Social Cohesion and Politics in Israel- it’s complicated. The ADL Conference.

My most interesting experience this past week was going to the Anti Defamation League’s annual Social Cohesion Summit in Tel Aviv. The ADL is a non profit that seeks to combat antisemitism and fight for the rights of all people to live freely. As part of their mission in Israel, they seek to improve relations between Jews and Arabs, and mend divisions created by differences in religion, politics, etc between Jews, Arabs and Christians. 

It was a Ted type of event, full of speakers, important names, and group debates. 

The Keynote speaker was Benny Gantz, leader of the center Left Blue and White party. At the moment he is desperately trying to form a parliamentary coalition in order to lead the country. His message was that social unity would allow a unity government to form. A unity government is where each of the leading parties (Likud and Blue and White) share the role of Prime Minister.  However, both main parties have vowed at different times to never be in a coalition with the other. This leaves Gantz in a position of recruiting the Joint List (Arab Parties), into his coalition. Although partisans in America may say that their elected leaders are trying to dismantle America from the inside (be it ‘Fascist’ trump, or ‘Communist’ Bernie,) in Israel there are actually parties who seek to see it destroyed. Certain factions within the Joint list don’t affirm Israel’s right to exist and seek to dismantle the Jewish state. This last resort makes coalition forming harder. 

Subsequently, panels of former and current parliament leaders from all sides of the spectrum were interviewed. Moshe Gafni, a Haredi Rabbi and Parliament member complained that Gantz’ “Unity” narrative is disingenuous; Gantz seeks a liberal unity which means a government excluding the religious parties which tend to be more right wing. Ayelet Shaked, whose unique character is non- existent in American politics is a right wing superstar, feminist, and bridger of the gap between the Haredi Parties and left. She weighed in on a recent political row, wherein a community held an event in honor of an important Haredi rabbi and invited many political attendees. Men and Women were separated, and women were not allowed to sing or perform , as per ultra religious tradition. Her view was that the organizers had the right a private event in honor of a Rabbi with respect to his religious beliefs, even if they may be widely viewed as sexist. Nitzan Horowitz from the Democratic camp dissented however, remarking that social unity and integration of the Haredi community can never be achieved if the men are unwilling to talk to or even be in the same room with other women. 

The most interesting panel was called Arab Israelis; Separation or Exclusion. There are 1.8 million Arabs living within the green line who are full citizens of Israel and are ensured equal rights. Like many minorities within a majority society, these rights are not always realized. There were four people on the panel, One a Jewish Journalist who lives in a settlement, one a former Arab member of a Zionist party, one a Jewish Knesset member and one a member of the Joint List. So many interesting things were said that revealed divisions in israeli society and arab views on the future of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediteranian. The Arab member remarked that he is a Zionist and thus believes in a Jewish state, but that despite his beliefs and membership to a Zionist party, he was subjected to rascist attacks resulting in shame and his exit from politics. When asked if he would join the Joint List, he said he would not. The Jewish Knesset members felt that the ‘tragedy’ of Israeli Arabs is that most want to be integrated into society but they are kept separated by the actions and propaganda of the Joint List, who Identify with the PA, and identifies with terrorists and murderers. At this time, the Joint List member countered, positing that Israeli Arabs are not integrated because they don’t speak Hebrew and Vice Versa. Perhaps Israeli Jews and secular people should be learning Arabic. The final debate on the panel was about Illegal building. Land ownership in Israel is complicated to say the least. For a construction to be legal it has to be approved by the Israeli government before construction… usually. The Jewish former member of parliament stated that the Arabs have an issue in their villages of illegal construction. Immediately, the member of the joint list raised his voice and shot back; Don’t talk to me about illegal arab building! First, clean your own house of crazy settlement building! The reasons Arabs build illegally is because they aren’t granted legal permits in the first place! The woman who lived in a settlement then chimed in; I’m against both Jewish and Arab illegal settlement construction. As I learned last week in the bedouin village, Jewish settlements are often granted legality Post Ex Facto, whereas Arab constructions rarely are. 

I left that day with my head bursting, affirmed in my conviction that it is impossible to understand this country from the outside. In the knesset, men who won’t hear another woman sing sit across from women who seek to legalize civil unions and gay marriage. Members of the right wing parties who wrote the nation state law saying that Israel is for the Jewish people sit beside members of the Joint List who deny the right of the very country they serve, Israel, to exist. In the knesset, the feminist superstar comes from the right bloc and the champion of the left bloc was a career army guy. The contradictions in the Knesset represent the vast diversity of opinion and experience in Israeli society. This is a good thing.