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.
As during the Roman period, so
during the Israeli period our views of the cultures up against which we bump
are open to different and conflicting interpretations, and offer plenty of
opportunities for us to misunderstand each others' values. While this is
certainly true of a number of cultural meetings here (Russians/Moroccans,
Ultra-orthodox/non-Orthodox), I would like to focus in particular on the
Arab-Jewish meeting, as the third in the series of dimensions of Arab-Jewish
relations being discussed in the Galilee Diary.
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 doesnt seem to make it any easier to
formulate an ideal solution now that we are the majority.