Myth #1: Israel is a religious country
Some Christians assume religion figures predominantly in the lives of Israelis, and in some ways this is true: On the Sabbath, buses come to a halt and restaurants and malls shut down. Rabbinical courts govern matters of marriage and divorce, and the Jewish Law of Return includes conversion as one way to become an Israeli citizen. Yet most Israelis are secular.
Middle East expert Thomas Friedman realized just how secular when he was invited to speak to a group of Israeli army officers preparing to study in the United States. The lecture following his own was titled “How to Behave in a Synagogue.”
When he asked why Israelis would need this information, he discovered that many officers had never been in a synagogue before. In America, Jewish life revolves around the synagogue, but in Israel, “the vast majority are non-observant Jews. They don’t need to join a synagogue in order to avoid assimilation,” Friedman explained in his 1989 book From Beirut to Jerusalem.
A large number of Israel’s founders were socialists who eschewed religious identity. Zionism was a return to their historical homeland, not a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. Today, most Israeli Jews (62 percent) keep kosher in their homes, but only 30 percent say religion is very important to them (compared with 68 percent of Muslims and 57 percent of Christians in Israel).
Myth #2: Israelis are the oppressors; Palestinians are the victims
Like most nations, Israel could do more to improve inequities among minorities. But reports that overemphasize gun-wielding Israeli soldiers beating rock-throwing Palestinians miss the mark.
Recent polls show that 77 percent of Israeli Arabs would rather live in Israel than any other country and would not move to a Palestinian state. The reason: Life in Israel is pretty good. Israeli Arabs have a higher life expectancy than their kin in Arab countries, and Arab women have equal rights with men. Israel’s democratic structure means corruption is usually punished and excess force is investigated.
An official church pamphlet of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) describes Zionism as a “struggle for colonial and racist supremacist privilege,” conjuring up images of pre-1994 South Africa where blacks had few rights, couldn’t vote, and were subjected to racial segregation.
The Middle East hasn’t given the Jewish people many friendly neighbors. But in the name of democracy, Israel absorbed its Arab residents (now 20 percent of the population) and gave them citizenship, voting rights, seats in the Knesset, and the right to decline mandatory military service so they don’t have to fight against other Arabs. They attend the same universities and go to the same hospitals.
Crippling poverty and failing infrastructure have made life miserable in Gaza and parts of the West Bank, but the creation of a border wall between Israel and the Palestinian territories has nothing to do with racial segregation. For decades, Palestinian leaders have vowed to wipe Israel off the map, fired rockets from Gaza into Israel, and sent suicide bombers into nightclubs.
In the years following the completion of the border wall’s crucial sections, suicide attacks, which claimed more than 1,000 Israeli lives between 2000 and 2004, decreased by 84 percent. Egypt followed suit and began constructing a 6-mile-long steel barrier on its border with Palestinian-governed Gaza to prevent Islamic militants from infiltrating Egypt.