The Surprising Freedom of Israel
By Tatiana Tessler
Israel is a surprisingly safe country. Citizens can walk in the street without fear, even late, and nothing will happen with them. Other countries around the world, unfortunately, have many problems with personal security. Kidnapping, rape, and murder by criminals and gangs are common concerns.
In Israel, this is not the case. Israelis worry about terrorism but not about random crime from other members of their community. It is incredible to see how much personal freedom Israelis of all ages and genders have. One example of this is that one can see little boys or girls taking the bus alone without any worry. In Brazil this is not possible to do, it would not be safe for the children.
From a distance, many people assume that because Israel is a Jewish State, the country would be a very religious and serious place where there is little freedom for people who are not Jewish. In fact, the opposite is true. Israel is a Jewish State but, being in the country, you don’t feel that the religion is something oppressive. The predominant religion in Israel is Judaism as the population is 75% of Jews. The freedom for Jews to practice their religion is very important as, for Jews living in many other countries, being publically Jewish is dangerous due to antisemitism.
This is particularly true when a country has a predominant religion (such as Catholicism), to which Jews do not adhere, making them stand out as being different and, as such, open to attacks. It is terrible to have to hide the symbols of one's religious identity due to fear of persecution. Having experienced so many different types of persecution has led Israel to very deliberately create an environment where all members of society, no matter what their religion is, are accorded religious freedom. This is a little known and very special reality.
The State of Israel is secular but marriage is seen as something religious, so Jews are married according to Jewish law while people of other religions are married according to their religious laws. The State does recognize civil unions in some ways and in others, there are still challenges that need to be solved. This is part of the vibrant debate within the State of Israel on how to best retain the balance of being both Jewish and democratic.
Freedom of education is as an interesting issue in Israel. On one hand, the State makes it possible for different communities to educate their children as they see fit There actually different school systems for secular, religious and Arab schools. The division is not meant to keep people apart only to enable each community to raise their children in the way they see best. The universities are mixed with Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Druse and other students all studying together.
One type of school particularly surprised me. They are called bi-lingual schools where Jewish and Arab children study together and each classroom has a Hebrew speaking and Arabic speaking teacher. At first, it’s hard to understand how they can study together without fighting - but that is exactly the point. The main idea of the schools is to raise children, side by side, so they learn about each other so that living together in peace becomes natural. Learning together reduces Jew hate on the part of Arabs and reduces Jewish fear of Arabs.
From abroad it might seem like all Jews live in one place and Arabs live in another place. It’s surprising to discover that while there are Arab villages and Jewish communities that are not integrated, there are also places where Jews and Arabs live side by side, including in one of Israel’s largest cities, Haifa. Living together or not is a matter of choice, not “apartheid” as many believe.
Jewish and Arab life in Israel is not separate. People shop at the same stores, work in the same companies, go to the same hospitals where Arab doctors treat Jewish patients and vice versa.
Israel is a beautiful and surprising country, mostly because people make assumptions about the state that are just not true. There is nothing like coming and seeing for yourself just how special and free the Jewish State is!