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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest


Sticking Together: The Israeli Experience in Pluralism
Yakov Kop and Robert E. Litan

Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2002
pp. 155 + ix, Hb. $22.95, ISBN 0-8157-0226-4.

As two years of violence in the Middle East has forced many ordinary Israelis and Palestinians to retreat deeper into their segregated societies, the tensions generated by their political, ethnic and religious diversity have faded temporarily into the background. Such unifying impulses are especially strong when it comes to Israel. An immigrant society long accustomed to integrating Jews of varying national origins, socio-economic backgrounds and religious practices, Israel also has a substantial and growing minority of Arab citizens, both Christians and Muslims. Accommodating these differences while preserving the state?s Jewish and democratic character poses one of the most painful dilemmas facing Israelis as they contemplate an uncertain future. Yet in the current climate, a thoughtful debate about how these gaps can be bridged before they become unmanageable has proved to be politically impossible.

This new book, which is certain to find an influential audience thanks to the prominence of its two co-authors, makes a persuasive case that how Israel confronts its internal schisms will be at least as important to its long run well being as how it deals with external threats. Yakov Kop, director of the Centre for Social Policy in Jerusalem, and Robert Litan, a vice president at the Brookings Institution, tackle this emotional subject with a rare blend of intelligence and sympathy. Identifying the two main threats to Israeli pluralism as the divide between secular and religious Jews and the one between Jewish and Arab citizens, they describe the past experience of Israel?s social integration policy, prescribe a list of improvements, and consider what lessons Israel has to offer other diverse societies. In support of their argument Kop and Litan muster an impressive array of demographic and economic data illustrating the nature of the challenge ahead.

The authors see Israel divided by what they call its ?four schisms?. The first, and in some ways least tractable, is the one that exists between Israel?s Jewish and Arab citizens. Despite making up nearly 20 per cent of the population and enjoying formal equality with Jews, Arabs effectively occupy a second-class status within Israeli society and lead mostly separate lives from the Jewish majority. Here Kop and Litan argue that increasing state spending on education and social services in Arab communities would help to ease the friction, but caution that ?the best that can be hoped for in the near future is some gradual move ? on both sides ? towards greater toleration of the other? (p. 97). Given the higher rate of demographic growth among Israeli Arabs, they acknowledge the difficulty of reconciling democracy with the ideological commitment to a Jewish state, but are conspicuously silent about how they think the contradiction could be resolved in a way that both sides could live with.

The three other schisms exist exclusively within the Jewish segment of society. Of these, the authors believe the differences between immigrants and native Israelis and between Jews of Ashkenazi (European) and Sephardi (Middle Eastern) descent can be ameliorated by adjusting state spending to level out economic disparities. However, it is the third schism, between religious and secular Jews, that potentially poses the greatest long term threat to Jewish pluralism. At its heart lie questions of ideology and identity which are less susceptible to economic solutions.

All four schisms, say Kop and Litan, point to the need for Israel to adopt measures to strengthen social cohesion: compulsory national service with a civilian option for Arabs and orthodox Jews who do not currently serve in the military; educational curricula that promote religious tolerance and democratic values; distinguishing more clearly the realms of religion and state; increased spending on education and infrastructure in underprivileged communities; replacement of foreign guest workers with Palestinian labour; and reform of Israel?s regressive tax system to benefit those lower down the income ladder. The authors admit that until the present crisis has abated, most of their proposals will probably remain on the shelf. But as an attempt to break through the taboos that have long hindered thoughtful debate on this subject, this book is an important step in the right direction.

Kevin Rosser, Oxford University

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