Analysis from Israel

If you believe the media, “human-rights” organizations, the Israeli left, and many American Jews, Jewish-Arab relations in Israel have never been so bad. And given the past year’s events, this conclusion certainly has legs to stand on: Jewish thugs have repeatedly beaten up Arabs and even horrifically murdered an East Jerusalem teenager; Arab residents of Jerusalem have committed several deadly terror attacks, including a horrific murder of worshippers at a synagogue; last summer’s war in Gaza sparked vicious social media outbursts in which Arabs and Jews openly called for killing members of the other group. Yet three new polls published over the last three weeks show that, like many popular narratives about Israel, this one seriously distorts the true picture.

The first poll, published last month, unsurprisingly shows that 77 percent of Israeli Jews and 68 percent of Israeli Arabs also believe last summer’s events worsened Jewish-Arab relations, and that negative stereotypes still abound. What it also shows, however, is that neither side considers this situation irreversible, and both are seriously interested in changing it.

For instance, a whopping 87 percent of Arab respondents said they still believe Jewish-Arab coexistence is possible. Even more astonishingly, the proportion of Arabs who said they identify with the Israeli flag shot up to 55 percent, from 37 percent last year, while the proportion that identifies with the Palestinian flag plunged from 34 percent to 8 percent.

Among Jews, the proportion who said they’d like to know the Arab population better shot up to 52 percent, from 38 percent last year. And this isn’t just talk: As Haaretz reported last month, both Jewish and Arab Jerusalemites are studying the other’s language in record numbers. New classes are filling “almost as fast as the courses can open”; waiting lists are long; and both sides say they could easily fill many more classes were it not for the shortage of qualified teachers.

The other two polls–conducted independently by Tel Aviv University and the Abraham Fund Initiatives, and released this week–show that Arab turnout in next week’s election is expected to hit a 16-year high. This is noteworthy, because the last time Jewish-Arab relations nosedived, following the Arab riots of October 2000, Arabs responded with a symbolic bill of divorce: boycotting the 2001 election. This time, they’re responding by turning out to vote in record numbers. As Thabet Abu Ras, co-executive director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, told the Times of Israel, “Arabs are now taking their citizenship more seriously than any time in the past.”

Moreover, many of them now want to use this citizenship not to push a separatist Palestinian identity, but to improve Arab integration. According to the TAU poll, 44 percent of Arab respondents think their Knesset members’ top priority “should be dealing with the ailments of Arab society: unemployment, violence, women’s status, education and health.” Another 28 percent said the most important issue was “government treatment of the Arab population,” while only 19 percent prioritized the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A Haaretz poll last month similarly found that 70 percent of Israeli Arabs want their MKs to focus on their own community’s socioeconomic problems rather than the Palestinian problem.

In part, as I explained in detail in my article for COMMENTARY this month, this change in Arab attitudes stems from the fact that successive Israeli governments have invested heavily in trying to reduce anti-Arab discrimination and increase Arab integration, and though the job is far from done, the progress has been noteworthy. But another significant factor, as Abu Ras correctly noted, has been the events of the Arab Spring, which gave Israeli Arabs a new appreciation of Israeli democracy.

“Despite the discrimination that exists in Israel, which should be combated, people now tend to see the cup as half full,” he told the Times of Israel. “Arab political discourse used to emphasize the cup as half empty, but no longer.”

This clearly bodes well for Israel’s future. Yet if even Israeli Arabs now see the cup as half full rather than half empty, isn’t it time for the rest of the world to do the same?

Originally published in Commentary on March 12, 2015

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Physicians, Heal Thyselves

It’s no secret that many liberal Jews today view tikkun olam, the Hebrew phrase for “repairing the world,” as the essence of Judaism. In To Heal the World?, Jonathan Neumann begs to differ, emphatically. He views liberal Judaism’s love affair with tikkun olam as the story of “How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel.” In fact, he believes tikkun olam endangers Judaism itself. Anyone who considers such notions wildly over the top should make sure to read Neumann’s book—because one needn’t agree with everything he says to realize that his major concerns are disturbingly well-founded.

Neumann begins by explaining what he considers the modern liberal Jewish understanding of tikkun olam. It is taken, he says, not just as a general obligation to make the world a better place, but as a specific obligation to promote specific “universal” values and even specific policies—usually, the values and policies of progressive Democrats.

He then raises three major objections to this view. The first is that the only way to interpret Judaism as a universalist religion with values indistinguishable from those of secular progressives is by ignoring the vast majority of key Jewish texts, including the Bible and the Talmud, and millennia of Jewish tradition. After all, most of these texts deal with the history, laws, and culture of one specific nation—the Jews. The Bible’s history isn’t world history, nor are its laws (with a few exceptions) meant to govern any nation but the Jews. Judaism undeniably has universalist elements. But to ignore its particularist aspects is to ignore much of what makes it Judaism, which therefore corrupts our understanding of Judaism.

The second problem is that if Judaism has no purpose other than promoting the same values and policies touted by non-Jewish progressives, there’s no reason for Judaism to exist at all. Consequently, the tikkun olam version of Judaism really does threaten Judaism’s continued existence, and it’s no accident that the liberal Jewish movements that have embraced it are rapidly dwindling due to intermarriage and assimilation. After all, why should young American Jews remain Jewish when they can do everything they think Judaism requires of them even without being Jewish?

This also explains why, in Neumann’s view, tikkun olam Judaism endangers Israel. If there’s no reason for Judaism to exist, there’s certainly no reason for a Jewish state. Indeed, Israel is anathema to the tikkun olam worldview because it’s the embodiment of Jewish particularism—the view that Jews are a distinct nation and have their own history, culture, and laws rather than being merely promulgators of universal values. Thus it’s easy to understand why tikkun olam Jews increasingly abhor the Jewish state.

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