What Must Israel Do to Unify Its Splintered Society?

Forecasts predict total lack of cohesion among different sub-groups within Israel - here's one solution.

One of the most significant forecasts to come out of 2009 is the fact that Haredi and Arab children are on their way to becoming a majority among Israel's first graders. One way of looking at this datum is to see the onset of a demographic war inside Israel, where the number of children becomes a political weapon. It is easy to extrapolate the future of the Knesset's composition from the current demographics among children.

Israel in 2030 faces the danger of being a society completely without cohesion. Haredim and Israeli Arabs will make up more than 50 percent of the population. These two groups are detached from classical Zionism for their respective reasons; children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, also largely detached from the cultural mainstream, will comprise another 15 percent. The Haredim seem to be pushing for a theocracy; Arabs do not feel any commonality with Jewish Israel, and Russian immigrants have created their own culture, with their own bookstores, newspapers and TV channels, even though the younger generation is beginning to integrate into Israel's society and economy.

Israel has never truly adapted to the reality of being a truly multicultural society. During the country's first decade it was assumed that all immigrants would adapt to Zionist ideology as it had been formulated by the elites that were mostly of Eastern European extraction. We can now safely say that this assumption didn't pan out. Shas is living proof of the resentment that this idea created among immigrants from Northern Africa, Iraq, Syria and Iran. The Haredim never bought into it on religious grounds, and Arabs never had reason to buy into an ideology that was supposed to turn them into a marginal minority.

Can there be a unifying vision for Israel, an ethos meaningful to the majority of its citizens? Let us look at the one true success story of immigration and multiculturalism, the United States of America, which over its history has succeeded in integrating immigrants from many countries and cultures into a functioning society. The U.S. guaranteed every citizen the right to 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' And anybody with enough will and drive could pursue the American Dream of prosperity and dignity.

An Israeli parallel to the American dream would have to be inclusive; no major group should be excluded from it. It also needs to be connected to Israel's cultural and economic reality. The engine of Israel's economic growth in the last two decades has been the R&D sector. Israel's high-tech industry has become a worldwide success to the point that the Economist has named Tel Aviv as one of the top ten high-tech cities in the world. Israel is largely becoming a knowledge-based economy and it is becoming clear that this is the direction Israel has to take in order to survive.

But a society needs more than an economic strategy for cohesion: it needs an ethos that is steeped in values as well. I believe that the ideal of Knowledge-Nation Israel could provide such an ethos. In Jewish history, knowledge has not only been a tool for economic prosperity. It was a value in itself. Literacy, both for men and women, was the norm, and intellectual pursuit was seen as a value in itself. Jewish communities prided themselves on fostering the Ilui, the supremely gifted student. Putting knowledge at the core of Israel's ethos would create a deeply meaningful connection to the Jewish past.

Knowledge-Nation Israel is highly inclusive, and it could unite Israel's various sub-cultures. Jewish orthodoxy has always put a premium on learning and throughout most of Jewish history, there was no contradiction between Jewish religious and scientific knowledge. From Philo of Alexandria through Maimonides, who was considered the greatest physician and one of the greatest philosophers of his time, to the Gaon of Vilna who wrote important treatises in mathematics and aesthetics, the combination between Jewish and secular learning was seen as possible and even desirable.

While some forms of secular knowledge are currently anathema to the Haredi community, there is a growing movement of Haredim who study disciplines like law, computer science and accounting. In the future, Haredim could play a constructive role in an R&D economy. Knowledge-Nation Israel is congenial to Russian immigrants, whose ethos puts a high premium on knowledge and culture. Israel's Arab citizens could also connect to the ethos of a knowledge society: there is nothing in this ideal that would keep them on the margins of Israel's new ethos.

Of course this vision needs to be fleshed out into concrete programs: Israel will have to redefine its priorities, and to re-ignite its educational system which is currently in a deep crisis. But if Israel's citizenry could rally around an ideal meaningful to all, and if all sectors of society would feel that they stand to gain from it, chances are that Herzl's dictum If you will, it is not a dream, may once again become relevant.

An in depth article on this idea will appear at www.azure.org.il