A Dose of Nuance: Israel’s Arabs are not America’s blacks

"What African- Americans demanded in the civil rights years was a share of the promise of America. What Israel’s Arabs seek is for Israel to be fundamentally different."

By
October 15, 2015 13:59
Terror Israel

Palestinian gunmen in Shuafat carry weapons during a funeral march for a Palestinian terrorist, shot dead by police after stabbing two Israelis in Jerusalem’s Old City. (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)

It is far too early to know how and when this new round of violence is going to end. At this writing, Jerusalem is still reeling from four attacks in one day.

What is around the bend, no one can say. Yet it is not too early to begin to imagine the “morning after.” When this current storm is behind us, Israel is likely to be a very different country – and the biggest change may be in the relationship between Israel’s Jews and Israel’s Arabs.

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Many of the American Jewish philanthropists I know have long thought of Israel’s Arab population in much the same way that they think about African-Americans in the United States. The interventions that they have long believed in for the latter, they insist, are not that different from interventions that ought to be tried in Israel. From major Jewish federations to large and professionally run private Jewish foundations, they see our challenge as a shade of the challenge with which America has long wrestled – sometimes more effectively and sometimes less.

To a certain extent, they are not wrong. Should more money be invested in infrastructure for Arab towns and villages in Israel? Absolutely. Is money invested in training Arab women to enter the workforce likely to make for better lives for all of us? Yes. Is giving both exceptionally talented Arab teenagers as well as Arab youth at risk a better shot at a decent life both the right thing to do and good for Israel? It would be hard to argue against that.

But the events of the past few weeks – and particularly, the participation of Israeli Arabs and east Jerusalem Arabs (who are not full Israeli citizens but have some of the benefits of citizenship) in attacks on innocent Jews – serve as a stark reminder that the analogy between Israel’s Muslim Arab population and the African-American population in the United States goes only so far. For what these two minorities seek vis-à-vis the majority could not be more starkly different.

At the risk of oversimplifying, what blacks were demanding in the years of the Civil Rights Movement (and what they rightly continue to demand) was their share of the pie. It wasn’t that they did not like what America stood for; it was that they wanted their fair portion of what it was America had to offer.

They wanted to be able to vote, freely and without interference. They wanted the education that whites were getting (think Brown vs Board of Education).

They wanted equal pay for equal work.

America was fundamentally about freedom and promise, and that was what they wanted.

Under the nonviolent leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, they protested. Violence did ensue. But the violence was by and large directed at them by whites who wanted no change in the status quo. When president Lyndon B. Johnson sent federal troops to Alabama in May 1965 (president John F. Kennedy’s legacy on this score was much less admirable), it was to protect blacks in Selma who wanted to march.

It was the minority who needed the protection, and the privileged, racist majority who both threatened and used violence.

That is not the case in Israel. While there has, sadly and shamefully, been some violence by Jews directed at Israel’s Arabs, the preponderance of attacks have been carried out against Jews, not by them. The overwhelming majority of victims, and all the dead, have been Jews, not members of Israel’s Arab minority.

On Tuesday, Israel’s Arab sector staged a general strike, showing its solidarity not with their fellow Jewish citizens but with the Palestinian movement, incited by Mahmoud Abbas, using the kerfuffle around al-Aksa Mosque as a pretext for staging a general confrontation with Israel.

Not enough American Jewish philanthropists have read the position papers by Adalah, one of the leading civil rights organizations of the Arab sector in Israel. Much of what Adalah does is admirable. But Adalah is also opposed, as a matter of principle, to Israel being a “Jewish and democratic” state. It seeks a democratic state that is by definition not a Jewish one.

It’s hard to blame Adalah. But that’s no reason for us to deny that for the vast majority of Jews, if Israel is not a Jewish state, there is really very little point in sustaining it.

What African-Americans demanded in the civil rights years was a share of the promise of America. What Israel’s Arabs seek (perhaps understandably from their perspective) is for Israel to be fundamentally different, for it to be something radically different from what Zionism’s very purpose is. It is not only that in the US Civil Rights Movement violence was directed at African- Americans, while this week we’ve seen precisely the opposite. It is that the goals of the two movements are almost diametrically opposed.

For a long time, American Jews in particular have avoided confronting the radically different perspectives of these two civil rights movements. From 2008 to 2014, for example, the New Israel Fund alone allocated to Adalah almost $2 million. Does that make sense from a civil rights perspective? Perhaps. Does it make sense if one seeks to preserve Israel’s Jewish core? No.

All of us who live in Israel have a significant vested interest in Israeli Arabs feeling part of the fabric of Israeli society.

It’s both the just and the smart goal to pursue. No matter how this latest round of violence plays out, however, it is almost inevitable that significant damage will have been done to that hope. By joining the violence and staging a protest in solidarity with Palestinians attacking Israelis, Israel’s Arab leadership has put itself on the wrong side of the divide. We are all going to pay a long-term price for that. But the biggest losers, once again, are likely to be Israel’s Arabs themselves. 

The writer is senior vice president, Koret Distinguished Fellow and chairman of the core curriculum at Jerusalem’s Shalem College, Israel’s first liberal arts college. His latest book is Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul. He is now writing a concise history of the State of Israel.


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