Mike Prashker believes Israel, still struggling to integrate its Arab and fervently Orthodox minorities, has a long way to go on its journey to becoming a full democracy.
“Israel has 7.8 million citizens, all of whom are nervous about their fellow citizens but none think they [themselves] are in any way frightening,” he said, speaking to a group of 15 who gathered at the Aidekman Jewish Community Campus in Whippany May 13.
Prashker believes Israelis must get comfortable with diversity or their children “will be consigned to a grim future.”
“Not everyone in Israel is Jewish or even Zionist — but everyone wants to be citizens,” said Prashker, founder and director of Merchavim: The Institute for the Advancement of Shared Citizenship in Israel.
The Israeli NGO promotes diversity and civic identity.
Prashker’s talk was sponsored by the Legow Family Israel Program Center at the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, and its Israel-Arab Study Group.
Westfield resident Phyllis Bernstein, who was instrumental in engaging Prashker for the May 13 event, told NJJN she first heard him in 2008 and that he is the third Israeli speaker the Israel-Arab Study Group has brought to address the topic of shared society.
“His message has to be heard by American Jews in New Jersey,” said Bernstein. “I believe that cohesion is the important challenge for Zionism. Our goal is to educate ourselves on our responsibility to help the minority in Israel and hear about programs doing just that.”
Prashker said his group focuses on Arab Israelis and fervently Orthodox Jews in Israel, two groups facing a choice between integration and isolation. Such choices, he said, recall those faced by African-Americans in the 1960s, when Martin Luther King Jr. represented integration and Malcolm X urged confrontation and separation.
Fully integrating these groups would benefit Israel’s economy, he said.
“These two communities represent 50 percent of Israeli schoolchildren, and they are relatively unproductive,” he said. “Full economic equality will produce at least $10 billion a year for Israel.”
Prashker noted some signs of progress.
“Lots of young Arab students [are] getting good educations in private schools and taking the best places at the Technion,” he said.
He even saw progress of sorts in a recent attack on a LGBT group in Tel Aviv. “You can’t attack a lesbian and gay youth group in Tel Aviv if none exists,” he said wryly.
Prashker said he also believes Diaspora Jews have an important role to play in promoting the full integration of the diverse populations of Israeli society.
“Please take your values seriously and apply them consistently,” he told his audience. “It’s easy to have a liberal world view when you are in the minority. Don’t check them at Newark airport on your way to Israel.
“This is the greatest modern moral challenge to the Jewish people. Tolerance has no import until we have the [political] power to be intolerant. I hope we can learn to be respectful of diversity, because a society that isn’t comfortable with diversity is not a strong society.”