Caring for Israel’s Minorities: A Jewish Imperative

When a Haredi MK speaks Arabic and an Arab MK replies in Yiddish, it underlines the importance of mutual respect, and highlights Jews’ responsibilities as the religious majority in Israel.

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Life was good growing up as Jew in Britain. Only the occasional rally by the extreme nationalist parties disturbed our tranquility. These powerless groups were populated by a strange mix of racist thugs and softly-spoken gentlemen. The hooligans with their violence and the politicians with their speeches provided a chilling reminder that despite everything, we were strangers in a strange land.

Today, British Jews are out of the spotlight; it’s Muslims who face most of the hatred. Ironically, neo-Nazi parties now fly the Israeli flag at their demonstrations, viewing the Jewish State as their partners in a shared battle against refugees and Muslims.

In Israel we have our own ultra-nationalists – perpetrators of “price tag” attacks and the more refined parliamentarians who initiate legislation to antagonize and undermine the rights of Arabs, refugees and other minorities. Whether it’s the laws to remove Arabic as an official language of the country, to mute the muezzins in their mosques, or to limit funding for human rights organizations they are constantly on the attack, making life uncomfortable for minorities in this land.

The most recent attempt to limit the number of Arab Knesset Members, however, produced a surprising and beautiful result. Ultra-Orthodox Knesset member Israel Eichler (United Torah Judaism), with his black kippah, beard and side curls, turned to the Arab MKs and said in fluent Arabic, “We are with you in your struggle for democracy.”

If this was not enough, Arab MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta’al) astonished the Knesset by responding to his new-found Haredi friend in flawless Yiddish, “In the name of the Arabs, I thank you for your support for democracy,” he said.

The two continued their exchange in Arabic and Yiddish, prompting Haredi and Arab MKs to roar with laughter, overwhelmed by the unlikely partnership and the magnificent display of mutual respect.

To be sure, it was a union of convenience, made up of two discontented groups that have been excluded from the government. Still, sometimes, a tiny gesture like speaking another's language makes a huge difference. So it's great to see religious Knesset members reaching out to minorities and showing the moral, sensitive side of Jewish tradition. As the Talmud teaches, we should always "do the right thing even with the wrong motives, because ultimately the right motivation will prevail" (Pesachim 50b). Hopefully this short exchange in the Knesset will bring about real dialogue and a shared defense of democracy.

In the Diaspora, where Jews were a minority, we naturally joined the struggle against racism – it matched our beliefs and it was in our own interests. Now in Israel, we face the test and the moral challenges of being the majority. Defending minority rights remains a religious and moral imperative, but doing so requires us to override narrow, short term interests.

We are rightfully ecstatic about returning to our homeland to build a Jewish country, but we dare not forget that it is also home to minorities – 20 percent of Israel's population is not Jewish, far more if you include the West Bank – and they deserve respect and equality from the Jewish State.

On Yom Kippur, we will read about Jonah, the zealous prophet who looked down upon the people of Nineveh. He felt that God had no business accepting their repentance. Our rabbis sympathized with his position especially since these people were the ancestors of the Babylonians who would burn down our Temple and expel us from our land. But at the end of the story, God teaches Jonah a powerful lesson: The people of Nineveh have a different culture - their ways are not Jewish - but they are human beings created in the image of God, and so long as they are willing to meet the basic standards of morality, they must be respected.

We may have different lifestyles to our neighbors; we may wish we did not share a land with them nor them with us. But if we are to be counted among the world's democracies, we may not brand them all as enemies and criminals. We must treat these people with respect as fellow children of God.

If we must vote for exclusive Jewish nationalist parties such as Habayit Hayehudi ("The Jewish Home") and Yisrael Beiteinu ("Israel Our Home"), we had better be sure that they exemplify real Jewish values, acting as watchdogs for a just, democratic Israel. Otherwise, the racist British nationalist parties will be proven correct in their sense of kinship with Israel's leaders.

Rabbi Gideon D. Sylvester is the British United Synagogue's rabbi in Israel and directs the education program for the Jerusalem branch of the Rene Cassin Fellowship Program in Judaism and Human Rights. He was recently appointed Senior Rabbinic Educator in Israel for T'ruah – The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.

MK Yisrael Eichler (United Torah Judaism) speaks in the Knesset of the so-called Governability Law.Credit: Oren Nachshon
MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta’al) at a Knesset debate on banks' discrimination against Arabs.Credit: Emil Salman

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