An Israeli-Arab MK and an expert on the Arab minority in Israel dueled over the community’s success at integrating in the country, at the 13th Ambassadors’ Forum at Bar-Ilan University on Thursday.
MK Esawi Frej (Meretz) told the room full of diplomats that Israel should be “a state for all its citizens” and that the fact that “we are part of the Palestinian nation” is compatible with playing “an active part in the Israeli state.”
It can be just like in any European country, he said, where a minority is integrated into the state.
“Nowadays, with [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s right-wing government, he continues saying to the Arab minority: ‘You are not part of the country, you only live here. If you want to be Israeli, you must be Zionist and a Jew.’” Frej complained that “everything is Jewish in the state, the anthem” and so on. “I can never be Zionist and Jewish, but my state should take care of me like other citizen of the country,” he exclaimed.
“Racist discrimination is prevalent in every area of life,” he said, claiming that it led to inaction of the police against crime in the Arab sector and high unemployment rates.
Frej also criticized the government move to outlaw the northern branch of the Islamic Movement. He argued that its leader Raed Salah is not “inciting any more than Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, who says she wants to see the Israeli flag flying over al-Aksa Mosque.”
The Ambassadors’ Forum is an opportunity for foreign dignitaries to engage with Bar-Ilan University’s experts on contemporary issues. The forum, moderated Prof. Gerald Steinberg, was titled “Israeli Arab Citizens: Democratic Dilemmas and Complexities.”
Steinberg, who is the head of the Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor, compared minorities in other conflict situations involving democracies, such as Northern Ireland and Spain, concluding that majority-minority relations in Israel are not fundamentally different.
Prof. Hillel Frisch of the university’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and an expert on Israeli Arab citizens, said that despite all of the complaints by the Arab community, it has “opted to work within the system rather than without it.”
Frisch asserted that a participatory Arab minority is good for everyone and, responding to Frej’s criticism of the government, noted that Netanyahu, whom he described as very rational, has met with the Joint List, which holds views that would be considered extreme compared to those voiced by Frej.
The central issue, noted Frisch, is the division between national membership and being part of the state. Various solutions have been discussed such as some kind of binational or federal state, but the biggest problem with these is that they “deny the Jews their only state and the ability for it to have its own Jewish symbols.”
Hence, such solutions that call for a kind of bi-national state “come at the expense of the Jewish majority,” he said.
“That is a price that most Jews in Israel are not willing to take.”
And regarding a federal solution, he said that there is not enough land for it to work.
Frisch also countered Frej’s assertion that Israeli Arabs are poor, noting that they have “extraordinary mobility compared to other countries.”
Arab society was basically illiterate in the 1950s while today the situation is much improved, he continued.
After the conference, Frisch emphasized his point, telling The Jerusalem Post
that Frej himself, the son of a laborer, became an accountant after studying at the Hebrew University, and is a brilliant example of Arab mobility in the country.
“His personal life reflects a degree of social mobility few European states could match,” said Frisch.
One of the main obstacles to increasing Arab family income, argued Frisch, is cultural attitudes, not government policy.
Whereas around 56 percent of Jewish women in Israel work, only 18% of Israeli Arab women do so. He noted that this is even lower than Arabs in the West Bank or Jordan.
“I think there is a lot of hope,” said Frisch regarding Arab integration, adding that they are increasingly visible in the media and sports.
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