I often use the phrase “Shared Society” in talks, conversations and writing. For me, it’s become this kind of catchphrase that supposedly represents the goal I spend a lot of my time and energy pursuing. I enjoy using it – just saying it makes me feel good about myself, as if by simply enunciating its syllables, I’m making the world a better place. However, my own self-adoration notwithstanding, the potency of the concept behind the phrase is obviously eroded when I and others use it without constantly reflecting on what it means, what we want it to mean, or what it should mean.
Let me illustrate just how generic the term “Shared Society” is. During an average week, I might bring up the phrase in a meeting with a Jewish school principal, while talking about the vision of the program I direct that sends Arab students to Jewish schools to teach Arabic. I might say something along these lines: “Our goal is to advance the cause of Shared Society, by teaching young kids the Arabic language as a means by which to improve the likelihood and quality of communication and relationships between Jews and Arabs.”
A day later I might say something similar to a newly recruited Arab student that’s excited about the opportunity to be a goodwill ambassador of Arab society in a Jewish school. The day after that I might be talking with an Orthodox Jewish friend about growing tensions between religious and secular communities and mention the need to overcome divisions and work together towards Shared Society.
Those are all conversations I have almost on a daily basis, and in all of them the person I‘m speaking with usually agrees that Shared Society is a worthwhile goal to strive towards. The weird thing though is that neither one of us really knows what the other person’s definition of Shared Society is. What are the parameters of this “Shared Society”? Who are its constituents? Religious and secular Jews? Jews and non-Jews? Citizens and non-citizens? Men and women? Heterosexuals and homosexuals?
More importantly, what does it mean to live in a Shared Society? On a visit to a university campus, I once discussed the issue of Shared Society with a faculty member. She pointed to the Arab and Jewish students in the cafeteria and declared that this was the pinnacle of Shared Society. When I pointed out that it looked like Jews and Arabs were sitting in separate groups, she said that the university couldn’t force them to mix socially, i.e. you can bring Arabs and Jews to an Espresso bar, but you can’t make them drink mochaccino together.
A while back, I gave a talk at a college and there was a religious student there that apparently knew exactly what I meant each time I used the term Shared Society and the more I said it the more perturbed she looked. When I completed my presentation and asked if anyone had any questions, she raised her hand and said: “What you’re talking about sounds wonderful and it would be great if Jews and Arabs could really live together in peace; But aren’t you worried that if what you’re working towards actually comes to fruition, there will be a lot of intermarriage?”
At the time I dismissed what she said as racist bigotry. On reflection, I do not think she was being racist, but rather protecting her religious values. In fact, she gave me an opportunity to articulate what Shared Society means to me, and why it motivates me, and to understand what it means to her and why she feels threatened by it.
So what does Shared Society mean to me? It’s almost physically painful to try to answer that question because doing so means coming to terms with the great chasm that separates the ideal of Shared Society from the reality we live in. What I can say is that in the Shared Society I envision, Arabs, Arab culture and the Arabic language aren’t sidelined and delegitimized as they are today. On the contrary, they wouldn’t merely be tolerated, but celebrated.
That’s why it’s so important to teach Jewish youngsters Arabic as a Language of Peace and to make Arab society and culture accessible to them in a way that highlights their intrinsic value, before cynicism, prejudice, and stereotypes set in. The same applies for the Arab students we place in Jewish schools. They too are bombarded by simplistic ideas relating to Jewish society. The intimate relationships that are built up with the Jewish kids, school faculty and parents provide a more nuanced, complex and realistic perspective. An Arab student that teaches Jewish kids Arabic in our program recently told me something that resonated: “We’ve learned to hate; we can learn to love”. The beauty of the ideal of Shared Society is that it represents a beacon of hope to guide us forward today and tell us where we can and should be as a society in the future.