Israel is experiencing a very particular time in its history. After 12 years, Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership is seriously being questioned, opening up the possibility of a government of change. Politics is intersecting with increasingly obvious signs of identity conflicts and challenges to relations between different groups. To get a better understanding we interviewed Gabriele Segre, Director of the Vittorio Dan Segre Foundation, based in Lugano, which aims to examine and promote a culture of coexistence between different identities.

With the upsurge of the Gaza conflict over recent weeks, coexistence both inside and outside Israel seems like an impossible undertaking…

Coexistence seemed impossible before and still is today. What happened was a huge wake-up call. However, those who are watchful of the dynamics of this area, going beyond everyday life, understand there is nothing new. We need to distinguish two levels of conflict: from an identity point of view and from that of coexistence. The first concerns the conflicts with Gaza and the Hamas missiles. It is a well-known topic at an international level and a widely dividing issue between Israelis and Palestinians. The second, on which few have focused their attention, is the most painful and divisive element. I am referring to the violence with and within Arab communities living in Israel, of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship as they define themselves. The level of division and the level of conflict we have seen are nothing new. There is a clear problem of coexistence. Christian and Muslim Arabs do not enjoy the full rights enjoyed by Jewish citizens, and this is a fundamental element to be taken into consideration if we want to understand what is happening.

Could you explain this better please…

Israel was built as an identity state, therefore in terms of rights the Jewish identity is considered predominant, prevailing and having priority. Until we do not understand this and we continue to think that Israel is based on full democratic rights, we will not understand what is happening here. I am not criticizing Israel’s democracy. I am simply presenting a problem which too often remains marginal. It is a conceptual and factual dilemma: is it possible for a State to be a full democracy and at the same time an identity state? The answer is no. Because a fully democratic State is characterized not by equality, but rather by the determination to achieve equality. The ability of democracies is to evolve according to the challenges they are faced with. Inequality and disparity are part of the construct of democracy. However, the difference between societies which work towards achieving a full democracy and other societies, is the fact that the former recognize the social and cultural limits expressed by that democracy and work to overcome them, renewing and innovating the democratic construct itself.

In what way?

If we are convinced that one identity is superior to the others and that it should remain so, which is the case in Israel with the Jewish identity (without wanting to discuss its legitimacy here), we are confronted with a conceptual limit of democracy’s ability to renew itself and evolve: there can never be a complete democracy because the value of identity will always be higher than that of democratic renewal. This may be legitimate however we need to realize this impossibility exists. We must overcome the hypocrisy that a state can be based on identity and at the same time be fully democratic. We need to make a choice which will come at a cost. We must start by being completely aware of the reality of the situation, and the reality is that in Israel different identities do not have equal dignity at a formal and substantial level.

This is true, on paper. Will it be possible for Israel to make this paradigm shift?

As things stand, conditions will not allow it, because the level of mutual trust between identities has been broken and continues to be worn down, also due to recent conflicts. The conditions are lacking in terms of culture, education and values. We are far from giving full recognition and respect to other people’s identities.

These attempts must be carried out on both sides. How can contact be made with the Palestinian side in order to lay the foundations to build a truly sound coexistence?

You say we need to work on both sides. However, this is only one of the levels where coexistence is missing. A culture of coexistence is also lacking within the Israeli community, between Israeli Arabs and Jews. We must avoid simplifying it by discussing only about Israelis and Palestinians because we risk creating a simplistic division of what is a much more complex reality, not just one-dimensional. There are different levels of problems as well as multiple perspectives. We should start by acquiring a profound understanding of identities. The reasons why violence has erupted within the community are not solely due to religious problems or of identity, but also because of social issues for example. And all this creates even greater divisions. What level of understanding should we be working on? Not just one but all of them. We must act on multiple levels, otherwise no intervention will be effective.