British Jewry has played a significant role in the state-building of Israel since its establishment. Now it is time to make a special contribution to society-building, one of the next great challenges facing Israel.
This holds true for the full range of internal inter-group tensions threatening Israel’s sustainability, but especially so as concerns the full integration of Israel’s Arab citizens in a country which – from the perspective of most British Jews (and this ex-pat) – should remain as it was established in 1948: the national homeland of the Jewish People.
British Jewry, like other Jewish communities living in relatively long-established Western democracies compared to Israel, have significant life experience to contribute to shaping a fully inclusive Israel that provides equal respect and opportunities to all its citizens. The journey of British Jews towards full equality in Britain, dating back long before the blatant racism still faced by my grandparents’ generation, provides both the empathy and experience needed to take on this challenge.
The accumulative benefits of emersion in Britain’s long democratic journey should not be underestimated. Few of Israel’s citizens, whether descended from indigenous Arabs or Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, North Africa or across the Arab-World, have any real democratic experience pre-dating 1948.
This, along with great diversity and deep disagreements – all in the shadow of on-going conflict - makes the shaping of an inclusive and cohesive civil society as demanding as it is essential for Israel’s future. I sense this even among the 500 or so teachers that my organisation trains each year. Frequently, these teachers – entrusted with bestowing democratic values in their classrooms – believe that democracy is more about majority-rule and decisive decision-making than about minority rights and the ability to accommodate seemingly intractable disagreements.
But in addition to a general contribution to the development of Israel as an increasingly inclusive society, respectful of citizens of all backgrounds, British Jews can make a distinctly British contribution to equal integration of Israel’s Arab citizens. Paradoxically, this issue is singularly critical to the future success of Israel, as a Jewish and democratic state.
Like Israel, the United Kingdom is not a state for all its citizens. Britain has a particular Anglican identity and must take this into special account in order to be fair to all its citizens. Like Israel’s flag, the Union Jack and the Cross of St. George are not national symbols that automatically embrace and dignify all British citizens. Indeed, in the hands of the extreme-right at various moments, they have threatened to become alienating symbols of prejudice and exclusion for Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and other British citizens. In an increasingly diverse Britain, it is essential that the State works hard and with sensitivity to assure all British citizens of their first-class status. In the case of British Jews, the progress made in this regard has been enormous since my childhood. Whether as tenants or landlords, employees or business owners, students or professors, British Jews have clearly achieved an outstandingly fair and secure civic status in Britain.
Of course, neither the United Kingdom nor Israel is yet sufficiently fair to all its citizens. However, states are primarily unfair because of the way they choose to treat different groups of citizens not because of any particular definition of statehood. This is highlighted by the fact that the many countries like the United States, expressly devised as “states for all citizens”, also fall stubbornly short of the lofty democratic ideal of equal opportunities.
Now, of course, there is no direct comparison between British Jews who are a small immigrant community and Israel’s Arab citizens who are an indigenous community, comprising twenty percent of all Israel’s citizens. But at a time when the legitimacy of Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish People is being increasingly questioned, British Jews can be confident that Israel’s still inequitable treatment of its Arab citizens – which the UK Task Force is so courageously addressing – is entirely surmountable without our losing confidence in the Zionist cause.
Indeed, rising courageously and constructively to address this distinct challenge to Israel’s cohesion and future well-being – as many in Israel and around the world are increasingly ready to do – is itself another clear indication that Israel’s unique Jewish character is not an inherent problem and can in fact help facilitate the changes required. Indeed it is only because of Israel’s unique relationship with the Jewish people internationally, that the UK Task Force feels special responsibility to strengthen Israel as a fully inclusive home for Jewish and Arab citizens alike.
Mike Prashker is founder and director of Merchavim, the Institute for the Advancement of Shared Citizenship in Israel.