No Longer Invisible

by Dr. Shlomo Fischer and David Roth

Can the fabric of social relations in Israel change? As is well known, Israel is made up of variegated social groups some of whom stand in adversarial relationship with one another. To name but a few – there is the national divide between Jews and Arabs, the religious divide between Orthodox and secular Jews and the “ethnic” divide between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews.

As part of this fabric, the relations between the religious Zionist community and the Arab population both of Israel and especially that of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) have been at the best aloof, and to a certain extent have been adversarial or even hostile. The religious Zionist schools, in the vast majority of cases, do not participate in joint activities or co-existence programs with Israeli Arab schools. The religious Zionist community has for the most part supported, participated in and even led the settlement effort in Judea and Samaria which most Palestinians (both Israeli citizens and members of the Palestinian Authority) regard as anathema, and some leading Religious Zionist rabbis and leaders have even advocated curtailing the political rights Israel’s Arab citizens.

This state of affairs provides the backdrop for a new development in religious Zionist education in Jerusalem. Five Jerusalem yeshiva high schools known for their strict religious observance and high nationalistic commitment (sometimes they are known as Hardal – Haredi-Leumi – or nationalist ultra-Orthodox schools) are participating in a new program concerning “the relationship to the Other” called “Building an Inclusive Jerusalem.” Two of the high schools have specifically stated that the “Other” they have in mind is their Arab neighbors here in Jerusalem. Within the framework of this program, which is conducted by Yesodot – Center for Torah and Democracy, and supported by the Jerusalem Foundation and the Jerusalem Municipality – about fifty religious Zionist civics teachers, principals and educational administrators participated in a Tour-Seminar on the last day of Hanukah (December 5, 2013).

The centerpiece of the day was a visit to the East Jerusalem neighborhoods of Issawiyya and Beit Hanina. The tour was facilitated by Ms. Hanin Megadla, an East Jerusalem social worker and activist (and a doctoral candidate at Hebrew University), and included a visit to the Community Center in Beit Hanina. Hanin explained with great clarity the special issues and conditions of the lives of the Arabs of East Jerusalem. For the vast majority of the participants, this was their first “close-up” exposure to Arab East Jerusalem and to the humanly, as well as politically, complex situation of co-existence in Jerusalem. The day also included very interesting activities concerning inequality and socio-economic inclusiveness as well as ultra-Orthodox-secular relations in Jerusalem.

Some of the teacher’ thoughts about the East Jerusalem visit included:

“East Jerusalem society is on the verge of disintegration. Where am I as a human being? Where are we as a society? There is a demand for new thinking.”

“A population that is disadvantaged in every conceivable way. Simply a mess.”

“Is it possible to discuss this on the human plane, or will this issue always return to the political question?”

“A whole new world opened before me even though I am a resident of this city.”

One successful visit or one successful program is not enough to change the social reality of Israel. Nonetheless, it is a significant milestone. The participants in this program reach approximately 1,500 students in five schools, and if this pilot proves successful, additional schools will undoubtedly seek to participate.

Changing attitudes about “the other” does not happen instantaneously. Yet, something positive is brewing in Jerusalem as the Arab residents of East Jerusalem are no longer invisible to these religious Zionist educators.

Dr. Shlomo Fischer is a sociologist and a senior staff member of the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) in Jerusalem. He teaches in the Department of Education at Hebrew University. He is also a founder of Yesodot- Center for Torah and Democracy which works to advance education for democracy in the State-Religious school sector in Israel. His research interests include religious groups, class and politics in Israel and the sociology of the Jewish People in the Diaspora.

David Roth is executive director of the Yoreinu Foundation and a board member of Yesodot – Center for Torah and Democracy.