It is once again that time of year; our three young children – along with many others – are sorting through the ever-growing collection of Israeli flags to adorn our home for Israel’s Independence Day (May 10). Our children are proud young Jewish-Israelis, free to celebrate the Jewish People’s modern triumph of democratic state-building.
Yet, even as we celebrate, as Israeli adults entrusted with our children’s futures, we are obliged to take a closer look at Israeli society and act boldly for the well-being of future generations.
Closer inspection – through the kind of research recently undertaken for the major new society-building initiative called "Kulanana" – reveals deepening internal divides, threatening our children’s futures and those of all their fellow citizens. Contrary to trends in virtually all the western democracies Israel aspires to emulate, young Israelis are less familiar with, and more fearful and less tolerant of their fellow citizens than Israelis of previous generations. This is in part due to growing feelings of social alienation, with only 53 percent of 16-29 year-old Jewish-Israelis (the most connected group) having a "strong feeling of belonging" compared to 74 percent of those over 60.
The tensions are deep between secular and religious, immigrant and veteran, Jew and Arab. Two of the largest groups "at risk" are the children of first and second generation Russian and Ethiopian immigrants, and young Arab citizens of Israel (whose combined numbers comprise around half of all school-age children). These children tend to feel particularly marginalized and excluded. The reality is that they and many others often lack a positive sense of shared Israeli civic identity, belonging and pride.
The circumstances of young Arab citizens are of course distinct and especially dire. They comprise about 25 percent of school-age Israelis, and are caught up in a regional conflict not of their or their parents’ making, with their State (Israel) at war with their People (Arab-Palestinians). Israeli government data confirms that these children live in disproportional poverty, are educationally disadvantaged and statistically destined to inhabit the socio-economic periphery of Israeli society. Above all, these young citizens discover very early on that the term "Israeli" does not really refer to them, but rather their fellow Jewish citizens for whom, they know all too well, the State was created.
Sixty-three years on, this reality is already a failing – from a Jewish-Zionist, democratic, moral, pragmatic and economic perspective — all the more tragic because it is so avoidable.
A better shared future for all Israel’s young citizens is entirely achievable, without — as some of the understandably disaffected and despondent would argue — meddling with our Jewish national symbols and Israel’s status as the national homeland for the Jewish People.
The price of failure is too high to ignore. It is now urgent that we focus on the task of society-building. The reality is that no modern state can be stronger than the social and civic glue that holds it together.
Our first task is to shape a broader and fully inclusive sense of civic identity and dignified belonging. Our research shows that this can practically be achieved by focusing on three potentially popular core concepts and their inter-connectedness: citizenship, diversity and fairness. All Israeli citizens need to become aware of their common civic ties, familiar with the diversity that characterizes Israeli society and clear that only by offering fair opportunities to all, can we build the peaceful and prosperous win-win future all our children deserve – and none will enjoy alone.
It is this sense of civic unity, grounded in a broader and inclusive civic identity which "Kulanana" — a new word meaning "all of us" in an amalgam of the languages Israeli citizens speak — seeks to construct; through an unprecedentedly ambitious NGO, business and government cooperation of numerous projects and a sustained media campaign.
It is possible to imagine without in any way compromising the pleasure and pride of Jewish-Israelis and Jews around the world on Israel’s Independence Day, how an additional civic celebration can be introduced into Israel’s national calendar. Such a day will allow — for the first time — all Israel’s citizens to celebrate their shared Israeli citizenship. Indeed, as the new Kulanana initiative gains momentum and wide support, we will work with Israel’s government to institute a "Kulanana" Day in Israel’s national calendar.
This duality is entirely feasible and no less than the Jewish People and all Israel’s citizens urgently require and richly deserve.
Mike Prashker is founder and director of Merchavim: the Institute for the Advancement of Shared Citizenship in Israel and founder of Kulanana, a new society-building initiative sponsored by Merchavim.