Minority Rights for Liberal Secular Israelis

Carlo Strenger's picture

Minority Rights for Liberal Secular Israelis

Von Carlo Strenger, Tel Aviv - 25.11.2016

No, Israel is no longer “ours” if it ever was. We are a minority and if Israeli Arabs or Religious Jews are allowed a separate education according to their values, we must demand the same.

Israel’s Secular liberals keep expressing their surprise, fear and anger about the country’s move towards right-wing nationalism and the growing influence of orthodox Judaism in central institutions like the education system and the Army. “They have taken our country away”, you hear, time and again. 

Jewish character more important than liberal democracy?

Secular liberals have not fully understood that Israel is no longer “our country” – if it ever was. All recent research indicates that the majority of Israelis consider the country’s Jewish character more important than its liberal democracy. In a desperate and understandable attempt to take the country back, the center-left parties Zionist Camp and Yesh Atid adopt more and more nationalist language, refuse to be associated with the left, and try to befriend Jewish orthodoxy, because polls show that this is the only way to reach the majority’s hearts and minds. 

But I do not think that a government led by the center-left is a realistic scenario in the foreseeable future, and even if it came into being, it would have to accommodate so much of the nationalist right’s and the orthodox parties’ demands, that it wouldn’t make much of a difference. 

Prime example – the education system

Once we face this truth and stop complaining, secular liberals must adopt a strategy adjusted to our current reality. We must primarily defend the liberal character of Israel’s democracy and begin to think like a minority that defends its rights. So far we have often taken the rights of Israel’s Arab citizens as a test case for liberal thought, but it’s time to understand that our own rights are now threatened as well.

Netanyahu’s current government is stepping up its efforts to turn Israel into an illiberal democracy, in which the governing majority delegitimizes any position other than its own, and imposes its values on all. The education system is a prime example. Naftali Bennett is a clever strategist and thinks that by taking over the mamlahkti education system, he can shape the next generation of Israelis. He introduces his nationalist-religious agenda into the mainstream system step by step, and thus further moves Israel in his direction. 

Bennett’s nationalist indoctrination

Secular, liberal Israelis cannot stop him, because the country’s majority does not mind “more Jewishness”. And there is no legal basis for stopping this annexation of the education system by the national-religious agenda, because Israel has never clearly separated state and religion. 

We should therefore make education a first cause in the fight for our rights as a minority, since, paradoxically, we have fewer minority rights not only than Haredim and the national-religious, but also than Israeli Arabs, who all have their own education system. If Haredi parents have the right to refuse that their children be taught subjects contradicting their core values, secular liberal families should demand the same. 

I am surprised, time and again, how few of my students at Tel Aviv University have studied evolutionary theory, a centerpiece of modern science, in high school. Neither have the absolute majority ever been taught the modern tools to read the Bible as a historical document. They also mostly know very little political theory – and this will become worse, as Bennett is replacing civic studies with Jewish-nationalist indoctrination. 

A defeatist line?

We should therefore demand the right to create a secular-liberal education system. Our goal should not be to force our values on children of families who think differently, but for secular-liberal families to have their children educated according to their own values. 

I know that many liberals consider my line of thought defeatist, but it is simply an attempt to face reality. And it is urgent for us to start acting as a minority, if we want to make sure that secular liberals will be able to live in Israel according to our values and our own way of life in the future.

Der Autor ist Publizist und Professor für Psychologie an der Universität Tel Aviv. Er ist in Basel aufgewachsen. Dieser Artikel ist zuerst in „Haaretz“ erschienen.

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