Refugees Learning Israeli Norms the Hard Way

Israel can't offer refugees courses in 'norms and values' like the Europeans do, because we are a society without common values.

Avshalom Halutz
Avshalom Halutz
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Asylum seekers at the Holot detention center, December 29, 2015.
Asylum seekers at the Holot detention center, December 29, 2015.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Avshalom Halutz
Avshalom Halutz

Since the onset of the wave of mass migration to Europe, and especially after the New Year’s Eve events in Cologne, many of the Continent’s leaders have begun demanding that asylum seekers from North Africa and the Middle East adopt the Western lifestyle forthwith. Even before they find a permanent place to live, acclimate to the inclement weather or learn to mumble a few words in their new language – hundreds of thousands of migrants undergo comprehensive yet patronizing educational seminars on how to be European.

In these courses, the refugees are taught the laws, history and geography of a continent that might appear to them to be permissive or lacking boundaries. Above all, they are asked to memorize the message that the continent’s leaders repeat over and over: that it is vital to assimilate the “norms and values” of the societies into which they are to integrate.

In Belgium, for example, new illustrated guides explain to the refugees that they must speak in a whisper when using public transportation; that Belgians prefer not to talk with people they don’t know; that when meeting in the street it’s customary for women to kiss once on the cheek while men can either kiss on the cheek or settle for just a handshake; and that there is an “accepted” way to make a pass at women (make eye contact but don’t stare, introduce yourself and smile, do not touch her body).

Refugees arriving in Norway must take a course in “proper sexual conduct,” in which they learn how to act toward local women. In the Netherlands, asylum seekers are taught how to negotiate the train station and deal with snow, as well as how to recognize the king or a Rembrandt painting. In addition they are told that it is common for women to wear revealing clothes.

Beyond dating customs and manners, European states also demand that newcomers internalize the values of their host countries. In the Netherlands they learn that society is based on the separation of church and state, on freedom of religion and expression as well as the absence of an official religion, and on a free media. The refugees are also taught to recognize that discrimination of any kind is not tolerated: There is no discrimination on the basis of race or religion, women are equal to men, and homosexuality is a totally legitimate and embraced choice. In fact, to obtain a work permit one must sign a statement declaring acceptance of the fundamental values of the Dutch society.

An illustrated guide for refugees in Belgium.Credit: Courtesy

It is difficult to impossible to imagine a similar program in Israel, and not only because attitudes toward asylum seekers here range from abuse to neglect. Even if, say, a politician wanted to propose creating courses in “Israeliness” – would it even be possible to compose a list of values and norms on which Israeli society is based, and which everyone who comes here – no matter where from – must memorize before they can be called “Israeli”?

It’s hard to talk about values such as freedom, openness, tolerance, discrimination, democracy and peace in the Israeli context without snickering. For the harsh reality is that we are a society without common values.

According to the Law of Equal Opportunities in Employment, for example, Israeli employers are prohibited from discriminating on the basis of religion, race, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, age or place of residence. But this long and impressive set of prohibitions, despite having been passed by the Knesset, does not reflect the reality of Israeli society. Israel is not a country of equal opportunities. Just the opposite.

Homosexuality, for instance, is not against the law, but despite rising awareness and a PR campaign by the local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community to persuade the world and themselves that Israelis are indeed open – this is not a pro-LGBT country. It’s not part of its DNA. Israel contains islands of liberalism, but the LGBT community is not truly part of central Israeli discourse, or the prevailing atmosphere.

What is the Israeli national state of mind? It is in shambles, made up of extreme contradictions and the ceaseless war between them.

Ironically, the way foreigners are treated here may not be so different from how they are treated there, albeit unintended: From the moment they arrive, refugees get an accelerated education in Israeliness. Beyond the cruelty, indifference, neglect and confusion, they join the messy and interest-driven fabric of local life. In that respect, we inadvertently offer them a fast track to becoming Israelis.