Why do so many Israelis know nothing about each other?

This is a question that confounds and deeply frustrates me.  If we’re going to live together and thrive and appreciate each other, we certainly can’t do it living in silos.

I’d like to share a few examples from people who I think are well-intentioned:

Yaniv is a Jewish doctor (every mom’s dream!).  Growing up in a secular Persian and Moroccan family, he’s now partnered with an openly gay Ashkenazi Orthodox man- already showing he’s pretty open-minded.  I was telling him about my trip up north last week, where I visited many Arab villages, including some Christian communities.  He actually lived for several years in Haifa as well so he has spent time in this part of the country.  I started talking about the different groups in Israel- Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholics, Maronites, etc.  And I noticed he didn’t really react.  I asked him if he had learned about Christianity in school.  He and his partner basically explained that in their schools, they learned only very basic information and didn’t get any exposure to the different types of Christianity.  In the country where the religion was born!  They were surprised, for instance, to learn that in the U.S. there are hundreds of different types of Protestantism alone.

Ahmed is an Arab Muslim cab driver.  We were talking about our backgrounds and he asked about my origins.  I explained that I’m Ashkenazi from Romania, Austria, Lithuania, Russia, and Belarus.  He asked why my family came to America.  I explained that in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, there were massive pogroms in Eastern Europe along with crushing poverty that motivated Jews to move to America.  Ahmed asked me: “They killed Jews in Russia too?  I thought they just did that in Germany during the Holocaust.”  I was shocked, although I had heard similar things from European Christians in whose countries anti-Semitic violence took place, which is all the more problematic.  There is 2,000 years worth of anti-Semitic massacres and discrimination which you can read about a bit here.  Ahmed was sorry to hear about the anti-Semitic killings and genuinely surprised.

Yoav is a 26 year old Jewish guy from a moshav near Jerusalem.  An open-minded guy, he told me about how he thought it was important for Jews to get to know Arabs and vice-versa.  I told him how I visit all parts of the country, including nearby Bnei Brak, a Haredi city you can read about here and here.  He said he’s never been there (he lives 20 minutes away) and was considering a trip sometime, but he’d need time to think about whether he was up for it.  As an aside, I met an 18 year old from Ramat Gan, a 5 minute walk from Bnei Brak, who had never even stepped foot there, even to buy a bottle of water.  Yoav said he had seen on the news that someone paraded around Bnei Brak with an Israeli flag and got negative reactions from people, so he was afraid to go (a number of Haredim are not Zionist for religious reasons).  I told him that first of all, I’ve been a number of times and never had any issues- in fact, I found a lot of interesting food, music, and people.  I also told him that if your first interaction with someone is to delve into several-hundred-year-old political debates, you’re not going to have a very good discussion.  Rather than getting your information about your neighbors from the news, I said, just go and meet people for yourself.  He nodded in agreement.

Yair is a 20-something man from Jerusalem.  I believe he either is or was Modern Orthodox.  I had told him I was Reform and he and his Haredi friend asked me a bunch of (sometimes provocative) questions about the movement.  I do think that they were well-intentioned and curious but had not met many Reform people before.  Again- their sources were the news.  I did ask Yair: “What personal experiences have you had with Reform Judaism?”  He said: “Oh well I went to a Reform synagogue in London once and it did nothing for me.  Sorry, but Reform Judaism is kind of hollow.”  I then said to him: “There are millions of Reform Jews in the world and over 1,000 synagogues.  If I ate one bad schwarma in Jerusalem, would that be fair to say all Jerusalem food sucks?”  He said I made a good point and listened as I explained a bit about my community.

I could write a whole separate blog about ignorance I hear from tourists here (I met a Christian American tonight here for business who was absolutely shocked that Sunday is a day of work here and he wondered what Christians do here.  My answer: “they adapt”.  I had to spend a solid 15 minutes explaining how Jews in the U.S. adapt to a calendar that doesn’t reflect our holidays and traditions- he had no idea).  But I’d like to focus on my neighbors for a moment.

The examples I gave above are of Israelis who I truly believe have good hearts and are open-minded people.  These are not people who are hardcore bigots or full of hate (although those exist in every society).  These are people who know almost nothing about their neighbors, but who I believe have some curiosity about them.

I don’t have an easy answer to this problem.  Unlike in the U.S. where people go to school together with kids of all different races and religions, here there are separate schools for each sector of society.  Setting up a genuinely pluralistic multilingual public school system could take quite a bit of energy and time (although it’s perhaps an interesting outside-the-box idea to explore).

In the meantime, I do have a suggestion.  We need to step outside our bubbles and find one way each week in which we reach out to someone new.  Someone from a background we know little or nothing about- or are even afraid of.  It could be as simple as asking your Orthodox co-worker how the holidays were and what her family did.  Or asking the secular guy in your office what music he likes.  It could be opening up Wikipedia and reading about Arab Christians in Israel.  It could be watching this amazing dabke dance from Nazareth or asking your favorite Arab falafel guy to teach you a few words of Arabic.

The point is if we wait for the government or politicians or the media or NGO’s to do this work for us, it’ll be too late.  If we’re really going to make Israeli society work, we need to get to know each other.  You don’t need a program.  You don’t need a tour guide.  Gently step outside your bubble (knowing it’s still there when you need to reflect and regroup) and embrace the possibilities.

No law can make someone like you.  That only comes from an opening of the heart.

Author: Matt Adler - מטע אדלר

A compassionate multilingual Jewish explorer. Author of "More Than Just Hummus: A Gay Jew Discovers Israel in Arabic": http://tiny.cc/qjfbsz & http://tiny.cc/gkfbsz. Join me on my journeys by reading my blog or following me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/matt.adler.357. May you find some beauty in your day today. :)

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