More than six decades after its establishment, Israel’s citizens have yet to develop a common, let alone positive, sense of belonging. How we meet this challenge will not only shape the future of the State of Israel, but also inevitably affect Jews everywhere.
Successive Israeli governments have unfortunately failed to address this critical issue. Adding fuel to the fire, Israel’s current government — which already has a sorry track record of divisive legislation against different groups of citizens, including progressive Jews — is now seeking to amend the citizenship law in ways deeply offensive to Israel’s Arab citizens and many others.
Tragically, narrow political interests — which in Israel still favor those who divide rather than those who unite — are once again serving to undermine Israel’s internal cohesion, and with this its already fragile international legitimacy as a Jewish and democratic state.
Rather than sowing discord, it is incumbent on all Israeli leaders, and all who care about Israel’s future, to reboot divisive mind-sets, to understand the root cause of our deep internal divides and shape realistic and consensual society-building responses.
To better understand the underlying problem and develop a realistic response we recently completed research among young Israeli adults of all backgrounds. The evidence was stark: One focus group participant’s words still ring in my ears: “I feel no one really understands me as an Ethiopian. I come from a different culture. There is racism. I am closed off from society. People don’t accept my children and I can’t find work.” In another focus group, a young Arab citizen echoed this despair: “I’m totally, completely outside [society], far away — not even on the map.”
Young Jews and Arabs agreed that “Israeli” invariably meant “Jewish” — thereby immediately excluding 20 percent of Israel’s citizens, who are Arab, from any prospect of dignified belonging. For Russian and Ethiopian Jews — another 20 percent — “Israeli” frequently meant “native-born.” For ultra-Orthodox Jews, “Israeli” typically meant secular. In fact, in most of the groups, representing the majority of Israel’s young citizens, some sense of exclusion was palpable; familiarity with “other” citizens was low and fear of them high.
In the face of this profound inter-group crisis there is no more urgent task than helping young Israelis forge a cohesive civic identity. This must be strong enough to connect them as citizens but flexible enough to accommodate their differences.
Fortunately, there is a way to achieve this.
First, we need a basic awareness of the many groups that legally share Israeli citizenship.
As Israel’s founders knew, equal citizenship for all Israelis is not only consistent with Israel’s distinct character as the national homeland of the Jewish people, it is essential to the integrity of the Jewish and democratic values on which Israel was founded and essential for its cohesion, growth and legitimacy.
Greater awareness must be matched by measurable change. This requires us to secure equal opportunities for education, employment, basic housing, and every other element of daily life — consistent with our values, laws and interests.
With these ideas in mind, an expanding coalition of partners from across a broad spectrum has spent a year planning an unprecedented response.
We began by quite literally inventing a new word — “Kulanana” — forged from the words for “all of us” in Israel’s two official languages, Hebrew and Arabic. This step is intended to help provide the basic cultural and linguistic glue that is lacking, and that without which Israel’s 7.6 million citizens can’t create a better, shared future.
Of course, the initiative is not about simply disseminating a new word, but rather about popularizing and realizing the consensual values Kulanana aims to embody. Our research shows that the important and interlocking ideas of “citizenship,” “diversity” and “fairness” resonate relatively positively among young Israelis of all backgrounds and these themes will permeate all Kulanana activities.
Sustainable change on the scale to which we aspire, requires activity on three levels:
n Community actions that address specific divisions within and among different communities (Jews and Arabs; Jews of different religiosity and denominations; different segments of the Arab community; immigrants and veterans; and in regard to growing socioeconomic gaps). Each action will be coordinated by an NGO that is expert in its respective field and community.
n Major new national projects in the fields of education, volunteerism and government relations. Imagine, for example, an “Israeli Birthright” program providing an opportunity for 10,000 young Israelis of diverse backgrounds to tour Israel together each year, gaining a comfortable familiarity among their respective cultures and building networks to last a lifetime.
n A media campaign to popularize our key themes and to tell Kulanana success stories, creating a measurable shift in public awareness and attitudes.
Analysis of previous society-building initiatives in Israel and internationally, has led us to plan three basic ingredients that distinguish our plan.
First, we will employ a consensual values platform comfortable to Israeli citizens of all backgrounds and disseminated in the languages they speak — Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, Amhari and English.
Second, our approach will address the many distinct divisions that weaken society. Generally understood and addressed separately, we believe these divisions are closely related by widespread confusion about citizenship and negative attitudes to diversity.
Third, we are committed to an unprecedented collaboration between Israeli and international government, NGO, business and philanthropic partners.
Only by learning to live and work together, can we hope to create a brighter shared future. n
Mike Prashker is founder and director of Merchavim – The Institute for the Advancement of Shared Citizenship in Israel – and is involved in the launch of the Kulanana initiative, which commissioned the extensive public-opinion research referred to in this article.