What Every Kindergarten Child Knows

The languages of protest must be Arabic, Russian and Amharic - the first languages of every 'other' Israeli - as well as Hebrew.

Not long ago, in the framework of a major educational intervention, whose goal is to help Israel's preschoolers become comfortable with the diversity that characterizes their kindergartens, communities and Israeli society, 48 kindergarten children - of different backgrounds - were interviewed by professional researchers to understand how they perceive the concept of "fairness."

Unfortunately, those of us who commissioned and conducted the study forgot to share the findings with Israel's decision makers. Had we done so, they might have been less surprised by the current spectacular civil uprising, being led by members of a generation far closer in age than the decision makers are to Israel's wise kindergarten children.

The findings show that children perceive "fairness" as relating to the equal provision of both material things and emotional needs. When provision is not perceived as equal, children display emotions such as frustration, jealousy, anger and insult. Fairness is realized when a child feels "good," and it is nonexistent when a child feels deprived, whether materially or emotionally.

There is a great deal of scientific evidence, across a large number of fields, that confirms what our children instinctively know: that the fair distribution of basic resources - like snacks at a preschoolers' birthday party - is a wise strategy for stability and sustainability. Even more tellingly, it is now well-known that human beings are actually far less bothered by their own material circumstances than by their situation as compared to their reference groups - whether kindergarteners or fellow citizens.

Our children apparently understand quite intuitively that inequitable distribution is fundamentally wrong. As well as understanding this, we, the adult party planners, can also anticipate the results of such unfairness: an imminent breakdown of order and open revolt. In this regard, it seems likely that the rapidly widening socioeconomic gaps that have characterized Israel's so-called "economic miracle," together with the smug conspicuous consumption of a relatively small group of Israelis - among them some of our most senior politicians - have fired, and are to a significant extent fueling, the current protests.

For all the many differences, both our elected leaders and the leaders of the current civil uprising would do well to consider and remember two of the most basic aspects of "fairness" - as understood by every 5-year-old:

First, material fairness - in any substantive sense - must be extended to include the entire community, not just the members of any specific subgroup. This being the case, it is critical - both morally and pragmatically - that the current civil struggle be waged by and for Israeli citizens of all backgrounds.

For all our deep differences and disagreements, the great majority of Israel's citizens - secular and religious, recent immigrant and veteran, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, Jewish and Arab, left and right - understand that the extension of greater opportunities to all citizens is the essence of fair policy. No single group can be excluded, and it is especially important that appeals to fairness always be made on behalf of the poorest citizens, for whom civil protest is itself often a luxury they cannot afford. In this regard, the leaders of the protests are to be warmly congratulated for reaching across ethnic, religious, political and national divides to an extent unprecedented in Israel's fragmented history.

Second, it must be understood that fairness is not only about material things, but also about emotions. In this regard, most educators are agreed - based on experience and countless studies - that children who do not feel that they and their particular cultures are equally respected, included and valued by their teachers will consistently underperform and behave accordingly. They will certainly not be "satisfied" by equal provision of tasty snacks at however many kindergarten parties. A truly fair, happy and properly functioning kindergarten is one in which each child - boy and girl, white and black, physically challenged and able-bodied, immigrant and native, of every kind of family and background - is treated with equal dignity, as an individual whose presence enriches the entire kindergarten community.

It is therefore essential that the metaphorical tent of civil protest be extended still further to include and envelop citizens of all backgrounds. The languages of protest must be Arabic, Russian and Amharic - the first languages of every "other" Israeli - as well as Hebrew. The focus of the struggle, if it is to be fair and succeed, must bring together communities of citizens who generally live apart and whose relationships are characterized by low levels of mutual familiarity and high levels of alienation.

Blessed as they are with youth, it is just possible that the emerging leadership still remembers what our elected leaders have long forgotten: First, that fairness is both a moral and pragmatic imperative for any successful and sustainable community - whether made up of children in a kindergarten or citizens of a state; and, second, that fairness is always as much about a sense of belonging as it is possession of material belongings.

Mike Prashker is the founder and director of Merchavim - The Institute for the Advancement of Shared Citizenship in Israel, and initiator of the new society-building initiative Kulanana.