Two weeks ago, I wrote about my reasons for moving to Israel. I wanted “to help in building a nation that would be a reflection of the best of the Jewish value heritage – a country based on the prophetic vision of equality, social justice, decency and humanity.” I fully expected that the Zionist enterprise would be inclusive, pluralistic, humanistic and universal.
In retrospect, almost 40 years after my aliya, I view my life here through a different lens. Perhaps I should have been more realistic, accepting David Ben-Gurion’s vision that we should seek “normalcy” and be like any other nation, which meant there would be “Jewish police and Jewish criminals.” For certain, that is true.
But, what I did not expect was institutional criminality. I am not referring to those Knesset members serving time in jail or a president and prime minister being accused respectively of rape and embezzlement. I am speaking of the type of institutional criminality that bears the mark of discrimination, separation, prejudice and bigotry. Given my idealized picture of Israel prior to my aliya, writing this sequel is not easy. No one likes his dream (read Zionist dream) shattered, especially when it undermines the very core of a Jewish state that should be based on the social prophecy of the sages of old.
So, this column will address one particular broken promise, which for me is the ethical yardstick by which the ideal character of a Jewish state must be measured, and that is the treatment of Israel’s Arab population. In his book, Altneuland
, Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, wrote that “the Jewish people, upon reclamation of its ancient homeland, must extend civil, human, social and political rights to the people already in the land.” This is not to deny the many positive elements of life here for Israeli Arabs. The majority Jewish population, looking upon the Arab community, is surely tempted to give itself a pat on the back in many areas of integration. Just walk into any hospital and a large number of the medical staff is Arab; at the University of Haifa, Arabs comprise 30 percent of the student population, 10% more than the proportion of Arabs in the country, and all have an equal vote in local and national elections.
NEVERTHELESS, OUR overall relationship to the Arab minority, despite the above notable exceptions, has been one of disdain, unequal treatment, humiliation and out-and-out discrimination. Sadly, this conduct extends to other minorities in the country – Ethiopians and foreign workers – but none like it does to Arab citizens. Herzl’s hope for the full integration of Arabs was echoed in the diaries of Israel’s first president Chaim Weizmann: “I am certain that the world will judge the Jewish state by what it will do with its Arab population, just as the Jewish people will be judged by what it does or fails to do in this state.”
These two Zionist leaders were only expressing what was mandated of the Jewish people as they went from Egyptian slavery to freedom: to create a society that would be a rejection of the abuse of power executed against them by the pharaohs. The antecedent to Herzl’s and Weizmann’s writings is the biblical decree: “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens” (Leviticus 19:33-34).
A few weeks ago, President Shimon Peres led a busload of Israeli Jewish businessmen on a trip to the North to interest them in investing in the Arab sector, helping to build factories and hi-tech companies that will bring financial relief to their economically deprived communities.
Who knows what motivated this venture? Perhaps Minority Affairs Minister Avishay Braverman pushed for such an initiative. Interviewed in The Jerusalem Post
(January 15), he said: “It is vital to provide Arab Israelis with full equality and partnership, not only because it says so in the Declaration of Independence, and not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it is the smart thing to do.”
How long did it take Braverman to figure out the obvious? Did he suddenly realize that the Arab sector does not receive an equal distribution of the nation’s economic pie, therefore suffering from inferior educational, social, medical and municipal services? What does he expect when some members of his government are the political counterparts of France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen and Austria’s late Jorg Haider, such as unabashed chauvinists Avigdor Lieberman, Uzi Landau and Yitzhak Aharonovitch, along with Eli Yishai and his xenophobic gang of Shas medievalists?
Despite Braverman’s sympathetic sentiments, his coalition rejected a bill that would enforce equal distribution of land between Jews and Arabs. Reinforcing this “principle” of inequality, Mitzpe Aviv, a rural settlement in the Misgav Administrative District, approved a charter requiring “any prospective member to declare that he believes in the values of Zionism, Jewish tradition and Israel as a democratic and Jewish state.” Two other communities in the region have adopted similar edicts, Manof and Yuvalim, with others certain to follow. These acts are an expression of the loyalty oath that Braverman’s coalition partner, Israel Beiteinu, wants to introduce.
Such a charter violates a High Court ruling that prohibits selection committees from rejecting applicants on religious or ethnic grounds. It also circumvents the Supreme Court’s decision that allows Israeli Arabs to purchase and build on state-owned lands by preventing them from doing so.
What about the matter of east Jerusalem, which has been formally annexed to the state? It should logically follow that the residents there are citizens. Alas, these Palestinians are allowed to vote in municipal elections, but not national ones. Further, they cannot secure building permits, while Braverman’s government approves yet another Jewish neighborhood in their midst – in Shuafat. And Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat, openly defies a court order to evacuate those Jews illegally occupying Arab homes in Sheikh Jarrah with nary a word of protest from Braverman and his coalition cronies.
What do we call such all-encompassing inequality? Are east Jerusalem
Arabs half-citizens? An enlightened Israeli would euphemistically label
such treatment unjust. However, the rest of the world would use the
designation apartheid, even though the analogy is inaccurate and the
use of such nomenclature unfair. So, what should we call it? How about
calling it for what it is: racism. And it matters little whether it is
politically or religiously motivated.
Such condemnable behavior toward the Arab population is not only
morally corrupt, but practically insane, as it will surely invite an
internal intifada of our own making.
Until the Jewish state lives up to the urgings of Herzl and Weizmann,
let alone fulfills the Levitical directive of how we should behave
toward the “stranger” – all of which serve as the lightning rod to
define the nature of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state – the
reality of Israel will overwhelm the ideal of Israel as being a “light
unto the nations.”The writer is a Reform rabbi, author, lecturer and ongoing contributor to the
Jerusalem Post Magazine.