This is Part One in a series of interviews with a cross section of Jews living in Israel. It is an attempt to break through the barrier of disinformation, misinformation and putrefying incestuous politics of the Middle East. This is dedicated to some fine young people I met, last year, on Havelock island – Aharon, Gelad, Sarah, Hargal, Doris and Omer.
Shukreya Natalie for agreeing to this interview. Your candid answers are informative and refreshingly truthful.
(The rules of engagement are simple. Eight questions are presented and these have to be answered in writing. The answers are NOT edited).
Why is antisemitism taboo in the West, whereas anti- Muslim or anti-Christian views ‘appear’ to be acceptable, generally speaking?
You must be joking! Antisemitism is alive, well and bites you on the cheek!
For a short time after World War 2 in Britain it was considered well mannered to be nice to ‘the Jews’. The community had acculturated without losing its identity and had already done much to make its mark in society. However when I was child in the 50s and early 60s, it was thought correct to be a Jew at home and an English person elsewhere. There may have been a sense of the friendliness being superficial and this has been proven many times since the 1967 Six Day War when opinion formers like The Guardian newspaper overturned a previously ardent pro-Israel policy in favour of the Arab world.
The same story has been repeated elsewhere in Europe and in the United States despite its massive Jewish population. Even in Germany where Nazism and antisemitism are officially outlawed there continue to be dozens of examples of the vilest anti-Jewish behaviour.
I don’t believe there is real anti-Christian sentiment, except among radical Islamists who hate everyone who does not follow their form of Sharia Law. Many people in the west appear vaguely apathetic to Christianity whereas their loathing of Islam is generated largely by radical Islamists’s gross behaviour. This has grown increasingly with the constant and increasing spate of terror attacks worldwide since 2001. Until recently I accepted the view that the situation would be corrected only by a modern version of the Medieval Battle of Tours but seeing what’s happening within the Arab world even as I write, I believe the Arabs’ exquisitely wrought house of cards will eventually implode. The genie, all differences considered, is well and truly out of the bottle!
Do you think that ‘outsiders’ confuse the Jews with the politics of the State of Israel? And why so?
Of course outsiders confuse Jews with the politics of the State of Israel. It is natural that they should do so. It was established as the Jewish state and offers a near-total Right of Return to all Jews wishing to live here. If I were a disinterested – non-biased – non-Jew reviewing the situation I suspect I would also confuse the two.
It has been said that Jews are God’s chosen people, please clarify.
I could reply with a smart Jewish joke but under the circumstances I’ll treat the question with the serious respect it deserves! Rabbis and Jewish scholars explain that we were not ‘chosen’ by the Almighty but that we elected to follow the teachings of His Torah (the body of Jewish sacred writings and tradition including the oral tradition); to become a Kingdom of Priests, holy and separate from other peoples and to be “a light unto the nations.” Too often we fall sadly short of this ideal.
Is Israel the sole democratic State in the Middle East? (Please expand on percentage of different faiths in the state as well as freedom of speech, civil rights etc. in Israel).
Even before I check the facts I insist that Israel is still the sole truly democratic state in the M.E. – albeit sorely flawed. Until the recent flood of local revolutions, despots and villains ran the regimes on and near Israel’s borders without fear of reckoning or redress – unless they were overthrown by equally unpleasant personalities. I am unsure whether any current regime changes will alter the situation as I fear that the radical Islamist Muslim Brotherhood will rush to fill the various vacuums.
In Israel there continue to be risibly awful instances of corruption – and worse – even among its highest officers of state but most of them are apprehended and punished. This is true democracy in action. This same energy is shown by the happy existence of many extreme left-wingers fighting for civil rights and conversely by the racism espoused by others on the right.
According to the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, the population in 2008 was 75.4% Jewish, 20.6% Arab, and 4% minority groups. The religious affiliation of the Israeli population as of 2005 was 76.2% Jewish, 16.1% Muslim, 2.1% Christian, and 1.6% Druze, with the remaining 4.0% not classified by religion.
There are gaps in Civil Rights, largely because the Orthodox rabbinate holds so much influence but organisations like the Progressive Israel Religious Action Centre campaign for social justice and have won many battles both for individuals and groups.
Does a Class System prevail in Jewish Society? For instance are Yiddish speaking Poles ‘lesser’ then those that speak Hebrew? And is there a preference for Ashkenazis over Jews from Yemen or Iraq?
Do you mean ‘Jewish’ or ‘Israeli’ society? If you mean both, the short answer must be that the class system prevails in Israel just as it does in Jewish society, despite any contrary protests.
Jewish people and their Arab neighbours prize knowledge as much as material success. I was surprised to learn recently for example, that a modern Bedouin sheik now values a woman’s scholarship as much as a traditional dowry.
But while many of the traditional prejudices like those you cite are fading, others are taking their place. Israel, a society under semi-permanent siege, can be both harsh and driven. People work long hours for low wages while food and goods are often ridiculously expensive.
A fellow immigrant has observed that in employment-terms, there are many layers with native Israelis at the top. Surprisingly, it is often new Jewish immigrants – not Arabs – who are at the bottom and the theory is that they must wait their turn to be accepted in order to gain work. Certainly immigrants are often dismissed erroneously as fools. This is due to problems of communication and acculturation.
How do Israeli Jews who are multinational and multicultural in nature blend into a cohesive force? For example, an Indian Jewish family as compared to a family from Russia?
This may be your most important question. I am only six years younger than the State of Israel and while my family was never actively ‘Zionist’, its existence was burned into my brain from earliest childhood. Indeed that my maternal great-grandfather made a failed attempt to settle in ‘Palestine’ from England during the 1930s is part of family lore.
Nonetheless I feel quite different from, if most respectful towards those immigrants from other countries. Yet Israeli society is beginning to cohere slowly if strongly. This will happen more swiftly as people from separate backgrounds marry and also as the Hebrew language continues to develop. Even now, less than a century since his death, I am sure that Eliezer Ben-Yehuda would find it hard to recognise the pure Hebrew he pioneered as a modern language. I think it will take at least another 60 years for Israel to cohere in full and I must reflect most sadly that several more wars will help to solidify that congruity.
Are there any cultural exchanges between Israel and the Arab world? Do you feel people to people cultural exchanges can bring about a change in the mindset of your neighbours?
Mark, that is an absolutely wonderful idea! But first, we have to persuade too many of our Arab neighbours that Jews are neither dhimmi (second class) nor animals to be loathed and slaughtered. I am delighted to have made personal friends with a couple from an Arab village next to Karmiel and also to have been acquainted with a non-Jewish European who has married a local Arab. It is from such personal contacts that wider understanding grows.
I maintain that – writing in ‘broad strokes ‘– Jews and Arabs have far more in common than either of us do with our gentile counterparts. There are the life-cycle customs like circumcision, swift burials and the similarities between the kosher and halal dietary laws. Both traditions have a form of religious marriage contract and there are many Middle Eastern delicacies we both enjoy…
Lastly, do women have equal rights in socio-economic and religious spheres of your society?
I have a feeling this will be a bone of contention long after the Arab-Israel conflict is healed! Israel is a M.E. society and therefore still most patriarchal. While Israeli law prohibits discrimination, (Employment (Equal Opportunities) Law, 1988 ) too many men, Jewish or not, still see women as adjuncts, despite all the women who have reached the top in Israeli society. Perhaps this is why a man like the cashiered former President Moshe Katsav thought most naively that he would escape justice for his crimes of rape, sexual assault and other sexual abuse.
As yet women do not have full rights across the board as they are known in the west, neither in the workplace where the battle for complete equal rights and equal pay continues, nor religiously, where they are treated as inferiors – no matter how much Orthodox women may deny this.
I belong to a ‘Masorti’ congregation whose religious customs are Orthodox but which is run on egalitarian principles. This means that women take a full part in synagogue life, helping to lead services and serving also on the management committee. Indeed a woman recently became the congregation’s chairman.
Natalie Wood was born in Birmingham, England, U.K. and began working in journalism a month prior to the outbreak of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. She continued in regional Jewish journalism for more than 20 years and left full time writing to assist her husband open a bargain books business. Later she launched “WoodPerfect”, offering a full range of home based virtual office services. A year ago, Natalie emigrated from Manchester to Israel where she works from her home in Karmiel, Galilee.
She can be contacted on any of her following blogs :