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In Israel, diversity may be the key to the future

1/23/2014, 3:46 p.m.
Jonathan P. Hicks

JERUSALEM—There are few people here who seem to express much in the way of hope that the troubles in this region will come to an end anytime soon. In a week of speaking with government officials and ordinary citizens in Israel, there were few if any who expressed optimism that a settlement of the Palestinian issue is anywhere on the horizon, let alone the long-term troubles with neighboring countries.

They point out that years of talks and behind-the-scenes maneuverings have produced nothing firm. Israel, they add, remains surrounded by neighbors where the relationships range from representing a cold peace to outright hostility. As one senior official in the Israeli Foreign Ministry told me, “The only thing that gives me optimism is the fact that everyone is so pessimistic.” Indeed, pessimism is pervasive when it comes to the issue of long-term peace in this region.

To add to the mix, there are nagging issues internally here. There are regular protests in the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem by East African immigrants who have left their countries under intense hardship—many with tales of horrifying journeys—just to reach a place they viewed as offering a democratic and far better opportunity to attain their dreams.

There are thousands of immigrants seeking to be classified as refugees, which would give them a more permanent status and some benefits in Israel. That has been a difficult and painstaking course. The government says that requests to be classified as a refugee must be reviewed on an individual basis in conjunction with officials from the United Nations—not a speedy undertaking to say the least.

Yet, there are a number of observances during my week here that give me cause for optimism. While the challenges to people of different backgrounds getting along are overwhelming, there are some signs of hope, many of them quite significant.

If anything is clear about Israel in this stage of its history, it is that it is an intensely diverse society, and with that diversity comes distinct causes for celebration that largely outweigh the troubles. That diversity is easy to spot. In Tel Aviv, there is a huge Ethiopian population, as well as immigrants from Eritrea, Sudan and South Sudan who live amid not just Jewish citizens, but Arab Israelis and others. They live among one another; they eat together in the comfortable cafes of Tel Aviv and elsewhere in the county.

The diversity can be found in a school in south Tel Aviv, the Bialik-Rogozin Campus, which educates nearly 1,000 children. The students come from 51 countries, ranging from Nigeria, the Congo and Liberia to Turkey and the Philippines, going to school along with Israeli Arab students. They learn together, sing together, study together and celebrate their diversity.

The diversity can be found in the music of Idan Raichel, the brilliant Israeli singer, songwriter and keyboardist who brings together the sounds of his native Israel with influences—and musicians—from East Africa and the Arab world to produce a rich tapestry of sound and diversity with his renowned Idan Raichel Project. It’s telling that he and his group of diverse musicians are among the most popular entertainers in Israel.

That diversity can be found in the streets of the old city of Jerusalem, where Muslim, Christian and Jewish residents live side by side, addressing each other in the customary greeting of the culture of the other. Yet, I felt a level of hope that if a longstanding peace accord is not reached anytime soon, it might yet be achieved by the next generation, the young people of today who have learned that there are far more circumstances that unite the people of this region than divide them.