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The Time Has Come to Teach Israeli Children the Value of Democracy, State Civil Rights Leaders

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
January - February 2008

Recent studies show that only 54 percent of Israelis believe in freedom of religion and 1 out of 2 doesn’t believe that Jewish and Arab Israelis should enjoy equal rights. The real threat to Israel’s future as a free and democratic society, argue Don Spivak, chairman of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and deputy director of Tel Aviv University’s clinical law program, and Melanie Takefman, the civil rights group’s international communication and development coordinator, may be internal rather than external.  
Writing in The Forward (Dec. 14, 2007), they declare: “For all the talk about Israel facing an existential threat, be it from Iran or from Gaza, perhaps the biggest danger to the country is emanating from a place far closer to home. Israelis’ commitment to democratic values is on the decline. They are losing faith in rights, diversity and equality, according to a survey by the Israel Democracy Institute. Only 54 percent of Israelis believe in freedom of religion, according to the report, and just 50 percent believe that Jewish and Arab Israelis should enjoy equal rights. Needless to say, American Jews can appreciate why Israel must retain its democratic values to ensure a strong, tolerant and diverse society.”  
Given what the authors call “these startling figures,” they argue that, “It is critical that we act now to reverse this trend, a true existential threat. Instilling an appreciation for human rights and democratic values through education is the most effective way to combat the erosion of these values and to ensure a stronger, more tolerant society.”  
Israel, Spivak and Takefman point out, “is a multicultural society, composed of a diverse range of population groups, based on nationality, religion and ethnicity. The diversity enriches our lives as Israelis, our culture and the mosaic of ideas put forth in the public discourse. At the same time, these differences create social cleavage.”  
Israel’s Arab citizens, the authors report, suffer from unequal treatment. While Arabs represent about 20 percent of the population, more than half of Israel’s poor are Arab citizens. The ratio of general hospital beds per person is lowest in the south at 1.5, as opposed to 2.66 in Tel Aviv and 2.7 in Haifa, according to the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies.  
Spivak and Takefman write that, “As disparities grow, Israeli society has become increasingly segmented and polarized ... Blatant prejudice and hatred are manifest in a variety of ways, from cries of ‘Death to the Arabs’ in soccer stadiums to building separation fences between Jewish and Arab communities to racist draft legislation brought to the Knesset. According to the Israel Democracy Institute’s survey, 55 percent of Israeli Jews believe the government should encourage Arab emigration and 78 percent are opposed to Arab political parties joining the government.”  
While the Knesset in 2000 endorsed a core curriculum for all schools in Israel which emphasizes the need for education on civic participation, the authors note that, “unfortunately, to date little headway has been made ont he core curriculum, despite a Supreme Court ruling in 2004 ordering the Education Ministry and ultra-Orthodox schools to implement the program. Moreover, if schools are expected to transmit the values of human rights and democracy, resources must be allocated for suitable teacher training.”  
Addressing Jews in the United States and elsewhere in the world, the authors conclude: “Though important advances have been made to extend the reach of human rights education to all sectors of Israeli society, neither human rights nor education are on the top of the government’s agenda. The American Jewish community, and all of Diaspora Jewry, should keep this in mind in their support for Israel. Without an educated and tolerant population, Israel will only weaken from within, regardless of any political settlement.”

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