Can Israeli Arabs Ever Really Belong to a Jewish State?

Israel should take an example of co-existence from Jewish day schools in the diaspora, where non-Jews and Jews work together for the general good.

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It seems to us that most Israelis - even liberal-minded ones - suspect that no matter how we treat Palestinian-Israeli citizens, they will never be truly integrated into mainstream society.

Even if we were to ensure an equal distribution of resources, even if Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman were to stop threatening them with loyalty oaths, even if we were to make peace with the Arab world - there would remain something inherently problematic about a non-Jewish minority in a Jewish ethnic state.

Lurking beneath the desire to do right by Palestinian-Israelis, there lays a secret form of ideological despair reflecting a wide belief that at the end of the day, there is nothing to be done. The circle cannot be squared. It is impossible to imagine a Palestinian-Israeli living as a completely equal citizen in a Jewish state, and we just have to get used to that.

We would like to offer a model of hope. Where might the Jewish people look in order to find guidance for this apparently impossible situation? One possible context for analogy might be much closer to home than we think: the Jewish day school in the Diaspora.

The Jewish day school is the nearest thing that the Diaspora has to a sovereign eco-system outside of Israel. Inside the Jewish day school, just like in Israel, the calendar runs on Jewish time: there is early dismissal on Friday, and homework is not given over Jewish holidays. Inside the Jewish day school, just like in Israel, public space takes on a Jewish character: there are signs in Hebrew, there are public areas for religious gatherings, and Jewish symbols are ubiquitous. Inside the Jewish day school, just like in Israel, there is an unwritten expectation that Jewish civilization should be a foundational element in the systems ongoing management and self-reflection. The schools Jewish Character is built-in.

As similar eco-systems, albeit on different scales, some of the dilemmas that Jewish day schools and Israeli society share are remarkably similar. Jewish Day Schools (especially ones with a pluralist mandate) must figure out how to observe Passover when not all students keep kosher. Jewish day schools must grapple with the tensions between Jewish culture and the benefits of Western civilization. Most interestingly, Jewish Day Schools, like Israel, must figure out ways to create a compelling Jewish environment which by definition will contain non-Jews in its midst.

Every Jewish Day School that we know contains non-Jews within it. Many Jewish day schools employ custodial staff members that are not Jewish. Nearly all Jewish day schools hire non-Jewish teachers. In some Jewish day schools, some senior members of the administrative leadership are non-Jews. There have even been cases where a Jewish day school's principal is not Jewish - and the sky has not come crashing down.

What are the responsibilities of non-Jews who wish to be principal of Jewish day school? First, they must feel a deep and abiding respect for the Jewish people and Jewish traditions, albeit from the outside. They must understand the Jewish peoples history, vision, needs, and neuroses. They must be sensitive to circumstances that may demand that she delegate certain responsibilities or situations to trusted Jewish deputies. They must have an absolute commitment to the Jewish future of their students and their families.

How could a non-Jew honestly and easily fulfill these criteria?

Non-Jews who wish to become senior leaders or principals of Jewish day schools do not magically sprout into existence. They are usually people who have been treated with deep and abiding respect by their Jewish colleagues over many years. They have been exposed to the finest that Jewish texts and traditions can offer our moral lives. They have been invited graciously into the homes and families of their Jewish colleagues. They have seen that lives imbued with Judaism are rich, beautiful, and fulfilling. Their Jewish colleagues have, over the course of years, inquired with genuine curiosity and interest about their own traditions and religious or ethnic heritage. In short, they have been welcomed into a Jewish community as respected equals.

Non-Jewish principals of a Jewish day school who have come to know and admire the Judaism of their Jewish colleagues are able to lead a committed Jewish eco-system as non-Jews, without the Jewish identity of the system itself being threatened. In some ways, it is even more powerful for young Jews when a non-Jew, who is under no familial obligation to be part of a Jewish community, decides to devote his or her professional life to Jewish education.

The analogy may not be airtight, but it should make us stop and think.

What would it mean for the relationship between Jews and Palestinians in Israel to resemble that of Jews and non-Jews in a Jewish day school? On the one hand, it would require Palestinian-Israelis to accept the Jewish character of the State, and to commit to its success. Yet, as in the school analogy, the onus to bring about this situation falls initially on Jewish Israelis, who must – individually and collectively – open the door to Palestinian-Israelis as partners in our state-building. We should treat Palestinian-Israelis with respect and honor, just as Jewish day schools treat non-Jewish members of their eco-systems.

At the same time, we Jewish Israelis will need to clarify the Jewish nature of our State, expanding and applying its rich humanistic and pluralistic traditions at the expense of its more tribal values. We will need to focus on creating an Israeli Judaism that is meaningful, enriching, and tolerant, finding a pride in the universality and wisdom of our traditions that we would not hesitate to share with our neighbors.

Jewish day schools often strive to become Israel writ small. Israel should strive to become Jewish day schools writ large. We need to enable non-Jewish Israelis, like non-Jewish teachers in Jewish day schools, to feel part of a committed Jewish system as an equal, respected, partner.

Then – and only then – may we make demands of their loyalties.

Credit: Liron Bar Akiva

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