Opinion |

It's Time for Liberal, Secular Israelis to Demand Their Minority Rights

No, Israel is no longer 'ours' if it ever was. We are a minority and if Israeli Arabs or religious Jews are allowed a separate education according to their values, we must demand the same.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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Education Minister Naftali Bennett at a Petah Tikva school.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett at a Petah Tikva school. Credit: Sasson Tiram
Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

Israel’s secular liberals keep expressing their surprise, fear and anger about the country’s move toward right-wing nationalism and the growing influence of orthodox Judaism in key institutions like the education system and army. “They’ve taken our country away,” you hear time and again.

Secular liberals haven’t fully understood that Israel is no longer “our country” – if it ever was. All recent research indicates that the majority of Israelis consider the country’s Jewish character more important than its liberal democracy.

In a desperate and understandable attempt to take the country back, the center-left parties Zionist Union and Yesh Atid have adopted ever more nationalist language. They have refused to be associated with the left and have tried to befriend Jewish orthodoxy; polls show that this is the only way to reach the majority’s hearts and minds.

But I don’t think a government led by the center-left is a realistic scenario in the foreseeable future, and even if it came into being, it would have to accommodate so many of the nationalist right’s and orthodox parties’ demands that it wouldn’t make much of a difference.

Once we face this truth and stop complaining, secular liberals must adopt a strategy adjusted to our current reality. We must defend the liberal character of Israel’s democracy and begin to think like a minority that defends its rights. We’ve often taken the rights of Israel’s Arab citizens as a test case for liberal thought, but it’s time to understand that our own rights are now threatened as well.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is stepping up its efforts to turn Israel into an illiberal democracy in which the governing majority delegitimizes any position other than its own and imposes its values on everyone.

The education system is a prime example. Education Minister Naftali Bennett is a clever strategist and thinks that by taking over the state education system he can shape the next generation of Israelis. He introduces his nationalist-religious agenda into the mainstream system step by step and thus further moves Israel in his direction.

Secular liberal Israelis can’t stop him because the country’s majority doesn’t mind “more Jewishness.” And there’s no legal basis for stopping this annexation of the education system by the religious-Zionist agenda because Israel has never clearly separated state and religion.

We should therefore make education a first cause in the fight for our rights as a minority since, paradoxically, we have fewer minority rights not only than the ultra-Orthodox and the religious Zionists, but also than Israeli Arabs, who have their own education system. If ultra-Orthodox parents have the right to refuse that their children be taught subjects contradicting their core values, secular liberal families should demand the same.

I am surprised, time and again, how few of my students at Tel Aviv University have studied evolutionary theory, a centerpiece of modern science, in high school. Neither has the absolute majority been taught the modern tools to read the Bible as a historical document. They also know little political theory – and this will become worse because Bennett is replacing civic studies with Jewish-nationalist indoctrination.

We should therefore demand the right to create a secular-liberal education system. Our goal should not be to force our values on children of families who think differently, but for secular-liberal families to have their children educated according to their own values.

I know that many liberals consider my line of thought defeatist, but it’s simply an attempt to face reality. And it’s urgent for us to start acting as a minority if we want to make sure that secular liberals will be able to live in Israel according to our values and own way of life in the future.

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