Secular Jews, Religious Jews and Arabs: The Zero-Sum Game of Israeli Multiculturalism

This is a review of a talk given by Professor Menachem Mautner, a political and legal theorist from Tel Aviv University, on the 1st of February 2010 at Oriel College, Oxford. Again, apologies for the lateness!

I would like to make quite clear at the beginning of this review that Professor Mautner discusses Israel exclusively. He does not refer to the problems between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. His concern is the problems facing Israeli society.

Israel’s Multicultural Society

Since the 1970s and the end of Labour’s hegemony in Israeli politics, Israel has been a multicultural society. But there is a war of cultures going on, the society is divided in two ways.

The War of Cultures 1: Secular Jews vs Religious Jews

Secular Jews, by which Professor Mautner meant “liberal western” Jews and religious Jews, by which he meant “traditional, Judaism” Jews have twice come close to civil war.

  1. First when settlers were withdrawn from Gaza and Northern Samaria. There was a lot of opposition to this move: 20,000 police and soldiers faced off against the settlers.
  2. Secondly, during the al-Aqsa intifada riots, in the face of retaliation by the Arabs.

The Jewish enlightenment of mid-19th century Germany marks the beginning of the opposition between the secular and the religious Jews. From the 1930s to the 1970s secular Jews, represented by the Labour movement, were in political hegemony. Their values were secular, democratic, modern and western.

By the end of the 1970s their power had waned and in 1977 there was a political turnabout in Israel and Labour lost control. Since 1977, there has only been 6 years that Labour were in hegemony. In the 1980s Labour institutions lost power and they have never properly recovered.

The War of Cultures 2: Jews vs Arabs

20% of Israeli citizens are Arabs. By 2020 it will be 23%. Israel is clearly bi-national, but Jews deny it. The 1992 constitutional laws describe Israel as Jewish and democratic only. Arabs are allowed rights as individuals, but not collectively.

  • Arabs are excluded from significant political decisions on foreign policy and defence.
  • Israel doesn’t recognise any Arab holidays as public holidays.
  • There are separate cities, neighbourhoods, institutions, newspapers, schools etc. for Arabs in Israel.
  • In all indices – literacy, development, life expectancy, etc. – Arabs rank significantly lower than Jews in Israel.

This is an explosive mixture, Professor Mautner says, that could lead to a violent struggle.

But solutions are on the table. In 2006/07, Arab-Israeli intellectuals produced a policy paper, ‘Arab Vision,’ outlining a bi-national state like Switzerland, Belgium or Canada.

A Zero-Sum Game

But there is a connection between the two divides: it is a zero-sum game.

  • If the secular Jews move towards the traditional Jews, the Arabs suffer.
  • If the secular Jews move towards the Arabs, the traditional Jews will revolt.

And this situation will only get worse. The demographics are changing: 50% of school children are from either ultra-orthodox or Arab groups. Israeli society is becoming more polarised between the two groups at the extremes.

There is nothing unique in the Israeli multiculturalism. What is unique is that the pressure on the system comes from the centre, not the fringes. The problems faced by Israeli society are more like those faced by Turkey, Egypt or Algeria, not Canada or Belgium.

Although secular and liberal, the government funds ultra-orthodox groups who oppose these values. As a comparison, the Bob Jones University in the USA was stripped of its tax-free status by the Supreme Court because of their racist admissions policy. Israel will never do something like this, Professor Mautner says: it would cause a revolt by the religious Jews.

The Outlook

There are essentially two types of religious Jew in Israel: the ultra-orthodox Jews and the religious Zionists.

  • Ultra-orthodox Jews reject Western values and ideas including democracy and liberalism. They would support a theocracy which excludes women entirely.
  • Religious Zionists, on the other hand, take their ideas from the West as well as from tradition. They go to universities, the theatre and opera. They are democratic and have a religious feminism. They would object to a theocracy and would support liberal politics. They hold the key to the future character of Israel – but which way will they go?

Individualism represents a real danger for the multicultural state. It could polarise opinion and the common good will suffer. Professor Mautner proposes that republicanism could prevent this, if all citizens are able to deliberate over the common good with no exclusion. Labour republicanism has been strong, but it excludes the Arabs. Now it is weak and they can’t cultivate a shared idea of the common good.

Israel needs to actively pursue a Rawlsian liberal regime representing pluralism and tolerance, an inclusive liberalism, not a universal liberalism.

Specific Measures for the Future:

It contrast to some of the theorists I’ve heard speak, Professor Mautner outlined seven specific proposals to bind Israeli society closer together and to make the country a safer and more democratic state for all its citizens.

1. Establish a constitutional court

The constitutional law is currently developed by the Supreme Court, but this is now viewed as biased. A new constitutional court would be staffed by lawyers representing the major cultural groups so that it is no longer divisive.

2. Reshuffle the education system

Currently there are five types of schooling, secular, religious zionist, Arab, Ashkenazi and Sephardic. They rarely intermix. Israel needs mixed schools, some already exist, but it needs more.

3. Change the 1992 laws about the nature of Israel

It is a nation for all Israelis, not just Jews. Israel should become a “Jewish, democratic and Israeli state.”

4. Include Arabs in national symbols

Including the flag and the national anthem.

5. Include Arabic as a national language

On a level with Hebrew.

6. Acknowledge the implications of multiculturalism

Respect for a people means a respect for their culture. Most Arabs are versed in Jewish culture, but not the other way around.

7. Use the example of 10th and 11th century Spain

Where the Jews enjoyed a golden age under Arab leaders.


It was a blessed relief to hear someone put forward concrete, rational proposals for the better integration of Arabs into Israeli society. It’s going to be a long and hard road to travel – overturning institutionalised racism, such as that outlined by Professor Mautner, does not happen overnight – but it will be worth it, for all concerned.

What do you think?