Israel: Diversity and Divisions

Singapore likes to celebrate its racial and religious diversity. Diversity adds flavour to life on our tiny island, and fosters an environment of mutual understanding. Chinese, Malays, Indians, and people of “other” races live harmoniously on 700 sq km of land because the pioneers and leaders of the nation have managed cultural differences with great astuteness. That is the national narrative that we are familiar with. But if you think Singapore is diverse, Israel is in a league of its own. Managing differences in this country is a gargantuan task.

The existence of the State of Israel is astounding not just because of its precarious security situation and volatile history, but also because of its tremendous diversity. There are Jews of many different nationalities in Israel (over 100) as a result of the Diaspora, including German Jews, Russian Jews, British Jews, American Jews, Canadian Jews, Ethiopian Jews, Yemeni Jews, Algerian Jews, Lithuanian Jews, Polish Jews, Bulgarian Jews… the list goes on. Each group has its own history in the Diaspora, its own traditions, its own cuisine and costumes and, of course, its own language. It’s quite common to find Jews speaking Russian, French, German, etc., in addition to Hebrew and English. This picture doesn’t even include those who are not/do not consider themselves Jewish – Arabs, Armenians, Asians (I’ve seen Chinese, Indians, Filipinos, Thais and Indonesians in Tel Aviv and Herzliya), Sudanese refugees, etc.

Nationality/Ethnicity is just one way to dissect Israeli society. There is extraordinary religious diversity too. Amongst the Jews, there are Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, Modern Orthodox Jews (which sounds like an oxymoron but essentially refers to religious orthodox Jews who embrace modern education, mass media, etc.) and Haredi Jews (the ultra-Orthodox who reject modernity and devote their lives studying the holy texts of Judaism). Even within the Haredim, there is the Hasedim, the Mituagdim and the Shas (different ethnic groups, different interpretations of the holy texts, different doctrines, different Rabbis, different dress-style, etc.) The Christians include the Greek Orthodox Church, the Russian Orthodox Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Coptic Church, the Armenian Church, the Lutheran Church, Catholics, Protestants. There are Sunni and Shia Muslims. There people of the Baha’i faith, mostly concentrated in Haifa and Akko. And there are people of the Druze religion, which is a sub-sect of Islam that adopted many Hellenistic beliefs because of the influence of the Greek empire of Alexander the Great, which stretched out to the Middle East and beyond. In this belief system, the Greek philosophers (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, etc.) are regarded as prophets. There are still the agnostics, the anti-religious, the atheists, the New Age believers, the Kabbalists…

How about political preferences? There are 12 political parties represented in Parliament today. Some of the parties represent specific groups – there are Arab parties, a party for Sephardic Jews (Jews from Asia and North Africa), a party for Ashkenazi Jews (Jews from Europe) – and each party differs on matters such as the religious/secular nature of the state, economic policy and peace and security. There has never been a single-party government since the inception of the state in 1948. Such immense political diversity necessitates a strong culture of consensus and compromise.

Once you consider the intersections of all these different social groups, the sheer complexity of Jewish society becomes even more confounding. Imagine labels like ‘secular socialist British Jew’ and ‘Druze Arab Israeli’. Even then, labels can obscure nuanced differences between individuals, so these labels actually mask the true heterogeneity of this country to a certain extent (but then again, this is true of every society, not just in Israel).

And once you consider the friction that exists between secular and Haredi Jews, Zionists and Haredi Jews, Jews and Muslims, Christians and Jews, Christians and Muslims, Jews and Arabs, young and old, hawks and doves, Sephardim and Ashkenazim, etc., it is evident that the functioning of this society is an astonishing feat. (Just as a side note, notice that each time the word ‘Jew’ is mentioned in the previous sentence, it takes on a different meaning. It could mean ‘Jew’ in the religious sense or in the national/cultural sense.)

It is intriguing to learn more about how these differences are managed (or not). From the little that I’ve observed and read, I’ve noticed a couple of methods employed in Israel to manage these differences. For example, physical separation and demarcation is evident in the Old City, with its Muslim Quarter, Armenian Quarter, Christian Quarter and Jewish Quarter (even within the Jewish Quarter, there is a specific section with a high concentration of Haredim). With regard to military service, Druze men and women are not drafted into the Israeli Defence Force (from what I understand, most of them used to be part of Syria in the Golan Heights, so most of them do not identify with Zionism), and the same is true of Arab men and women. Military deferments (which become de facto exemptions) are issued to male Haredim Jews if they present proof that they study in a yeshiva, so that they can devote their lives to studying the holy texts of Judaism.

As for managing ethnic differences, the founding leaders of the state envisioned a ‘melting pot’, where all Jews in Israel would eventually conform to one national narrative and culture, but this did not succeed because the divisions between Jews of different nationalities were too deep, and the Sephardim felt that they were being pressured to conform to the Ashkenazi Jewish culture (the founding fathers of the state were mostly Ashkenazi Jews). Israeli society has eventually come to adopt a ‘salad bowl’ model, where cultural differences are tolerated, but not necessarily embraced. Many sceptics (such as Sammy Smooha) believe that there is still ethnic hierarchy in Israel, with the Ashkenazim at the top, the Arabs at the bottom, and the Sephardim in the middle.

Indeed, there is much diversity and division in this country. It’s mind-boggling. And I don’t think many people appreciate this — I know I didn’t before coming here. People living outside Israel usually focus on Israel’s external threats and the Arab-Israeli conflict, but not on its domestic problems, which are just as critical. It will certainly be interesting to see how the country copes with its immense diversity in the future.


Summer in Jerusalem

I’ve started my lessons on the Emergence of the Modern State of Israel, and I must declare to the world that I absolutely love this class. Over the past few days, we have been discussing the origins of Zionist thinking, and the differences within the Zionist ideology. What I find absolutely astounding is that Zionism encompasses many schools of thought, some divided by gaping schisms and some separated by minor nuances. While there was general consensus amongst the Zionists that the solution to the Jewish problem was the establishment of a Jewish homeland and for the Jews to attain power, there were disagreements over what exactly the Jewish problem was, where the Jewish homeland should be (Argentina? Uganda? Palestine?), what the Jewish homeland should look like, and what the new Jew should be like.

These were just the disagreements within the Zionist group. There were many Jews who disagreed completely with the Zionist idea from the very beginning. There were Integrationists, who strongly believed that the solution to anti-Semitism was to assimilate into the cultures that they were in, so that they would shed their Jewish identity and adopt the identity of the British, Germans, French, etc. And of course, these people disagreed vehemently with the Zionist idea because it stood diametrically opposite to assimilation by aiming towards a separate and distinct Jewish state. Then there were the ultra-Orthodox Jews (Haredim) who opposed the secular and anthropocentric nature of Zionism. To them, the idea of establishing a Jewish state/homeland without the Messiah was akin to rebellion against God. This tension between religious orthodoxy and secularism is still ongoing today, even though there has been an attempt to foster tolerance of both lifestyles in Israel. Finally, there were the Socialist Jews who believed that Zionism was a distraction from the real problem at hand – the oppression of the working class by the bourgeoisie. These Jews were predominantly European (Ashkenazi) Jews. To them, Zionism focused on setting Jews apart, when they should be brought into the universal brotherhood of man.

Zionism is a very unique nationalist movement in that it is probably the only example of nationalism in history that developed outside the country of the nation. It also revived the ancient Hebrew language that had been preserved by Jews in the Diaspora for centuries. The revival of Hebrew was a critical element of Zionism – Yiddish was seen as a bastardised version of Hebrew, and so even though most Jews spoke that in the early 20th Century, many Zionists considered it unacceptable in the new Jewish homeland.

More than just nationalism, Zionism is also about the identity of the Jewish people. After all, who exactly is a Jew? This question is deceptively simple, but actually very complex. Are the Jews an ethnic group? If that’s the case, then who can truly be considered Jewish after centuries of inter-ethnic marriages in the Diaspora? Could the Jews be defined by their religion, Judaism? If that is true, then anyone could become a Jew, and the need for a Jewish state would seem less legitimate in the eyes of the world because religious groups do not normally lay claim to territory. Yet, years of anti-Semitism have made it clear that there is a Jewish people, which has miraculously survived thousands of years of persecution – the Spanish Inquisition, the pogroms, the Holocaust, etc. Zionism did not just focus on trying to determine what the Jewish identity is, but also on moulding the new Jew.

In a nutshell, Zionism is much more complex than I thought. I used to think that it was spurred by religious motivations, but now I understand that it is primarily a secular movement, even though it has many religious elements to it and many see the hand of God in it despite its secular nature. One only needs to visit Tel Aviv to understand the secular nature of Zionism. Tel Aviv is a world apart from Jerusalem; it is the epitome of the secularity of Zionism, a deliberate attempt to break away from traditions of the past. The sheer complexity of this ideology is what makes it (and other significant ideologies in history) so intriguing.

I’m so glad to be here in Israel… If I had stuck to my original plan, I would be in Cairo right now, where a coup d’etat has just taken place. In fact, I would be in Cairo University, where people have died in clashes. This is not good luck; this is God’s divine protection, and only He knows how relieved I am to be in Israel right now.

This land is really full of wonder – not just historically, but even geographically. I’m amazed at the variety of beautiful flowers I’ve seen around the country, and the number of small water bodies I’ve seen in the countryside is incredible. This is truly where the desert blooms.

I only have 3 weeks left here, so I’m going to make the most of it. But truth be told, I’m not going to be very sad when I leave Israel, because then I’ll finally be heading back to Singapore 🙂 Home sweet home.