Dr. Neal Sherman, director of the United States – Israeli Educational Foundation, gave me a different view on the relative lack of comparative religious education (or cross-cultural education more broadly) in the Israeli schools. It is not that we are opposed to teaching about other cultures, he suggested – we are more focused and, indeed, worried about our children retaining their Israeli identity and appreciating the aspects of the Zionist project that make it special. Dr. Neal Sherman put it this way: “One reason I came to Israel is because I was inspired by the ideas of the kibbutz and the moshav. I’m not sure that my kids even understand the idea of a moshav.” This rings true for me in what I’ve read.
Dr. Sherman noted that whether or not cross-cultural topics were being taught in the schools, there seemed to his eye to be more visible overlap between the Arab and Jewish communities, at least in the North. “It used to be rare to see Arabs in Ra’anana, and now it is common to see middle class Arab families at the mall.” His colleague Judy Stavsky said the same was true of Herzliya. Dr. Sherman suggested that the Arab Israeli leadership was nervous about anything that showed that Arabs could build a good life inside a state that defined itself as Jewish, but that this might be happening more and more. He gave the example of the leadership objecting to the idea of voluntary national service for Arab Israelis, despite the fact that this could be economically beneficial and culturally integrative for the Arabs. He noted that the leadership kept coming back to the idea that these integrative moves might undermine Arab identity.
I did not think of it at the time, but I now note one interesting tension in Dr. Sherman’s thoughts. He articulated very clearly the desire of Jewish Israelis to maintain their identity. He seemed to suggest, however, that Palestinians with Israeli citizenship should give priority to a happy integrated private life in Israel over their Palestinian and Arab identities. I wonder how he would respond to this seeming contradiction?