To call Israeli society a ‘caste system’ is to bear false witness

To call Israeli society a ‘caste system’ is to bear false witness

The World Council of Churches (WCC) is ignoring the freedom, security and prosperity enjoyed by Israel’s minorities — on display in Israel’s diverse cities

Illustrative. Arab Israeli arrive at polling station in Haifa during Israel's parliamentary election, on September 17, 2019. (Ahmad GHARABLI/ AFP)
Illustrative. Arab Israeli arrive at polling station in Haifa during Israel's parliamentary election, on September 17, 2019. (Ahmad GHARABLI/ AFP)


Bearing False Witness?

The World Council of Churches frequently criticizes the State of Israel. While some of its criticisms may be based on facts, others are tendentious and have no basis in fact. One example of the latter is the recent outrageous claim made by Rifat Kassis, whom the WCC identifies as “a former WCC/EAPPI Programme Coordinator.” It was part of a WCC “Webinar on Middle East racism: ‘Never lose hope,’” posted on the WCC website. Kassis alleged,

If you want to talk about Israel and Palestine discrimination you need to go to 1948. Since its establishment, Israel classifies its citizens according to ethnicity or religion. Today there is a de-facto caste system.

Kassis’ statement clearly refers to Israel proper — note the references to “1948” and “citizens” — and not to the territories that Israel captured in 1967, whose residents are not Israeli citizens, and over which there is legitimate debate by Israelis and non-Israelis alike. The statement, however, casts hateful aspersions on the legitimacy of the Jewish state per se, not its policies in the post-1967 territories. The allegation that Israel has “a caste system” is a demonstrably false bit of propaganda, one easily refuted by the facts and anyone who has walked the streets of Jerusalem, Haifa, Jaffa, Beersheba or any of the other diverse and pluralistic cities in Israel.

Government classification by religion and ethnicity is the norm throughout the Middle East, and is also the policy of the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. Of course, Saudi Arabia does not do this, since Saudi Arabia does not grant citizenship to non-Muslims.

Most importantly, Israel’s government classifications have no effect whatsoever on the rights of Arabs or minorities, which are guaranteed by Israel’s Declaration of Independence and Israel’s Basic Laws. Israel’s Declaration of Independence commits Israel to “complete equality of social and political rights to all its citizens irrespective of religion, race or sex.” Thus, Israeli Arabs are full citizens (unlike Palestinians in Jordan or Lebanon, where they cannot be citizens), and are integrated with Jews throughout Israeli universities, medical institutions, national insurance programs, athletic centers, workforce, national museums, the Supreme Court, and Israel’s parliament, where Arabs are full members and represent their voters — just like Jews.

Like every democratic country with a diverse population, there is some de facto discrimination towards Arabs in Israel, which Israel must seriously address. But to claim that Israel has a “caste system” is a wild exaggeration and a blatantly untrue calumny against the most robust democracy in the Middle East. It is evident that the WCC did not bother to check the facts before weighing in on Israeli-Arab relations, or reproducing unfounded statements by advocates for one side, or not-so-subtly implying Israel is a racist country.

It is odd that WCC has made Israel a target. Israel is the only country in the entire Middle East where the Christian population is steadily growing (two percent per year), rather than emigrating in large numbers to flee oppression, as Christians are doing from Gaza, Bethlehem, Egypt, Iraq and Syria. When Israel was established in 1948, it had fewer than 40,000 Christian citizens; today, there are 177,000. Seventy-one percent of Israeli Christian high school students achieve college-entry matriculation grades, higher than the figure for Jewish students. Most Arab households have only one wage earner, and the average Arab household income is similar to Jewish single wage earner households in Israel.

After the recent announcement of the “Deal of the Century,” some Arab Israeli towns in the Galilee thought they might become part of the proposed Palestinian state under the plan. They loudly protested this idea, because they know that their prosperity and security would diminish were they to not live in Israel.

While imperfect, Israel provides its minorities with the most freedom, security and prosperity of any place in the Middle East. None of these realities could obtain if Israel were “a caste system.”

Kassis’ claim of Israel being a caste system is a canard, born either out of ignorance or out of malice, and the WCC publication of this ugly lie is irresponsible. In publicizing this mendacious statement, the WCC is not building understanding and reconciliation. Quite the contrary: it is bearing false witness.  We call on the WCC to refrain from promulgating misinformation about Israel and Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Those interested in advancing peace for Palestinians and Israelis need to avoid one-sided polemics, which only undermine the possibility of peace. All of us should be honest and strive to understand the realities of both sides. Only then can we be on the side of the peacemakers, rather than people who deepen the conflict.

Dr. Eugene Korn is Vice-Chair of the Israeli Jewish Council for Interreligious Relations (IJCIR), and a member of the executive board of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC).

Rabbi David Sandmel, Ph.D. is Director of Interreligious Engagement, ADL (Anti-Defamation League) and Vice-Chair of IJCIC.

IJCIC member organizations include American Jewish Committee (AJC), Anti-Defamation League (ADL), B’nai B’rith International (BBI), Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), Israeli Jewish Council on Interreligious Relations (IJCIR), Rabbinical Assembly (RA), Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (OU), United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), and World Jewish Congress (WJC). Rabbi Noam Marans, AJC Director of Interreligious and Intergroup Relations, is the current Chair of IJCIC.

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