Diversity in Israel: Lessons for the United States

As the United States copes with large immigration flows and increasing diversity in these highly uncertain times, it may want to look to an unusual model country—Israel—for some fresh ideas about taking full advantage of diversity.

In Israel, the majority of the population, or their parents, were born in other countries. Though most Israeli immigrants are Jewish, they are extraordinarily disparate in their origins and cultures. Not all Israelis are immigrants. Roughly one million people, many of whom are Arabs of Muslim faith, come from families who lived in Israel before it was formally declared a state in 1948. Learning to live with, accommodate, and respect the deep divides among them has been a challenge to Israel’s people.

The nation’s experiment in “Jewish pluralism” has been remarkably successful, particularly given the extraordinary challenges facing the nation from outside its borders. Its parallel experiment in Arab-Jewish pluralism has been notably less successful. Nonetheless, Israel has managed to develop, at least among its highly diverse Jewish majority, a thriving, pluralistic democracy and a strong economy. And it has achieved a relatively high standard of living for most of its people—even for Israeli Arabs, if one compares them with their Palestinian, Egyptian, and Jordanian neighbors. Its success should therefore attract interest from other pluralistic societies that also confront challenges to continued social cohesion.

Israel’s Divisions

One set of divisions within Israel is that between segments of the Jewish majority&151;between longer-term residents and more recent arrivals, between secular and religious Jews, between Jews of vastly different cultural and national backgrounds.

Although Israel was founded as a homeland for Jews and although key features of Israeli civil law—marriage, divorce, and burial—are governed by religious norms, most Jewish Israelis are not religious in the sense of regularly observing Jewish rituals. Many of the nation’s one million Russian immigrants are not Jewish at all. At the other extreme, some 10 percent of Israel’s people, the Haredi group, are deeply religious. The ritually observant Haredim wear distinctive clothing, and Haredi men often do not work, instead studying religious texts throughout the week. They are also exempt from military service. Tensions between the Haredi and secular Jews sometimes run high.The Shinui Party, headed for extinction not long ago, picked up an impressive six seats in the Knesset in 1999 elections largely on the basis of its campaign slogan, “Keep the Haredi from taking over the country.”

Another divide in Israel is that between Ashkenazi Jews (those of European and American heritage) and Sephardi Jews (those of Asian-African background). For much of the state’s existence, the wealthier, better educated Ashkenazim have dominated its economic and political institutions through the Labour party. The Ashkenazi hold on the country has been weakening, however, as disaffected Sephardim allied themselves first with the Likud party in 1977 and more recently with the Sephardi-Haredi party, Shas. During the 1950s, the two groups had rough numerical parity. By the 1960s, higher birth rates among Sephardim tilted the balance in their favor. Recent immigration from the former Soviet Union has restored rough equilibrium between the two ethnic groups.

Israel’s second, more pressing challenge regarding diversity is to give Arab citizens sufficient stake in the society that they will not revolt and find common cause with Israel’s external enemies or aggravate tensions, already at hair-trigger level, with the Palestinians. Israel’s Arab minority has lived apart from and in an uneasy truce with Israel’s other citizens. Though Israel has not treated its Arab minority as fairly or as equitably as it might have, even here Israel’s experience may provide a beacon of hope to countries with much less pressing challenges. After all, security issues aside—for Arab citizens have strong and understandable emotional ties with the Arab countries surrounding Israel—Israeli authorities have made at least some attempt to integrate Israeli Arabs into the wider society. Until 1966, Arab citizens lived under military rule in their own separate towns, which they could not leave without special permits. When the military administration was abolished, Arabs began moving out of farming and into jobs in manufacturing and construction, allowing the two peoples to begin to mix in commercial activity, though they remained very much apart in social and cultural affairs. The economic position of the Arab population has improved, but it still falls well short of that of Jewish citizens. Arab political parties have gained influence in the Knesset and are now critical voting blocs in the continuing struggle for power between Likud and Labour.

Immigrant Absorption Programs

Unlike immigrants to other developed countries, who must apply separately for citizenship, immigrants to Israel automatically become citizens. Israel thus has every incentive to integrate them socially, culturally, and linguistically. And it does just that. Upon their arrival in Israel, immigrants are offered language training, housing, job search assistance, and, for their first several months, economic support.

From its founding as a state, Israel has also required military service—not just for the young or for men only (though women serve for a shorter time and largely in noncombat positions). The primary goal is national security, but the collateral benefits have been considerable. The military has become the central means of imparting Israeli values and culture, as well as the Hebrew language, to Jewish immigrants who pour into the country. So strong are the ties formed in the Army that those who do not serve or are exempted from serving (in the case of Israeli Arabs, for example) are in most cases effectively locked out of the upper reaches of Israeli business and society.

A recent weakening in the military service requirement has entailed a loss of some social “glue.” Today less than 60 percent of Israeli men are drafted. As more citizens are exempted from service, those who serve bear a growing resentment toward those who do not, especially the Haredi sector.

Lessons for the United States

The surge of immigration to the United States over the past several decades may offer unprecedented challenges to America’s traditional respect for pluralism and tolerance. Although the September terrorist attacks have generated a strong wave of national unity and patriotism, neither the public nor political leaders should take such cohesion for granted indefinitely. If one lesson stands out from Israeli immigration policy, it is this: nations that are serious about wanting more immigrants but nonetheless worried about their socioeconomic ability to absorb them can minimize potential tensions though comprehensive immigrant absorption programs.

The U.S. government may hesitate to adopt such policies to avoid the charge that it is unfairly favoring new arrivals over natives with low living standards. Nevertheless, as the United States takes in more immigrants—which it will continue to do notwithstanding the events of September—it may want to consider moving toward more comprehensive absorption policies.

At a minimum, government could give more effort to ensuring that immigrants learn English. Language instruction, funded by Washington, could be delivered directly by state and local governments or indirectly by private groups through vouchers. Learning English should not be viewed as punishment, but instead as acquiring an essential tool for functioning in a new society. For a nation receiving immigrants from all over the globe, teaching all students in English would appear to be critical to assuring that as they become adults, all citizens have a minimum of shared experience and knowledge to continue functioning in a cohesive, but pluralistic, society. And because being able to speak and write in English is essential for all but low-skilled jobs, English training would help improve the living standards of many low-income immigrants.

Immigrants seeking citizenship should know more than just their new home country’s language. They must understand its social mores, its history, its government. Nations now generally require applicants for citizenship to pass a rudimentary test of such knowledge, but here too, more instruction could be offered. If nations want their new arrivals to become better integrated with their societies, they must give them a core of knowledge to do that. In the United States immigrants are left to acquire such information on their own. There is little government support for teaching it, except for the children of illegal immigrants, who are entitled to attend primary and secondary school, but not to attend college here without a student or work visa.

Just as with language instruction, the government could provide the rough equivalent of high school civics courses, either directly or indirectly, to all immigrants who seek citizenship. Special night programs could be offered to immigrants who are busy earning a living each day—as well as to natives already in the work force who also want to upgrade their skills by returning to school.

Compulsory Service

Israel’s experience also illustrates the value of a service requirement for all residents approaching maturity. Other developed countries, such as Switzerland and Germany, also require their male high school graduates to serve for a time in the military. The terrorist attack on September 11 may make mandatory service more politically palatable to Americans than it would otherwise have been.

Compulsory service brings together people from all walks of life during crucial formative years and puts them in a common environment where they have no choice but to get along with each other. It also helps instill a sense of obligation to the larger society.

Compulsory service need not mean military service. It can also take the form of community service (assisting the disadvantaged, serving as teacher’s aides, and the like) in a much expanded version of the AmeriCorps program. U.S. society has already made some movement in this direction. Many high schools now require all students to perform “community service” during their years in high school. A national universal service requirement would be considerably more demanding. It would involve something like a year of service and would take place in a group setting. Those serving in the civilian program would live away from home, in dormitory settings, much like those who now serve in the military. Moreover, unlike many current community service programs in which students from moderate and higher income families deliver services to local residents of the same socioeconomic status, the program should aim to deliver benefits to more disadvantaged populations.

For many people, their year in compulsory service may be the only time in their lives where they mix for an extended time and on an equal footing with others from very different backgrounds. Although nonmilitary service may be less intense than serving in the armed forces, it could help young Americans develop a deeper understanding and appreciation for others at a time in their lives—just after high school (or college or graduate school) graduation—when their adult personalities are forming and their future career choices may be made.

Indeed, the relative lack of diversity in many American public schools strengthens the case for compulsory service. Inner-city public schools in many large metropolitan areas are populated predominantly by African-American and other minority students, while suburban schools enroll students from upper middle-class and, often, white families. Even in colleges where students may come from many different backgrounds, young people do not necessarily rub shoulders with others different from themselves. In any event, the college environment tends to be competitive and to reward individual performance rather than group or cooperative endeavors.

Mandatory service would surely arouse strong opposition. Some would criticize its large potential for make-work, others its curtailment of individual freedom. Organized labor may object that those serving in the program would perform functions now undertaken by paid workers. Furthermore, service would involve public costs—roughly $25 billion annually (some 2.5 million high school graduates a year times $10,000 in annual support costs), according to one estimate. The young men and women in service would also incur costs by delaying for one year their entry either into college or into the labor force, which would reduce (modestly) their lifetime incomes.

Accordingly, a more politically palatable alternative may be a substantial expansion of the AmeriCorps program, as Senator John McCain has proposed. Initially an opponent of AmeriCorps, McCain has since praised its successes and suggested that the nation build on them. His proposal contemplates an expanded program in which volunteers from various socio-economic backgrounds live together in dormitories to build esprit de corps.

Looking Ahead

The demographic changes that lie ahead for the United States will pose a stiff test to the nation’s commitment to pluralism and social cohesion. As we look for ways to meet this challenge, political leaders and voters could profit from learning how other societies have confronted similar challenges. Israel’s experience, perhaps surprisingly, may offer exactly the kind of wisdom we may all be seeking.