In my free time I sometimes go about keeping Chabad emissaries away from the neighborhood high school. One recent Friday, when I asked the emissaries to keep a reasonable distance from the school, according to police instructions, I unwillingly became part of a fascinating encounter with two apparently secular high school girls. They were shocked that I was being hostile to Chabad emissaries. Their attitude, combining scorn, shock and considerable confidence, taught me a valuable lesson about our society.
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“This is a Jewish state,” was the first argument made by one of the girls. How dare I argue that Chabad’s envoys aren’t doing holy work in a state defined as Jewish? I explained to them that some children feel harassed by the emissaries’ aggressive conduct and some parents object to these religious agents coming into direct contact with their children.
At this point the girls moved to the other side of the equation and one announced, “This is a democratic state.” Another girl argued that if secular people organized activity with children in a religious neighborhood it would bother the residents.
“What’s that got to do with anything?” answered the girl who was speaking to me contemptuously. “That there is a religious neighborhood, this isn’t a secular neighborhood.” In other words, a neighborhood where 99 percent of the residents are secular isn’t entitled to be classified secular. As far as she was concerned, democracy worked unilaterally – it protects the religious people from any secular interference, while at the same time enabling the religious people to do as they liked in a secular neighborhood.
Usually I don’t talk to teenagers much, but Chabad emissaries themselves are extremely skilled in democratic-liberal-pluralistic discourse. Any attempt to object to their activity immediately invokes praise of democracy, liberalism and pluralism. Of course, these values are always applied one-sidedly.
Imagine the responses to a stand for selling literature, films or philosophical texts in the heart of Meah Shearim. Even I would call it “provocation.” But doing the opposite – setting up a Chabad stand by a state school – is not a provocation.
“How would you feel,” I made the mistake of asking them, “if an Arab stood here and tried to persuade you to take an interest in Islam or Christianity?” It’s hard to describe the horrified expression on the girls’ faces. “What’s that got to do with anything?” one of them repeated with disgust. “How dare you compare between an Arab and a religious person?”
I answered: “We live in a democracy, in which Arabs, religious and secular people have equal rights.” But it was no good. I lost them. The girl I spoke to was agitated.
“Do you get how wacky this person is,” she told her friend. “He thinks Arabs and Jews have the same rights here.”
Her friend only mumbled repeatedly that “this is a Jewish state.” But my interlocutor did not calm down. The whole time I was there she shared her impressions of my mental disease, saying repeatedly I’m a sick person equating Jews and Arabs.
These were students of a prestigious high school, not fringe or hilltop youth. Their shock and aversion to the opinions I expressed reflect better than anything else the direction Israel is going in.
In the last elections the threat of Arabs thronging en masse to the polls led to Benjamin Netanyahu’s narrow victory. In the future such statements will bring him a knockout.
More than anything, this exchange attests to the state education system’s collapse. Their responses put the resistance to the new, controversial civics book in proportion. In its Jewish, religious, racist way, this book simply comes to print in black and white the education already administered in the system.
Children who grew up under Netanyahu’s rule have already internalized the correct mantra – “Jewish and democratic state,” that wretched compromise our legislators came upon, and that brought our laws closer to Afghanistan’s constitution. The Jew’s supremacy and the Arab’s inferiority have turned into society’s ultimate axiom, not only in the discriminatory regime in the West Bank but also within the Green Line.
Racism is the fundamental principle. Indeed, while Jewish studies expand from kindergarten age to all school grades, democracy studies have been banished to 12th grade. The state education system is beyond salvation. It cannot be saved while the Bennetts are dominating it. The only way anyone who still cares about being Israeli can fight back is to form a secular state education stream, in which we can shape children who won’t obey the sacralization and racism that have become the norm.
The writer heads the Secular Forum.