The Israeli-Arab Balad party is pushing a bill that would enshrine the country’s Arabs as an official minority with autonomous national rights in fields such as culture and education. They seek to have the bill included in Israel’s Basic Laws, which serve as a quasi-constitution.
The head of the Balad party, MK Jamal Zahalka, told The Jerusalem Post that the proposed legislation is based on international law regarding minority rights, and that its purpose is for the State of Israel to recognize Arab citizens as a national minority and fulfill its obligations to them.
This is “in order to protect their existence and preserve their cultural and civic rights, which would guarantee their equality. This also means that Israel must accept our connection to the Palestinians in the territories and the Arab nation at large.”
The Basic Law proposal would guarantee the participation of minority representatives in government decisions that affect the minority.
For example, said Zahalka, according to this law, it would not be possible to advance a law like the Prawer- Begin plan to regulate Beduin settlement in the Negev because the law did not involve the effective participation of the Beduin in the decision-making process.
The law would guarantee that the minority would always be connected to decisions made by the majority that affect them.
“We demand cultural autonomy so that we can decide what we learn in our schools,” he said. “This means that the history taught in Arab schools would include the famous Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and the Nakba [the Arabic term meaning “catastrophe” that Arabs use to refer to the War of Independence], which are currently not mentioned in schoolbooks.
“Arab students don’t know about their history and why they are here,” he explained.
Asked by the Post if he saw any chance that this would pass, Zahalka responded, “There is no chance it will pass in this Knesset because the majority [of the Knesset] is right-wing and extremist.”
Zahalka said one of the purposes of his proposal was to generate a debate on the subject.
He asserted that in a previous Knesset during a discussion by the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on a possible constitution for the state, former Likud MK Michael Eitan “had proposed to me that if we agree to an article that Israel is a Jewish and democratic state, then he would guarantee our civic and collective rights.”
“I refused this deal. I could not accept a Jewish state,” said the Balad MK.
“If the first article in the constitution states that it is a Jewish state, it means that all our rights would be held hostage to this principle.”
Asked if he has support from other MKs for cultural and national autonomy, he said that some Likud members were ready to discuss it. He mentioned that a couple of Arab MKs opposed parts of his bill as they thought it would incite a strong reaction from the Jewish community.
Zahalka said that he also wants to guarantee that the Arabic language will remain an official language and become a Basic Law.
“I want cultural autonomy like religious Jews have in Israel, even less than that,” he said.
Further, he said, his bill would also call for Arab representation in all state institutions.