Friday, June 03, 2011

"a state for all its citizens"

Images from a brief trip to Israel--three days there, two days in transit--to give a paper on law and religion at Bar Ilan University:

A coffee shop, across from the university, where most of the patrons are observant Jews (it is after all a religious university) but the people who make the coffee are named Mahmud, Ahmed, and Mustafa. You can tell, because it says so on their shirts--in Hebrew.

An evening trip to Jerusalem, where the bus driver tries to save time by going on the side road that passes through a maze of Arab villages on the other side of the Green Line. Security walls and barbed wire fences on both sides of the road, and checkpoints--kind of like tollbooths without any tolls--at either end of the road. The soldiers nervously clutch their machine guns and then wave us through.

Jerusalem Day, the anniversary of the city's unification in 1967, an endless see of mostly religious Jews surging toward the Wall and other holy places. Shopkeepers sell Israeli army T-shirts next to Palestine souvenirs. Someone asks me for a pen to leave a note in the Wall.

Ha'aretz, the upscale newspaper, reports the next day that there is good news and bad news about Jerusalem. The good news is more business starts and population growth. The bad news is poverty, "ultra-religiousization" (התחרדות), and the flight of secular Jews. And why exactly is it bad news that the acknowledged center of the Jewish religion is filling up with religious Jews?

Back at Bar Ilan, a discussion of the conflict faced by observant soldiers whose officers tell them to dismantle settlements but whose rabbis--or some of them--forbid them to do so. It develops that some of the rabbis doing so are, well, not necessarily the best scholars, and the texts they rely on are not necessarily on point. Should I raise my hand and ask whether the mixing of religion and politics might not be the best thing for either?

What strikes me about all this is how far the political conversation lags the reality of the country. Everyone is talking about the need to preserve Israel as a Jewish State and return it to its proper boundaries. But the boundaries are porous and even within the Green Line a large and growing percentage of the population--Arabs, Haredim, Russian immigrants--is either non-Zionist or non-Jewish, altogether. The contempt for, and sense of isolation among, many observant Jews is arguably as great or greater than that of the Arab minority. The idea of a "state for all its citizens" is often ridiculed as a stalking horse for those who want to get rid of Israel, altogether. But unless the country learns to deal better with its cultural diversity it may accomplish the task itself.


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