Exceptionalism and Acceptance for Arab Israelis

By Savyonne Steindler

I recently received a forwarded email from my oldest brother in response to Israel Apartheid week, which is a movement that aims “to educate people about the nature of Israel as an apartheid system and to build Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns as part of a growing global BDS movement.”1 In opposition to this claim, the email listed the names and pictures of Israeli Arabs who are prominent in Israeli politics and popular culture—such as Salim Joubran, Walid Badir, Majalli Wahabi, and Mira Awad—in order to imply that Israel offers equality to all ethnic groups. I do not wish to take issue with the truth of this argument—I have not researched the topic enough to convincingly agree or disagree that Israel is an apartheid state. What I do want to dissect is the validity of the method the email used to make its point, namely the emphasis on the acceptance of individuals of a marginalized group in order to prove the acceptance of the whole group.

At the time I received the email I was learning about Moses Mendelssohn in Professor Bruce Thompson’s class on Jewish intellectual history. Although Mendelssohn was a devout Jew, he was well integrated into Gentile society in Berlin.2 He dressed like his non-Jewish neighbors, spoke German, had Christian friends, and made significant intellectual contributions to German kultur. Mendelssohn was hailed as the “German Socrates,” not the “Jewish Socrates.” He was among the first Jews, perhaps the very first, to be accepted as a German (specifically a Prussian) without having to renounce or hide his Judaism.

If we used the logic employed by the email I received, the success of Jews like Mendelssohn would indicate that Jews were assimilated in German culture, were not discriminated against, and had the opportunities to excel. Although the aforementioned is what Mendelssohn truly desired and strove to achieve, it does not describe the state of the Jews in the German states during Mendelssohn’s lifetime.

Mendelssohn was exceptional. His status and reputation were in such conflict with those of the generally impoverished and culturally isolated Jews of Berlin that another German intellectual, Johann Kaspar Lavater, thought Mendelssohn was destined to be a Christian and dedicated himself to the realization of this objective. In the minds of many of his contemporaries Mendelssohn was an “‘un-Jewish’ Jew”; his positive qualities set him apart from the Jews rather than reflecting positively on the group. Mendelssohn contributed to the eventual uplift and integration of German Jewry, but during his lifetime he was an exception to the majority of Jews. If we used his life as a representation of German Jewry in the 18th century we would miss the reality of the situation. We would not see that most German Jews could not speak German, were barred from the universities and many professions, and were sometimes isolated in ghettos and subject to discriminatory taxes and expulsion from the city if they could not attain “protected” status. Although Mendelssohn was at home in Berlin, his coreligionists were not.

Like Mendelssohn, the Arab Israelis referenced in the email are integrated into Israeli institutions and culture. We can see their assimilation to an extent just by looking at their pictures. Many of the men are wearing expensive suits and the women are in sleeveless dresses. They hold the same kind of jobs as Jewish Israelis, whether in government or in sports or the music industry, and from the kinds of clothes they are wearing they seem to be making similar incomes. The women, at least, are secularized like most Jewish Israelis, not abiding by traditional conceptions of modesty. These Arab Israelis, however, do not look like many of the Arab Israelis I have seen when visiting my brother who has made aliyah. In the city of Akko one can usually tell who is a Jew and who is a Muslim from clothing, speech, and the neighborhood in which one lives, while the Arab Israelis listed in the email are almost indistinguishable from Jewish Israelis. The examples of successful Arab Israelis show us that integration happens in Israel, but they do not prove that this is true, or even a possibility, for most Arabs in Israel. Just because Mendelssohn was able to find acceptance in Christian circles in Berlin does not mean that his Jewish contemporaries were able to as well.

Another argument that can be extracted from the comparison is that in both cases, it appears that acceptance can only come through assimilation. When Mendelssohn first came to Berlin he was not immediately taken into high society. He had to change himself: he learned to speak fluent German, became educated in enlightenment philosophy, and transformed both his appearance and values to be in accordance with German norms. This parallels the process in the United States in which hyphenated Americans became just “Americans” by losing their accents and native languages and attaining middle class status (unless, of course, they have darker skin in which case they get to grapple with hyphenated identities for centuries). The fact that minorities who are accepted in the national community seem to have lost most of their physical markers of difference begs the question of whether their acceptance is genuine if it requires them to conform to a singular image of the ideal citizen.

Israel is facing a problem that many nation-states are struggling with: how to incorporate historically underrepresented and disenfranchised groups into the body of the state. It has been successful in integrating individuals like those listed in the email, but that does not mean that equality has been achieved. Rather than taking these people as representative of the success that is available to most Arab Israelis, we should ask ourselves to what extent are these people exceptions and, if we find that they are in fact exceptions, what end is being served by citing them as proof of Israel’s equality? Perhaps in their eagerness to defend Israel from accusations of apartheid, some Zionists, like my brother, will use exceptional individuals to convey an almost utopian version of Israeli society that does not resonate with lived experiences. Exceptionalism should not be conflated with acceptance. Whether or not there is equality in Israel should be determined by the status of the masses, not of a few highly-visible and successful individuals.


2 Elon, Amos. The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch 1743-1933. New York: Picador, 2002.

Published on page 16 of the Spring 2011 issue of Leviathan.


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