You know the situation is bad when a country’s president weighs in with a heartfelt message of concern and call to action. The condition of Jewish-Arab relations in Israel, always challenging and often tested, is not good. For Arabs and Jews who have invested years in building a society that is welcoming to all Israelis, the fallout from the summer Hamas-Israel war has been particularly alarming.
President Reuven Rivlin has gone public, hoping to heal the rift before it widens further.
“The Arab population is not a marginal group in Israeli society,” Rivlin declared on a recent visit to the Israeli Arab town of Kafr Kasim. Arab citizens, today some 20 percent of Israel’s population, are “part and parcel of this land, a distinct population, with a national identity and culture, which always will be a fundamental component of Israeli society.”
Rivlin’s voice of reason seems to be resonating.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blasted Ashkelon Mayor Itamar Shimoni’s November 19 decree banning Israeli Arab employees from kindergartens.
“There is no place for discrimination against Arab Israelis,” Netanyahu said.
The Gaza war revealed fissures in Israeli society. It was an “escalation like we have never seen before” in Arab-Jewish tensions, said Ron Gerlitz, co-director of Sikkuy, a leading Israeli Jewish-Arab group committed to greater civic equality.
The confrontational tenor of the public discourse, amplified by social media, is disturbing and threatening. There were street protests as in previous wars, but this time there were Facebook and Twitter, and some posts led to harassment of Arab citizens at their places of work and in public spaces like shopping malls.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman’s call for boycotting Arab businesses that went on strike to oppose the war “was not denounced by the government or public. Instead, it was adopted by many,” Labor MK Nadia Hilou said during the war, as reported by i24news.
One cabinet member who did speak up was Science and Technology Minister Yaakov Peri.
“Israeli Arabs are an integral part of the citizens of the State of Israel,” Perry declared after meeting with representatives of Jewish-Arab NGOs during the war. “Racism is a strategic threat to the democratic character of the State of Israel.”
Fourteen years ago the deaths of 13 Arab citizens in clashes with Israeli police brought the majority-minority relationship to a nadir. Because “the memories of 2000” were strong, street violence did not erupt during this summer’s war, said Professor Elie Rekhess, one of Israel’s top experts on Israeli Arabs, currently at Northwestern University. Arab mayors moved quickly to contain or deter protests in their communities, he added.
On the other hand, Rekhess points out, one group of Arab leaders “exploiting the situation to the utmost is Arab MKs, who contribute to the deterioration of Jewish- Arab relations and play into the hands of those in Israeli society on the Jewish side against Arab citizens.”
Balad MK Haneen Zoabi as well as leaders of Israel’s Islamic Movement are stoking the unrest with outspoken, incendiary challenges to Israeli policies. Some right-wing Jewish lawmakers are pushing bills in the Knesset, such as downgrading the status of Arabic as an official language, aimed at marginalizing Arab citizens. Though representing minority views, extremes in each community feed off each other, contributing to heightened public tensions.
The situation is a tinderbox, and any incident can trigger outrage and violence. While the Justice Ministry has launched an investigation into the tragic killing by police of a young Israeli Arab in Kafr Kana on November 8, that incident sparked protests and some violence in a number of Arab communities across Israel, leading security officials to caution Jews against visiting those towns and villages.
There was a lot of soul-searching after the tragic events of 2000, and today many in both communities are dedicated to improving Jewish - Arab relations. One of the most significant actions taken by the government was the creation, in 2008, of the Authority for Economic Development of the Minorities in the Prime Ministers’ Office.
The Authority has developed and implemented projects to boost employment of Arab citizens, improve transportation in Arab communities, and build new housing. Israel’s Council for Higher Education is coordinating a parallel effort to improve the rates of Arab graduation from Israeli colleges and universities.
“The Israeli Arab population has suffered for years from discrimination in budget allocation, education, infrastructure, and industrial and trade areas,” Rivlin said. “This is another obstacle on the road to building trust between us, a barrier which we must overcome.”
Concern for Jewish-Arab relations is not new for Rivlin, a former Likud Knesset member. He visited the large Arab town of Umm el-Fahm in central Israel shortly after his 2009 election as Knesset speaker. More recently, he condemned “price tag” attacks, calling them terrorism, and paid visits to Abu Ghosh after one such hateful incident and the Hand in Hand school in Jerusalem where Arabs and Jews learn together.
“Establishing partnership between us is an existential need,” said Rivlin. How Jewish-Arab relations among Israeli citizens evolve “will have a decisive impact upon our future, the Israeli economy and also I believe, the chances of reaching a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.”
Israel’s president can exert moral authority to encourage Israelis, as well as Israel’s supporters in the US and around the world, to focus on issues demanding urgent attention.
President Rivlin has issued a clarion call to step back from the abyss and recommit to creating a constructive and productive society that benefits the entire country. As Rivlin reminds us, Arabs and Jews in Israel “were destined to live side by side, together, with a shared fate.”The author is the American Jewish Committee’s Director of Media Relations.