Brave New Multicultural World : Interview with Prof. Yossi Yonah / Vered Levy-Barzilai

A surprising declaration of intentions opens the conversation with Prof. Yossi Yonah: "My main apprehension," he admits, "is that your questions will drag me over and over into the old text of the wretched and the oppressed 'They screwed us,' 'They battered us,' 'They did that to us' but I have not been in that place of victimization for a long time."

Does one of the founders of the Sephardi Democratic Rainbow an advocacy group promoting rights of Sephardim and of Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern descent intend to give an interview devoid of firebrand speeches against the kibbutzim, against capitalism, against discrimination, against the plunder of public land and against the suppression of the Mizrahim? "You will be amazed," Yonah replies, "but things change. My friends and I have moved on from there. There is no longer 'the state,' with us against it. As always, we are fighting for distributive justice and equality. But in the new story, we are also the state."
This is a productive period for Yonah. He teaches philosophy in the department of education at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, is a research fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, and is a central activist in the Sephardi Rainbow. At the age of 52, something has apparently come to fruition in him all at once, and it is firing off sparks in all directions. His first book, "In Virtue of Difference: The Multicultural Project in Israel" (Van Leer Institute and Kibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House, in Hebrew), has just appeared. Another book, "What is Multiculturalism," which he co-wrote with Prof. Yehouda Shenhav, will also soon be published (by Bavel). And he is already now completing a third book, together with his friend Dr. Yossi Dahan, on "the decline of public education in Israel."
"In Virtue of Difference" deals with the natural right of differences to exist between people, between groups. It lays bare the connections between intellectual property and material property, analyzes and deconstructs Israeli society into structures and mechanisms, and demonstrates how Israel is continuing to create and update its national collectivity, while simultaneously preserving its national ethnic, class and gender hierarchies.
For years, Yonah has desired to see a different country here. Now he has also produced a detailed and precise blueprint for its form and image.
'Tour' of the land

Prof. Yossi Yonah, acceding to the challenge placed before him, takes us on a brief "tour" of the old-new State of Israel as he envisions it. "We are starting in Tel Aviv, inRabin Square. Walking along the street. Around us is a cacophony of several languages: Hebrew, Arabic, English, Russian. Children learn Arabic and Hebrew from first grade, it is compulsory. The state is bilingual and on the way to being multilingual. Here and there we hear also Romanian, Thai, Chinese and other languages. The migrants, the 'foreigners,' are no longer foreign. They have been naturalized and no longer fear deportation. The new state treats them with dignity and upholds their rights. On the benches in the square we see Arab couples sitting with their children and Jewish couples with their children. They are neighbors, here in Tel Aviv. The children go to school together. We see a group of Arab and Jewish teenagers and new immigrants from Russia riding together on their bikes. Where should we go now?"
To the Habimah Theater.
Yonah: "Excellent. There is a long line of people waiting to buy tickets for the play by the Egyptian playwright Ali Salem. In the second hall there is a production of a play by [Thomas Beckett]. In another hall you can see a play by [Israeli playwright Shmuel] Hasafri. The Philharmonic is performing at the Mann Auditorium next door. Next week there will be a concert by an incredible singer, who sings in the style of the great Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum.
"On the way we passed by a television screen in a shop window. The old channels still exist Channels 1, 2 and 10. But there is a new channel, which broadcasts exclusively in Arabic. Since Israeli Palestinians already have cultural autonomy, and are no longer spoken of as a 'demographic threat,' they no longer feel any permanent need to struggle for something."
Now we are going south, to the Negev.
"The Negev has been transformed. The fake towns and the slums in which thousands of Bedouin lived have disappeared. One hardly sees families scattered in tent camps. What we see is new settlements, stylized, handsome, aesthetic and comfortable, which suit the Bedouin way of life and reflect its style. Every such settlement offers employment possibilities and also provide education at a high level.
"Some of the Bedouin decided that they wanted to move to the mixed city of Be'er Sheva and they received special assistance to make the move and facilitate their acclimatization. Here and there one still sees Bedouin who live the way they used to in Israel: in tent camps, scattered, without any change. That is their choice. They did not want to take advantage of any of the new options. The state allows them to do this. All this, by the way, happened in every area of the country where there were populations of Israeli Palestinians."
Meaning in Galilee and along Wadi Ara, for example?
"Certainly. There we see a new Arab city which was established on one the hills near the Jewish communities of Katzir and Mei Ami. Residents of the area who wished to, came to live here. And they received everything the Jewish settlements that were founded in the time of Ariel Sharon received: the status of living in an area of so-called national priority, mortgages, special benefits, grants to purchase lots, subsidies of various kinds. Those who did not want to move to an urban environment chose one of the Arab 'community settlements,' which were established here on the Katzir model: detached homes, gardens, local schools a new Israeli Palestinian community settlement. Many residents of the area have moved there.
"Those who did not want to move, did not. They remained in Umm al-Fahm or in the other villages. They are no longer discriminated against by the Israeli government. Conditions in them have been equalized with those of the Jewish communities and so their situation has changed radically."
Back to the Negev maybe we will visit Dimona?
"Dimona has undergone a tremendous revolution. It received an injection of resources that gave it a total face-lift. The signs of distress and unemployment have disappeared. The schools are blossoming. Communities of Ethiopians and Hebrew Israelites, as they call themselves, are managing their affairs as they always wanted to, and enjoy a fine standard of living. The sources of employment in the region were developed and expanded. Dimona is a bustling city that attracts new people."
How did this miracle happen?
"Ah the government of Israel made a decision to amend a historic wrong: to connect several local councils in different parts of the country and create large districts that share one treasury. Dimona and the Bedouin of the region were hooked up with what was once the Tamar Regional Council, forming one large administrative district, in which all the residents now benefit from the property taxes paid by the Nuclear Research Center, by the Dead Sea Works and by the factories of Mishor Rotem. The same developments occurred in Ofakim, Yeroham, Sderot and the other 'development towns' as they used to be called, years ago."
Annulling the Law of Return

All that remains is to clarify one small matter: How is all this to be done? "I will start with the sphere that is most important to me education," Yonah says. "I want to introduce economic equality of opportunity: Every boy and girl in Israel will be able to develop his or her abilities, independent of their parents' economic situation. My proposal is that all the tracks in the education system integrate basic elements of multicultural democracy: a study of the values of democracy, emphasis on the value of tolerance and mutual respect for the various cultures, and the introduction of multiculturalism within the tracks, integrating the cultural heritage of all the groups that form the society in Israel even at the price of bringing about a substantive change in the dominant national narrative."
You mentioned a revolutionary change regarding immigration. What will it consist of?
"Well, besides the naturalization of the migrant workers, it will include the annulment of the Law of Return; the cancellation of the arrangement of automatic naturalization for Jewish immigrants; and provision of a worthy solution for the Palestinian refugee problem, based on the Geneva Convention."
Annulment of the Law of Return?
"Yes. A just immigration policy, which will give _expression both to the interests of the various groups that make up Israeli society and to those of potential migrant workers." In other words, changing the Jewish character of the state?
"No. It will still be a state with a majority of Jews. But it will be a more moral, democratic and fair state. I also want citizenship for Jews who come here to be conditional on a waiting period, on knowledge of the language and on the adoption of the rules of democratic culture."
How will the Jewish majority be preserved after all, you are calling for a solution of the refugee problem based on the Geneva formulation?
"That formulation offers five complementary solutions. In addition to payment of compensation for their becoming refugees and for loss of property, the formulation stipulates that the great majority of Palestinian refugees will be settled in the state of Palestine. Some will become citizens of the Arab countries in which they now reside, some will be absorbed in Western states, some will be absorbed in the areas that Israel will transfer to Palestine as part of a territorial exchange, and a minuscule number estimated at between 30,000 and 50,000 refugees will be settled in Israel proper."
Isn't that a problematic precedent?
"Only at the symbolic level. You have to understand that many Palestinians from the territories are already today realizing the 'right of return' to Israel while right-wing governments turn a blind eye. I don't see that the country's leaders are losing any sleep over this."
Do you believe that any of these dreams will come to pass in our lifetime?
"I hope so. I want to believe. I am not predicting the future. I am well aware of the gloomy situation. To my sorrow, I very much live the situation that exists. But I deal with the situation that is desirable with what we should aspire to."
Happy childhood

The dreamer was born 52 years ago in a ma'abara (immigrant transit camp) in Kiryat Ata, in the old Israel, to parents of Iraqi origin. His father, Shlomo (originally Salman), who was born in Aleppo and moved with his parents to Iraq with his parents shortly after his birth, worked in construction. His mother, Zippora (originally Sabraya), born in the city of Ramadi in the Sunni triangle, raised him and his five brothers and sisters and worked in a food factory.
The years in the transit camp left an impression, though not necessarily the one people expect. "They were years of a free, happy childhood outside, in the open spaces." It was only later Yonah developed an awareness of class discrimination. His childhood home, he says, was warm, supportive and filled with love. Everything was in short supply. But he did not feel oppressed or different in any sense. "Everyone around was Mizrahi, everyone was poor, everyone lived in wooden shacks. I saw nothing unusual about that."
The first breach of consciousness occurred when he entered high school. Despite the clear proclivity for the humanities that he displayed, and his unusual attraction to books, Yonah, together with his male friends, was assigned to a vocational high school. No one thought there was any point in sending this boy to a regular high school inKiryat Haim, a Haifa suburb. He was supposed to come out of the vocational school with a profession: mechanic metalworker. His parents, simple and uneducated folk, took no stand against the system. For them, too, it was only natural; for his father it was important that he have a profession.
The halcyon childhood days were behind him. In his first year in high school he tried to buck the system and prove he was unsuitable for his program. "I was the worst and least talented student that ever attended that school." But his efforts to extricate himself failed. Advisers of various sorts found that Yonah was not suited to a regular high school. His parents treated the experts' conclusions as definitive. What worried them was the danger that he would drop out altogether. "Everyone knew the hierarchy. Above is a regular high school offering a faint chance of getting into university. Below was a vocational school offering a chance of a profession and an honorable living. Below that was work as a laborer, with a chance of sliding into crime."
Yonah stuck it out until the end of 11th grade and then left. "I was frustrated and depressed. High school was an ongoing nightmare." In the army he served in a tank crew. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War he fought at the Suez Canal. By this time he had already formulated a coherent opinion about the situation in the country, especially about the social gaps. In his words, "I already had political consciousness of the suppression." He also knew what he wanted to do in life. He devoured a "vast number" of books novels, philosophy, everything he could get his hands on. "That was my 'escapism.'"
After his service Yonah completed the requirements for a matriculation certificate and was admitted to the University of Haifa ("conditionally") for combined studies of philosophy, history and art. On campus he was increasingly exposed to information about ethnic and national discrimination, was captivated by the socialist left and joined the left-wing Sheli party. The Mizrahi kid from the transit camp entered a new and exciting intellectual world as an equal among equals.
Yonah says he was never angry at his parents. He understands their way of thinking, the regretful limitations, which prevented them from seeing his situation through the eyes of the boy that he was.
After obtaining a B.A. he was admitted ("without a scholarship, of course") to M.A. studies that continued with a doctoral degree program at the University ofPennsylvania. His expanded family paid the tuition, after conducting a family fundraising drive. He was sent off at the airport with a classic farewell: "Dir balak [an Arabic phrase also used in Hebrew: "You'd better watch it"] if you screw up after everything we invested in you" a message that haunted him and spurred him day and night. Returning in 1987 with a Ph.D., he was given a part-time position ("as usual, I didn't have connections") as a lecturer in the department of philosophy and in the school of education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Justice and equality

Ten years ago, Yonah met Avishay Braverman, the president of Ben-Gurion University (BGU) of the Negev. Braverman offered him a respectable full-time post, and ever since Yonah has taught political philosophy and philosophy of education at BGU. "My true academic flowering rook place there," he says.
At BGU humanities and social sciences are fused into one faculty, which has suited Yonah perfectly. He is a popular lecturer who is well-regarded by the student body.
In 1995 another significant event occurred: He and a group of friends founded the Sephardi Rainbow, on whose banner is inscribed "national, ethnic and gender distributive justice and equality." Now also inscribed on Yonah's personal banner is the idea of a multicultural state.
What has changed? Has your basic social approach changed?
"It has been renewed. Most of the time then, I focused on the demand for justice and the righting of the wrongs that were done to the Mizrahim in Israel. I held a distinctly sector-based outlook. Today I am talking about solutions that are relevant and applicable for many more minority groups."
You said you were no longer in a "place of victimization." How does one leave that place?
"I relate to multicultural politics as a type of therapy. When I enter it, I am committed to apprehend the social reciprocal relations that generate political, economic, gender and other suppression. I start to see everything in a broader context, as part of the human situation. For the process to work, I have to delve not only into my own psyche, but also into that of the other side the suppressor. To understand the vulnerability of the suppressor is not enough; you also have to connect with the suppressor's vulnerability. There lies the answer to the question of why he behaves as he does."
In other words, the ability is needed to understand and feel compassion for your enemy, your suppressor?
"Yes. And also the ability to distance it a little from myself and observe it, from a universal theoretical perspective. That is the source of great personal empowerment."
Maybe what you describe is an escape from the place where pain and humiliation are burned into you, to a protected world of philosophical theories?
"Maybe. I propose a solution to reciprocal relations, which are characterized by cultural and economic suppression, and I do not make do with a discussion aboutMizrahim and Ashkenazim. I expand it to encompass Jews-Arabs, men-women, veterans-immigrants, citizens-migrant workers. And yes, in doing so I remove myself from the context of the 'battered Mizrahi' who seeks healing for his personal pain and for the wrong done to his group. I demand justice and equality for all. I demand that things be righted for the others, who were also wronged. There is a tremendous conceptual shift here."
What is it?
"It is the transition from the position of victim to a position of influence. The transition from a place where a person cries out 'They screwed me' to a situation in which he understands that it is within his power to bring about change. I take upon myself general responsibility for what is happening in this place. That is, I am the landlord, not a subtenant. I demand justice, but am also the one to whom the demand for justice is made. This is effectively a democratic, moral and political approach, which says that I am an integral part of the sovereign and we bear overall responsibility to make Israel more just and egalitarian in relation to all citizens and all national, cultural, ethnic and gender groups that constitute it."
Can other groups also adopt a similar approach?
"Of course. Everything depends on the moral and political orientation they adopt. Do they demand justice only for themselves or … [also] for others? Do they bear responsibility for all citizens or only for their own sectors? Are they sector- or universal-oriented?"
So you are in effect dissociating yourself from the history of your own pain and
"I feel the pain of the previous generations, which suffered discrimination and humiliation, and the pain of the child that I was, but I do not want the coming generations to be raised with feelings of being discriminated against and humiliated."
You want to send the message that the sky's the limit?
"Yes. At least in their first years. Afterward, in their adolescence, I want to expose them to the facts as they are, to develop in them the insights and the awareness and the drive for social reformation."
Then what do you recommend to Mizrahim or Arabs today? Give your child the message that 'you are wonderful, you can do anything' and from the age of 13 start injecting an awareness of discrimination and oppression?
"That is a difficult problem. There is a moral educational obligation to expose the child to all the cultural, historical and political aspects of his life, his parents' life and his ancestors' life. But without burning their soul indelibly. I am not sure how to do that."

Common day of mourning

In your multicultural state, does the siren sound on Memorial Day and on Holocaust Day?
"I can't answer that at the level of sirens. I would propose that the mourning days be united into one day, in which appropriate _expression would also be given to the Arabs; mourning, for example for their Naqba day" referring to the "calamity" that befell them in 1948.
Is Israel's Independence Day celebrated in the new state?
"It is, but the celebrations assume a civil rather than nationalist character."
What about the state's Jewish character?
"In its basic definitions, _expression is given to the fact that the majority that makes up the state is Jewish. But there will be no arrangements, according to which the Jewish character will be exclusive … no general ban on public transportation or on opening businesses on the Sabbath only in specified religious [areas]. There will be no coercion of citizens under the aegis of the law on Yom Kippur. The day will have a private character and what each citizen does will be a matter of choice."
Who is the cultural autonomy in the multicultural state intended for?
"In Israel it is relevant above all to the Palestinian national minority. Within the framework of the conception I am proposing, they will be given autonomy not geographic but cultural, which includes recognition of their collective rights in the spheres of religion, education, communications, regional development and industrial development. In addition, they will be granted representative rights on bodies relating in various areas, such as the Knesset, mixed local governments. etc. Recognition of representative rights is needed, because a democracy that operates according to the approach of 'the majority rules' is merely a tyranny of the majority in the case of multicultural or multinational societies. It discriminates against minorities saliently and systematically, and harms their basic interests."
So only the Arabs have the right to cultural autonomy?
"No. But they undoubtedly constitute a clear case in which a moral obligation exists to grant cultural autonomy. Autonomy of this kind, though less comprehensive, is relevant also to other groups in Israel, such as the Haredim, who already enjoy autonomy in the sphere of education and culture."
What about the internal ethnic divisions within the Mizrahi public? Does multiculturalism leave space also for Moroccan, Iraqi and Yemenite cultures?
"The interpretation I am proposing for multiculturalism lacks any sympathy for the call of societal groups to restore the 'glories of old.' I refer both to religious groups that invent ancient traditions and to nonreligious groups eager to reshape Israel's culture according to the model that guided the country in the 1950s the 'good and beautifulIsrael that once existed.' Accordingly, the intention is not to reconstruct the 'authentic' Iraqi or Moroccan or Turkish culture. I am talking about an open Mizrahi identity, complex and dynamic, which is being created here, and is based on the similar and common life experience of the various Mizrahi groups. This is a cultural identity that aspires both to assimilate the culture of other groups into it and to assimilate it into them, provided this is done on a basis of equality, and mutual respect and regard."
How does the multiculturalism you are proposing cope with traditions that do not respect the values of freedom of the individual and equality between the sexes?
"I definitely do not advocate a multiculturalism of moral relativism. I am aware of the terrible wrongs that governments do in the name of democracy and in the name of the values that you refer to, and I am outraged by their cynicism and abuse of those values. But I am not eager to forgo those values. At bottom and I ask the forgiveness of some of my friends I am an incorrigible modernist. Therefore, I am talking about multicultural democracy. This means that I am committed to those basic values. Accordingly, the multiculturalism I believe in does not show tolerance toward gross violations of these values."
”I was a Zionist”
MK Azmi Bishara wants to make Israel a state of all its citizens. Why do you insist on talking about the Jewish character of the state?
"I understand what Bishara is saying, but that really is utopia. The desires of the two nations are known, and the option that each of them will forgo its national identity and be assimilated into some sort of all-inclusive entity or single identity is untenable, even in the kind of virtual tour that we made. I still maintain a little realism: There is a known and understandable human need for communal national identity. Israel is the state in which the Jewish people will be the majority. But that majority will not accord it the legitimacy to suppress cultures and rights of other groups and peoples that will live in it as minorities."
So at bottom Israel will remain the Jewish state, the state of the Jewish people?
"You are pushing me to definitions I do not accept. There is a problem with that definition in connection with the Israeli Palestinians. What is the state saying to the million Arab citizens today? 'You are here as a minority within the state of the Jewish people. You will never be able to assimilate within us. On the other hand, you will not be recognized as a distinct national minority.' What then? 'You will make do with limited, reduced civil rights which, for the most part, also exist only on paper.' If we are talking about a new Israel, one that conducts itself morally toward the Palestinians in the territories and toward the Palestinians in its midst, it would be easier for me to accept those definitions."
How do you define yourself today? Are you still a Zionist?
"I admit that I do not connect with that word, Zionism. It does not express whom I am. In my youth I was a Zionist."
But not today?
"I did not put it like that."
Why is it so hard for you to say you are not a Zionist? Does the idea frighten you?
"Yes. I am afraid of the internal reverberation of that response within me. I am afraid of the reverberation of a statement like that in my expanded family and in my close milieu altogether. I am connected umbilically to this place. I am very angry at this place. But strongly connected."

First published in “Ha’aretz”, 14.10.2005