Finding room between the differences

June 18, 2009 by

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Once R. Yehuda and R. Yose and R. Shimon were sitting [talking]…. R. Yehuda said: How wonderful are the works of this people [the Romans]! They have established markets, they have built bridges, they have built baths. R. Yose was silent. R. Shimon bar Yochai answered: They established markets – for prostitutes to work there; they built bridges in order to collect tolls; they built baths – to pamper themselves.

-Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 33b

Interesting that the three rabbis each saw the same cultural elements through totally different lenses (actually, we don’t know what Rabbi Yose was thinking), so that what for Rabbi Yehuda was impressive, for Rabbi Shimon was rotten. Sort of like the difference between those who see the internet as a great boon to the spread of knowledge and the improvement of society, and those who see the very same medium as filled with dangerous immorality, offering unprecedented means of support for swindlers, pedophiles, hate mongers etc.

While the Arab citizens of Israel have been going through a process of modernization for decades, there are still firmly entrenched norms, in much of Arab society, that carry forward the values of a traditional, agrarian, patriarchal culture. What from the inside look like rootedness, family values, and tradition – through a different lens look like the power of the clan, the custom of vendetta, the inferior status of women, the power of rumor and shame, the lack of responsibility for the public space. All of these can still be found extensively in the villages and towns around us.

There are certainly individuals and groups who have rebelled against some or all of these values, who try to adopt western, European/global norms regarding individualism, gender status, openness to change, etc. But this is not easy, and the social and psychological price can be high, and Israel still does not really offer a neutral option – you can’t just decide to leave your village and move to a Jewish community whose values you share or aspire to share. So one encounters lots of ambivalence, and a certain amount of suffering and dysfunctional behavior (e.g., the high crime rate in the cities created “for” the Bedouins in the Negev).

It seems clear that while the quality of life in Arab villages is negatively impacted by various government policies, it is also negatively impacted by pre-modern cultural norms: if the mayor is elected by clan loyalty and not by qualifications, poor administration shouldn’t be surprising.

In a way, we have exacerbated the problems created by the gap between cultures by accepting the concept of cultural autonomy together with residential segregation. Regarding Jews and Arabs, Israel has rejected the idea of a melting pot. We live separately, study separately, speak different languages. And all of this is rooted in law and custom and government institutions (e.g., separate school systems), and is generally seen not as the imposition of the majority, but as a concession to the minority.

The big question is: how to find a middle way. How can we respect the minority culture, and allow its perpetuation, while at the same time creating a foundation of values, loyalties, and norms shared by all citizens? We Jews, of course, have been struggling with this dilemma as a minority in various environments for centuries, which doesn’t seem to make it any easier to formulate an ideal solution now that we are the majority.


First appeared in “Galilee Diaries” on

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