A case for true cultural diversity

The recent arrest of the members of an allegedly neo-Nazi group in Petah Tikva set in motion the almost automatic Israeli mechanism of self-questioning, criticism and attribution of blame. Much of it boiled down to a single conclusion: The Law of Return has to be rewritten, so as to keep people with anti-Semitic beliefs out of Israel. The gang, which is suspected of a number of attacks against religious Jews, drug addicts and homosexuals, included at least eight teens of Russian origin, the majority of them non-Jewish according to halakha (Jewish law).

While limiting eligibility to citizenship under the Law of Return to those who are Jewish by religious law might prevent future unpleasant surprises, I would like to suggest what is perhaps a more constructive line of thought – namely, asking what can be done to stop those Russian-speaking teens who are already here from sliding into such dangerous and extreme conduct. Have we done all that is in our power to show them that they are valued members of Israeli society, or to ensure that their connection to Israel and its people is strong enough for them to become active, involved and caring citizens?

All young people need to feel a sense of belonging, and the 241,000 Russian-speaking teens living here today are no different. Craving acceptance, they invest all their energies into trying to look and sound like natives. And their immediate environment, including the Israeli education system, indeed signals to them that their ticket to being regarded as equals is in eliminating the “Russian” part of their identity. Even then, a majority fails to fit in completely, since, as one teen said to us: “It does not matter where you were born and what you look like.” Is it surprising that so many Russian-speaking teens divide the surrounding society into “Russians” and “Moroccans” (the term for anyone who is not Russian), with the accompanying narrative of “them against us”?

Adolescence is hard enough, but coupled with a major identity crisis, it can be potentially disastrous. These are not necessarily bad kids, but many of them, by their teen years, will have already accumulated a substantial amount of hatred toward the surrounding society. And that is precisely why we cannot, as a society, continue to ignore the warning signs. What Russian-speaking teens need today is guidance, understanding and empathetic adults, but even more, the feeling that they belong with other teens.

Israelis often talk about the historical bond that connects all members of the Jewish people. The astounding conclusion begging to be drawn from the attack of several weeks ago is that relying on that subtle historical heritage is just not enough. What do the key people within the Israeli education system know about the Jews of the Former Soviet Union, except for the truism that they were “detached from Judaism for the 73 years of communist rule”? What do they know about the way the memory of the Holocaust is being preserved in the Russian-speaking community in Israel?

Had these persons dedicated just one day to even a superficial study of just these two topics, they would have discovered a number of surprising facts: first, that the majority of Jews in the USSR have indeed lost their connection to Judaism as a religion, its place having been taken by a special version thereof – with Jewishness being expressed through academic achievements or cultural sophistication; and second, that Russian-speaking youngsters by and large lack even basic background knowledge of the Holocaust, or the Nazi agenda. To them, the swastikas, skinheads and violence are more an expression of anger – and of a desire to anger others – than a genuine identification with Nazi ideology. These two facts alone could help teachers adapt the way a certain topic, such as the political and social reality in post-1933 Germany, is presented to students of different backgrounds. Furthermore, by dismissing the peculiar connection Soviet Jews have developed toward Judaism, the Israeli education system deprives these teens of one of the more natural ways to relate to the Israeli Jewish narrative.

In fact, Israel’s Education Ministry does seem to understand that it has to do things differently when new immigrants are concerned. According to the recently adopted guidelines issued by its director general, even quite veteran FSU immigrant high-school students are allowed to take their matriculation exams in Russian. But even a reasonable policy like that is not without its problems, and in practice, the majority of the students entitled to those privileges choose to take their exams in Hebrew, in which case they are given a 10-point handicap.

Unfortunately, that’s as much cultural diversity and adaptation as the Israeli education system seems to be able to handle right now. True cultural diversity is about awareness, tolerance, acceptance and understanding. But it is also about encouraging students to learn more, think more and feel more, and thus create their own stable system of values and beliefs which will serve them throughout their adult life. Sure, any system, perfect as it may be, will not be able to adapt itself to the individual needs of each and every “client.” Cultural diversity at its extreme could potentially lead to total disintegration of any form of social solidarity, and that, of course, is not a desirable outcome. However, this is not the right time to be paralyzed by the fear of extreme cultural diversity. As recent events show, it is about time we at least abandoned the outdated “melting-pot” approach, before we are forced to face some of our other worst fears.

Luba Berenstein is executive director of the 1+1 Association of Immigrant Youth.

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