On Jerusalem Day, Religious Zionists Should Be Leading the Fight Against Intolerance

When Israel's most controversial national holiday showcases the worst of Jewish intolerance, it's time to stop contributing to the problem.

AFP

Jerusalem Day is once again being celebrated with a flag parade Sunday that snakes through the Old City of Jerusalem – a celebration that, punctuated as it is by cries like ”Death to the Arabs” and “Mohammed is dead” – showcases the worst of Israeli Jewish intolerance.

The parade exposes the ultra-nationalistic leanings of many of its predominantly young, and predominantly religious Zionist, participants. For many years, as an educational director of World Bnei Akiva, I made a concerted attempt to reframe the Jerusalem Day syllabus, focusing on the tapestry of identities that make up the population of Jerusalem. Although I spoke out against the march, I never succeeded in convincing the religious Zionist establishment that the parade had become a desecration of God's name and that its centrality in the day's proceedings should be diminished.

To paint the rising levels of intolerance and racism among Jewish-Israeli youth as a purely religious Zionist phenomenon would, however, be misleading.

A 2010 report by the Germany-based public policy foundation Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung found a drop in support for democratic values among Israel’s Jewish youth overall, from 26 percent in 1998 to 14 percent in 2010. Another study released the same year, by Israeli research institution Maagar Mochot, found that nearly half of Israel's high school students do not believe that Israeli Arabs are entitled to the same rights as Israeli Jews. It also found that the situation is particularly bad among religious Zionist teens, 82 percent of whom said Arabs should not receive equal rights, a sentiment shared by just 39 percent of secular students.

The trend of a less tolerant younger generation must represent a warning sign to Israeli society. The lack of honest introspection on the part of many religious Zionist leaders is nothing new, but it is particularly problematic when it is bolstered by the Education Ministry itself. For instance, last year the ministry, to its credit, decided to integrate more Arab teachers in the Jewish school system – but then said it wouldn’t place them in religious Jewish schools, with one official explaining that such a move would just be too complicated and could make the whole program “end in failure.”

But that is exactly the wrong approach. Now is the time for Israel’s religious Zionist leadership to vocally condemn intolerance and racism, and eject the discriminatory elements from within the midst of the community. This needs to be done loudly and publicly in order to set an example for the rest of Israeli society.

There are several first steps which should be taken this year, in preparation for the next Jerusalem Day parade and the next school year. The Orthodox leadership must reevaluate the route of the Jerusalem Day flag parade on Jerusalem Day, specifically the march through the Muslim Quarter, and must express a zero-tolerance policy for anti-Arab rhetoric. If and when parade participants shout anti-Arab slogans anyway, religious leaders must take the lead in working with law-enforcement authorities to bring them to justice. And finally, the new education minister, Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett, must acknowledge that more than one ethnic group lives in Jerusalem and must integrate the multiplicity of Jerusalemites’ identities into the education syllabus.

Jerusalem Day is Israel’s most controversial national holiday, and has a history of stoking the fires of intolerance. Maybe this is the year Israeli society will realize – following the heinous killing of East Jerusalem teen Mohammed Abu Khdeir and an arson attack at a Jewish-Arab school in Jerusalem within the past year – that now is the time to reverse the trend. Instead of contributing to the problem, the religious Zionist leadership must lead the way to the solution.

Anton Goodman, a former founding director of World Bnei Akiva’s Leadership Institute, is the director of resource development at the Abraham Fund Initiatives, which is dedicated to creating equality between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens.