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

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 deferrments (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.