By Rabbi Dow Marmur.
One of the many debates in contemporary Israel is whether it’s to be a Jewish state or a state for all its citizens. Those who advocate the former usually also want Israel to be Jewish according to Halacha, Jewish law as understood by Orthodoxy (often of the extreme variety) to which non-Orthodox Jews and non-Jews have to accommodate themselves without being accommodated. The advocates of the latter want a Western Jewish democratic state in which religion and state have been separated.
But that’s too narrow a view of what a Jewish state ought to be. A broader and more accurate understanding is to regard the state as Jewish if it lives up to Jewish values of justice and equality. This means not only accepting different ways of being Jewish but also treating non-Jews as equals in every sense of the word.
Though Israel is taking small steps towards accepting all Jews as equals – the decision to open a parallel egalitarian section at the Wall is seen by many as yet another step in that direction – some 20% of its citizens, the Arabs remain greatly disadvantaged. No, Israel isn’t an apartheid state, but it has ugly elements of it.
That was behind the conference held earlier this week at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem in memory of its founder, David Hartman, who died three years ago. As its current president Donniel Hartman – David’s son – acknowledged, the Institute’s indefatigable championship of openness and equality in Israel was primarily concerned with Jewish pluralism. It seems to have neglected the cause of the Arabs in Israel. The conference with a theme that echoed Martin Luther King, “I have a dream,” was a signal of a new and most welcome dimension of the work of the Institute.
One of its supporters seems to be none other than President Reuven Rivlin. Because he’s said to be in favour of fully integrating Palestinians into Israeli society and apparently opposed to the so-called two-state solution, he’s a staunch champion of equal rights for all Arabs in Israel. We were told that he would have attended the conference had he been in the country, but as he was in India at the time he sent a warm and supportive video message arguing for meaningful coexistence.
Such coexistence so far, I heard an Arab speaker say at the conference, has been the coexistence of horse and rider in which the Arab is the horse. At the end of the day, he reminded us that the horse may have done the hard work but is only given hay whereas the rider has a steak for dinner. The inequality is there for all to see.
The Arab speakers I heard were among the few who had made it in Israel and now held important positions in the country, but they’re only a small minority. Most Arabs belong to the disadvantaged and are made to feel as aliens or worse in the land where their ancestors have lived long before any of the families of their Jewish neighbours had arrived. One of the aims of Arabs and Jews now should be not to let the children inherit the disputes and the inequality.
The conference began only hours after another terrible terrorist attack that cost the life of young Israeli soldier and injured badly her colleague as well as taking the lives of the three perpetrators. But the purpose of this gathering wasn’t about that: it was about justice for the indigenous Arab population of Israel. We’re bound to hear more about it from the Hartman Institute: the sooner and the stronger, the better.