Israel’s Ethnic Demon Isn’t So Terrible

One reason for the intense arguments over the ethnic issue is, ironically, the very fact that we’ve already overcome so many obstacles concerning it.

Of all the things said on Amnon Levy’s television documentary series “True Face: The Ethnic Demon,” there’s one thing we can surely agree on: The ethnic issue still stirs great interest and emotion. In that it’s similar to two other issues that earn high ratings: feminism and attitudes on homosexuality.

On the one hand, these are important issues on which much progress remains to be made. Women must still fight for their place in society and against harassment. People who aren’t heterosexual still encounter problems. And the ethnic issue hasn’t disappeared, even if today it is reflected mainly in the relationship between the country’s center and outskirts, and in the way resources are allocated.

On the other hand, in comparison to Israeli society’s other ills, we have to admit that these issues reflect extremely positive social developments since the establishment of the state. One of the most important reasons for the progress is that it didn’t involve an ideological battle, but merely a battle against the spirit of the times. Maybe it sounds strange to credit this to Zionism, but the revolution in all three issues is rooted in a positive element of the Zionist ethos – the belief in equality among Jews, including between the sexes.

Ethnic gaps and discrimination have existed, but few Zionist leaders and thinkers have opposed equality, regardless of whether their method for achieving it was the melting pot or multiculturalism. Nor did the Mizrahim, Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin, completely embody the image of the “other”; even those who looked down on them saw them as brothers. In this, Israeli history is completely different from, for example, racism in America, where key segments of society supported discrimination against blacks as an ideology.

The same is true of the gender issue. Many of Zionism’s founding fathers leaned toward feminism. David Ben-Gurion’s objection to using the word ba’al for husband is well known; ba’al literally means owner. Ze’ev Jabotinsky wanted to draft women into his Jewish Legion; he compared them to Amazons. He refused to pay taxes to Jerusalem’s community council to protest the ultra-Orthodox’s exclusion of women. Granted, Israeli society later became chauvinist, but this was more due to military machismo.

I’m not aware of any developed worldview about gays and lesbians in Zionist thought, but as an example one could cite the way Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir dismissed the false rumors about Dan Shomron’s sexual identity. These rumors were spread by opponents of his appointment as Israel Defense Forces chief of staff back in the ‘80s. In other words, even people with conservative views like Shamir harbored no ideological hostility against homosexuality. This approach may have stemmed from the Zionist rebellion against religion.

Thus positive social changes in these areas in recent years have not required subversion of the basic Zionist narrative. As a result, they have been easier to achieve.

So one reason for the intense arguments over these issues is, ironically, the very fact that we’ve already overcome so many obstacles concerning them. The fervor with which we debate them is like a mass version of the Friday night dinner-table debate. At the end, we’re still one big family.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that these issues are trivialities. But it’s important to recognize Israel’s success in addressing them for the sake of historical truth. And when we continue to put the spotlight on these issues, we’re wasting energy needed for tougher problems.