Naftali Bennett doesn’t believe that “the other is also an ‘I.’” During a Knesset Education Committee meeting this week, he explained: “The other is not me, everyone is different.” As a product of the Israeli education system, Bennett could do no better to highlight the necessity of the program he did away with this week. It seems he can’t think of any other “I” than himself.
“I don’t believe in blurring identities, I believe in empowering identities. Every child in the country has to know the heritage he comes from. ... Only this way, when you have a strong identity, are you ready to accept the other,” expounded Bennett. And indeed, there is no contradiction between what he’s saying and the thinking behind “the other is also an ‘I.’” In practice, the idea of empowering identity and giving every child an opportunity to learn about his or her heritage is a good way to internalize that “the other is also an ‘I.’” No heritage is given preference over another – and there will no forcing of all children to learn one heritage alone. “Israel is a mosaic, and therein lies her strength,” said Bennett. We have to agree with him.
Rather than leveling a criticism of Piron’s initiative, it seems the education minister has internalized the perception that the Israeli melting pot is not something that takes the myriad cultural identities here and turns them into one – an Israeli identity – but rather as something that forces all Israelis to identify as Jews who left Europe – “as if this country was founded by people from one continent alone.”
That said, why must he wrap his comments in criticism of the idea of seeing the other as oneself? It is because the only “I” he can imagine is a Jewish one, and the “other” is always an Arab. Although he wants to empower identities, he wants to do so without distorting the power balance between the Jewish “I” and the Arab “other.”
When it comes to education, it seems he has a vision of a kind of “United States of Israel.” The only problem with this is that Israel is not a state of all its citizens, but rather an ethnically based nation-state, with one identity. And it’s not just a nation-state, either, but a state whose requirements for joining are not civil, but rather depend on one’s having Jewish blood.
A nation-state is not just a collection of various “others;” instead, in many ways it is an “I.” Therefore, when Bennett empowers various identities within a state that has a strong and particular identity, his attempts at empowerment – seemingly inclusive – become divisive. They amount to a phony multiculturalism that is never an invitation to the national “I.”
If there were no Arabs in Israel, Bennett could have been an excellent education minister, exactly as if there weren’t millions of Palestinians under military rule, he might even make a successful prime minister. If there was only one nationality in Israel, promoting empowerment for sub-divisions of that identity could be a superb program of real multiculturalism rather than a mechanism for impeding some people’s sense of belonging and self-determination. Actually, if Israel’s problems weren’t so acute, Bennett might even be able to solve them.
And of course, it’s impossible to isolate his remarks from his vision of the Jewish nation-state sprawling across the “Greater Land of Israel,” in which Palestinians enjoy economic and cultural rights but will never be citizens. As always with Bennett, the things he wants to give attest to the things he never will.
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