A word on your Arab citizens

The prime minister’s mention of Israeli Arabs in Congress last month was a step in the right direction but mere mention, without addressing any of the challenges they face, certainly wasn’t enough.

June 1, 2011 23:20

MOHAMMAD DARAWSHE 58. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Dear Prime Minister, I would like to congratulate you on your decision to mention the Arab citizens of Israel in your speech to the US Congress last month. Clearly, one of the most significant indicators of the quality of a democracy is the status of its minorities. Like you, I too believe it is important to look at Israeli society and ask: Does the Arab minority in Israel enjoy equal rights?

I do not wish to entirely discount your positive description. It is true that Arab citizens enjoy freedom of expression, and benefit from a growing economy and a civil court system. Moreover, the Israeli government has adopted several constructive resolutions intended to improve the socio-economic situation of Israel’s Arab citizens. In the field of education, experimental programs to teach Arabic and Arab culture have been introduced, and have been adopted and expanded by the Ministry of Education. Such actions can promote the integration of Israel’s Arab citizens in wider Israeli society.

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But Mr. Netanyahu, this is not enough. In your speech you repeatedly compared the Arab minority in Israel with that of Arabs living in non-democratic countries.

Obviously, I cannot accept such a comparison. We are an indigenous minority who live in a democratic country, and as such demand our rights according to the standards of democratic states. Since you spoke of the liberties, peace, and prosperity of the US, I would like to point to several differences between Israel and America in terms of minority rights.

The Rabbi of Safed (and member of the Chief Rabbinate), Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, triggered a wave of violence against Arab students in that city. He stated that Arab students have declared a “silent war [to conquer] the sacred city.”

He proceeded to instruct people to refrain from renting or selling apartments to Arabs. Needless to say, the rabbi is a civil servant; his salary comes from state funds.

In contrast, reporter Helen Thomas was forced to retire from her position as White House Press Corps dean following her racist comments about Jews. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs condemned her, and President Barack Obama stated that her comments were inappropriate and that her resignation was “the right decision.”

I also support her resignation, and in the same breath expect you to take similar action against racists and provocateurs who, unfortunately, feature frequently in the Israeli public sphere.

AT THE same time, the current Knesset has passed laws designed to discriminate against Israel’s Arab citizens.

One example is the Admissions Committee Law. One of its proponents was MK David Rotem, Chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, who explained that the purpose of the law is to prevent Arabs from living in communal towns. I have no doubt, Mr.

Netanyahu, that admission committees exclude minorities, especially when the law is applied in the Galilee and Negev. In contrast, in the US, laws that exclude certain groups, either expressly or implicitly, have been amended to promote the integration of marginalized populations.

In many US states, the right to vote was granted only to citizens who paid their taxes or successfully pass a grammar test. This law was amended in 1965, causing an increase in the voting rates of minorities. Before the amendment, there were only five African-American members of Congress; Today there are 44, and many fill executive positions in the administration.

Mr. prime minister, the Nakba Law passed in the current Knesset is designed to erase our history and strip the Israeli-Palestinian minority’s narrative of its legitimacy.

The law constitutes a violation of the right to freedom of thought and conscience.

I find it difficult to believe that your government would impose economic sanctions on organizations that “dare” to speak of our pain, even in the context of the establishment of the State of Israel. I trust that sanity will prevail, but that the law has been passed is sufficient for us to feel as if we are being silenced, and our cultural and national identity is being suppressed.

Please compare this law to the apology extended by the US, and signed by President Barack Obama, to the Native American people, for the violence, cruelty and neglect committed against them by US citizens.

Mr. Netanyahu, is Israel able to be equally honest in discussing displaced Arab citizens, or Land Day and land expropriated for the purpose of placing new Jewish residents in certain areas? Or the matter of the military administration? The discrimination in resource allocations by the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of National Infrastructure, and other matters? Does your government have the courage? Even while you were in Washington, touting the character of Israel’s democracy, Yisrael Beiteinu was promoting yet another law designed to discriminate against Israel’s Arab citizens. This bill, known as the Affirmative Action Law (or Civil Service Bill), determines that priority be given to candidates who served in the IDF when hiring for civil-service positions. You must know that the Arab public already suffers from a very low representation in the civil service, and that the Knesset passed a law in 2006 requiring that the proportion of Arabs be brought up to 10 percent. Once again we are “Present Absentees.”

In the US, on the other hand, president Kennedy issued an Executive Order in 1961 requiring government contractors to guarantee fair representation of minorities. I believe that such affirmative action is necessary under the circumstances.

Mr. prime minister, Arab citizens wish to become an integral part of Israeli society and play an essential role in it. I am confident that together, we have the potential to develop a strong democratic society that is prosperous and thriving. We Arab citizens have an obligation to play a role in its development, and Mr.

Netanyahu, you have an obligation to create a space that will make this possible; a space that will require daring leadership to block anti-democratic legislation, promote fair and equal laws, devote the necessary resources to enhance social cohesion and replace the current discord with dialogue.

Mr. prime minister, accept the proud Arab citizen and his identity as your partner for the future, instead of embracing only the submissive Arab. Recognize us as your legitimate ally, and not as aliens. It is our country, too.

The writer is co-executive director of The Abraham Fund Initiatives, a non-profit organization that works to promote equality of Jews and Arabs in Israel.

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