood in Modi’in. They lobbied the Religious Scouts movement and the municipality to see if this is a viable option and then decided to open a WhatsApp group to share the developments with interested parents. What ensued was (sadly but perhaps somewhat predictably) less a forum for updates but a platform for people to mud-sling and insult one another.
“Hi everyone, we are pleased to announce progress in the forming of a local Religious Scouts chapter.” So far so good…until someone suggested the new chapter should be mixed. The ensuing responses were visceral – parents immediately and firmly divided themselves into two camps – either in favor or against.
In the rejectionist camp there were responses such as:
“Mixed???Why would we want that???”
“Nobody told me this was going to be mixed!!”
“Mixed??? I thought this was going to be a religious branch…”
In the embracing corner there were responses such as:
“Of course it has to be mixed.”
“Mixed is what everyone else is doing, why wouldn’t we?”
After about 20 messages like this, someone raised their head above the parapet to seek clarification of what exactly “mixed” was referring to. One person attempted to helpfully clarify that the discussion was about mixed gender. Somebody else ventured that no, we’re not talking about gender! We’re talking about a joint religious-secular chapter. A third person piped in that they thought it was a discussion of integrating special needs kids into the chapter. After a renewed back and forth debating what “mixed” should/would/could mean in this context, the conversation was sensibly shut down by the administrator.
What I found most enlightening was that many of the protagonists in the conversation switched their positions when they understood what “mixed” actually meant. In other words, people on both sides of the diversity debate had knee-jerk reactions to an issue they felt strongly about without really understanding what they were knee-jerking about.
In this generation of “keyboard warriors” this shouldn’t be all that surprising. It did, however, serve as a reminder to me that while feeling passionate about important issues in our society is very positive, doing so from a place of ignorance is not something that should be to our taste. “Love it or hate it”, diversity is present in Israeli society. It is intelligent and informed debate, rather than knee-jerk reactions, that will serve our society well in the future.
If a sandwich spread can help us to understand so much about Israeli society, just think how much we could learn if we were willing to take a taste from each other’s cultures and viewpoints!!