TEL AVIV, Israel (JTA) — I came to Israel inspired by my upbringing in Habonim, the Labor Zionist youth movement. I also came infused with values that were instilled in me as a Jew living in Australia, a multicultural society.
Prior to making aliyah, I worked as the director of communications for the Ethnic Communities Council, an umbrella organization of diverse groups active in Australian civil society. I honestly wasn’t sure if my experience in engaging different groups and forging a multicultural society where everyone feels a part would have much use in my new life in Israel.
But I was wrong. Let’s just say that the challenges in this regard are probably more acute in Israel than they were in Australia.
Israel’s rapid development under difficult circumstances meant that the country did not have time to get some of the basics of democratic statehood right during its early decades, especially with regard to civic identity and citizenship.
Don’t get me wrong. There are important fundamentals that we did get right in Israel: voting rights, freedom of political association and a robust legal system, just to name a few. But that’s not enough and especially not now.
As some of our neighbors move toward greater democracy, Israel cannot afford to go backward. Rather we must strengthen our democracy by bolstering citizenship, encouraging acceptance of diversity and ensuring fair treatment for all Israelis.
As a businessman, I consider this to be a top priority for Israel. That is why I work with Merchavim, a nongovernmental organization with programming in more than 500 schools stressing these values.
Now, in partnership with 15 NGOs and with top business leaders and government, we have launched an initiative called Kulanana that goes beyond the classroom to spread these values among young people. Kulanana will use a multi-pronged approach — including educational initiatives, advocacy efforts, community projects and media campaigns — to increase public understanding of the critical importance to our society of ensuring equal opportunities, dignity and a sense of belonging for all Israeli citizens.
I work with high-tech start-ups for a living, so when I think about state building, I immediately think about how I identify potential in business. You start with a concept, maybe even a dream. Then you start building basics that you need. You don’t necessarily have time at the beginning for all the details. But after your spark of an idea becomes tangible, you need to ensure sustainability.
That’s where we are in Israel right now. We are living an amazing dream that has become a reality. In order to sustain ourselves as a modern state and as a society, we need to ensure that our democracy is strong and that all of Israel’s citizens feel included.
It’s time to recognize that we haven’t yet developed a discourse around what it means to be a citizen and what civil society is all about. I can tell you about this from personal experience. For example, in conversation I will often hear someone casually talk about, for example, “Arabs and Israelis in Haifa,” forgetting that Arabs are also Israeli citizens.
The divisions, however, are not simply between Arabs and Jews. Growing up in Sydney, I attended a school where all streams of Judaism were accepted — and where religious and nonreligious Jews studied together. In Israel, my children will not meet any religious Israelis until the army. My cousin did not have one meaningful interaction with a Muslim Israeli until he reached university at age 23.
A society whose young people don’t learn together or serve together is a society whose citizens will not be able to live, work and thrive together.
Some will argue that we have to wait until we have resolved our regional conflict before we can effectively deal with Israel’s internal divisions. But this may condemn us to postpone dealing with these issues for years. That would mean paying an entirely unnecessary price in terms of both our interests and our values.
This argument should be turned on its head: If we implement a model for providing fuller opportunities and respecting diversity inside Israel, it can be a catalyst and bridge for solving the regional problems.
An absence of action on these issues, however, would fuel anti-democratic trends that threaten to take Israel backward. It would risk undermining our claims to being the “only” democracy in the Middle East and fuel the campaign to delegitimize Israel. Moreover, inaction condemns entire swaths of our country’s population to poverty and alienation that will lead to social unrest.
Often when I ponder these issues, I am reminded of a 1992 speech presented by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin via satellite to the World Jewish Congress. He argued that in dealing with the problem of global anti-Semitism, Israel needed to show that it treated its Arab minority fairly.
"I believe we have to prove once we are the sovereign power, we have to behave vis-a-vis the minority and other religious groups in a way we expect others to respect us," he said.
In 1992, Rabin knew that Israel could no longer use the regional threats it faced as an excuse for not providing a sense of meaningful citizenship for all Israelis. Nearly 20 years later, it’s time for Israeli society to move forward decisively on this front.
(Guy Spigelman is the chairman of Merchavim-The Institute for the Advancement of Shared Citizenship in Israel and vice president for business development at Apos Medical Technologies.)