Inequality in Israel: Propaganda vs. Analysis

Those of us who are concerned for the quality of Israeli democracy are often challenged by statistical findings that, on the surface, appear to present a bleak picture. Along these lines, Rabbi Samuel Weintraub of the synagogue to which I belong, Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn, recently came back from a trip to Israel and sent a communication to his congregation as follows:

[The] Biblical principles of social responsibility and unity … guided the modern
nation of Israel in its early decades.

Sadly, that tradition has been drastically weakened. … In Israel, as in the United
States, the economic fault line also intersects with other social fault lines, in its case
the divides between Ashkenazi and Mizrachi Jews, between Jewish and Palestinian
Arab Israelis, and between residents of the country’s center and its geographic
periphery. For examples, Arab primary and high school students receive one fifth
the governmental budgetary allotment as their Jewish peers.

The Rabbi gives no source for these figures, so the reader has no way of checking on the methodology and indeed the veracity underlying such findings, so skepticism must be advised. And skepticism must increase in view of the simple bi-variate model that we are asked to accept: one single variable — ethnicity — is posited as the cause of the inequality variables.

Students of social inequality have learned to study the phenomenon within a nexus of other variables, among them educational level, age, and cultural factors such as occupational preferences. As it happens, the eminent Israeli social scientist Steven Plaut has undertaken a thorough multi-variate examination of ethnic inequality in Israel, and has been able to demonstrate that the observed income differences between Arabs and Jews vanish when controlled by educational, age, and cultural factors.

Of course, not everyone can be a social scientist. But is it too much to ask that those who publish ostensible social data consult the work of experts before venturing to express an opinion ?

UPDATE, January 2017

We now have a brilliant article by Professor Cary Nelson, full of fact and documentation, which in effect refutes the false statements by Rabbi Weintraub.

UPDATE, January 23 2017

On Jan. 21 I sent the following letter to Lisa Smith, President of the Kane Street Synagogue:

Dear Lisa,

One year ago the Synagogue published an article, signed by the Rabbi, that contains unsubstantiated allegations against Israel.  For example the article claims that  “Arab primary and high school students receive one fifth the governmental budgetary allotment as their Jewish peers.”  In the year since this publication I have approached the Rabbi about half a dozen times, asking him on each occasion to supply sources for his allegation.  He has never responded to these requests.  After my last approach to him, about two weeks ago, his only reply was “happy New Year.”

I am now asking that the Board publish the evidential sources, if such exist,  for the assertions made in the posting.  Absent such documentation, I am asking that the Board withdraw the posting.  We know that in the law of defamation a publisher is liable for the defamatory statements of an individual writer.  Surely KSS as a teaching  institution — especially as it teaches the young —  will not want to publish statements that are egregiously false.

I am writing, first and foremost, as a long-time, concerned member of KSS.  However, I am also a professional sociologist, with experience in the reporting and analysis of social data. I think that this circumstance should have been an added reason for the Rabbi to at least respond to my concerns.  (You will find a list of my professional writings here.)  Nonetheless, over a period of a full year, I have not been able to elicit a reply from the Rabbi to my repeated question:  how do you know what you say you know.

I understand and endorse the idea that the Rabbi, as mara d’atra, is entitled to our respect and deference on matters of Jewish law and religion.  But this obviously cannot extend to such other matters as  the sociological analysis of social data.  I also understand and support the proposition that  a Rabbi is entitled to freedom of expression on matters that are not narrowly religious.   But like all such freedoms, this one cannot be absolute.  Surely, especially when speaking officially as spiritual leader and teacher, and teacher of the young, freedom of the pulpit cannot overrule the requirements of veracity.  As the old saying has it, we are all entitled to our own opinions but we are not entitled to our own facts.

Coming now to the substance of the Rabbi’s charges of an alleged anti-Arab discrimination in the educational system of Israel, such charges have been made at much greater length by proponents of the BDS movement, especially, lately, within the Modern Language Association.  Replying to such charges, Professor Carie Nelson has recently written as follows (the whole article may be seen here):

The confusion about education in Israel [among BDS proponents] is compounded by the authors’ [of the BDS proposal] flawed account of rigidly separate elementary and secondary systems for Arab and Jewish students. In fact, no one forces an Arab Israeli to attend an Arab-speaking school. Local demographics determine which schools are nearby. In cities with large mixed populations there are public schools with both Arab and Jewish students. A number of schools are bilingual, among them the six run by Hand in Hand. If an Arab Israeli lives in a predominantly Hebrew-speaking neighbourhood, he or she would go to a Hebrew-speaking school unless the parents choose otherwise. That said, there are underfunded Arab Israeli schools that require more resources. Indeed the Israeli Ministry of Justice has ruled against any such unequal funding practices. Israeli universities have done their part by instituting Arab Israeli student recruitment and retention programmes, not an obvious boycott-worthy offense. But it would be a mistake to assume every Arab school is inferior. The high school that won first place in a 2015 competition was an Arab high school from the Galilee area in the north. In terms of raw numbers, Ministry of Education data shows that the number of Arab students attending kindergarten increased 33 per cent from 2004-5 to 2016, and the number attending high school increased by 59 per cent in the same time period.

As soon as I became aware of Professor Nelson’s article, I sent the link to Rabbi Weintraub, asking for his reaction and reconsideration of his own charges in view of this new material.  Rabbi Weintraub has not responded to this any more than he has responded to my earlier requests for proof of his allegations.

Lisa, I will be 91 in a few weeks, im yirtse haShem, and, as you can imagine, it gives me no pleasure to be in discord with my Rabbi and my Congregation.  But I do feel an obligation to speak out, and I know you will respect that.  Again:  I ask that the Board either publish the grounds for the Rabbi’s allegations if any there be,  or, if none can be found, to withdraw these allegations.

All the best

Werner Cohn

UPDATE Jan. 27, 2017

Rabbi Weintraub has now informed me that he no longer has the notes that he took when he learned about the alleged inequality of financing education in Israel, and that, therefore, he will delete this particular sentence.  I replied that I appreciate his response.