The gathering of Israel from the Diaspora is a biblical promise which has comforted Jews from the time of Babylonian exile, through the early days of the Zionist movement and right up to such recent anti-Semitic attacks as in Copenhagen and Paris. The passage in Deuteronomy 30:1-5 ends with the promise of better life for anyone who makes the journey from “the end of the heavens” to the land of Israel. In the 12th century, the great philosopher Maimonides concluded that messiah alone would ingather the exiles. For new immigrants (olim), the Jewish Agency takes on the role of messiah, and once here it is up to them, along with the native Jews and Arabs of the land, to fulfill the divine promise and realize a good life.
From day one, Israeli society reflected a kaleidoscopic variety. Jews from Iraq, Yemen, Eastern and Western Europe and the USA were viewed by the founding fathers of the state as deviations from the pioneering ideal, which had to be molded together in an assimilative “melting pot.” In essence, there was a one-sizefits- all identity of a “sabra” that was offered to the new immigrants, in the image of the secular and socialist Ashkenazi elite of the new country. It is fashionable among certain circles to denounce Ben-Gurion for his failed attempt to draw such diverse ethnic communities together to one uniform identity.
However, the contribution of his efforts to the creation of the resilient Israeli democracy must also be acknowledged.
On the other hand, a great deal of issues remained unaddressed. One famous taboo is the relationship between religion and state, which was sealed under the status-quo agreement on Shabbat, Kashrut, family laws and education. Furthermore, the first decades of independence also entailed a repression of differences between ethnic groups of Jewish migrants in the country. Certain measures to include Mizrahi Jews in state institutions were adopted as affirmative action, although informal discrimination persisted. Finally, the relationship between Jews and Arab-Israelis, whose towns and villages were under military rule until 1966, remains affected by institutional and informal discrimination to this day.
Israel entered a new phase with the rise of Likud in 1977. Israeli society was partitioned to more sub-groups and sectors and the melting- pot policy collapsed. Domestic politics became a zero-sum game. Jews of the former Soviet Union formed a separate party, Jewish settlers formed their own political platform, senior citizens organized independently, and even the middle class began seeking effective representation in the Knesset. Additionally, other new parties gained traction by hate-mongering toward Arab Israelis or propaganda against ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Regardless of the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, Israel is facing a tri-national reality, with Israeli Arabs and religious Jews becoming equal in size to the (former) secular majority. Social divisions are first created in the education system, in which Arab Israeli, ultra-Orthodox, national-religious and secular children do not mix. Upon graduation, the first two groups are generally not conscripted, and therefore remain separated from the other groups.
The current elections campaign brought divisions to a peak. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made a continued effort to delegitimize great parts of Israeli society, by comparing workers’ unions to Hamas and accusing the Left of aiding Islamic State. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman accused the head of the Joint Arab List of being a terrorist and called for the beheading of “disloyal Arab citizens of Israel.” Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) and artist Yair Garboz (Meretz) made remarks that were offensive to many religious and Mizrahi Jews. Nevertheless, 99.9 percent of all Israelis are law-abiding and non-violent citizens and such rhetoric is entirely unjustifiable. It threatens the gentle fabric of Israeli society, and is a miserable substitute to the flawed policy which Ben-Gurion supported.
According to the central bureau of statistics, three of the most common names given to newborns last year were Daniel, Muhammad and Tamar, from Arab, secular, traditional and ultra-orthodox Jewish families from all corners of the world. All of Israel’s citizens deserve to feel at home here. Their unique identity cannot be repressed through a policy of assimilation.
Equally, it must not be subjected to the policy championed by Netanyahu and other politicians of “divide and conquer.”
There is so much for us to gain from celebrating that ethnic, religious and cultural plurality. The vision of Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog for Israel is promoting precisely such multiculturalism. Herzog’s alternative is asking us to speak at eye level with anyone different from us, and not to consider him or her as a rival. Under Netanyahu, Herzog repeatedly warned, even our capital Jerusalem has become a barrel bomb, instead of a symbol of multiculturalism.
Regaining and sustaining that ideal is a challenge everywhere, and in Israel – after decades of top-down oppression toward various groups – it is probably bigger than in other countries.
However, in that diverse and polarized context we do not need an allegedly strong leader like Netanyahu, who devotes his talent to aggravating internal conflicts. Since we can’t trust a messiah to lead all the exiles to the good life, Daniel, Muhammad and Tamar need our action to feel at home. Voting for Herzog’s responsible vision of multiculturalism can help us get there.
This article was was first published in The Jerusalem Post.