Has coronavirus improved Jewish-Arab relations?

Arab Affairs: “The Arab citizens are not an enemy from within; we are not a cancer. Rather, we are citizens seeking equality and justice.”

HEADS OF ARAB authorities call for financial support from the government outside the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem, May 2020 (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
HEADS OF ARAB authorities call for financial support from the government outside the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem, May 2020
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Just when Jewish-Arab relations appeared to be going well during the coronavirus pandemic crisis, the fatal shooting of 27-year-old Arab-Israeli Mustafa Younes by security guards outside Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, this week came as an unpleasant and painful reminder of the underlying tensions between the two sides.
Younes, a resident of the town of Ara, was shot dead after stabbing a security officer in the head. The incident triggered protests by his family and several Arab-Israelis, including Arab MKs, who demanded a commission of inquiry into the killing and were again talking about racism and discrimination against the country’s non-Jewish citizens.
This kind of rhetoric had almost disappeared during the coronavirus crisis, particularly as many Jews and Arabs joined forces at hospitals and elsewhere to treat patients diagnosed with the disease and offer assistance to families during the lockdown.
Arab-Israelis say that while they welcome the positive changes the coronavirus has brought, they fear that the “honeymoon” with Jewish citizens will end once the crisis is over.
Scenes of Arab doctors, nurses and volunteers working shoulder to shoulder with their Jewish counterparts during the fight against the virus made everyone forget about the tensions between the two sides, especially during the last election campaigns. The 2018 Nation-State Law, which specifies the nature of the State of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, had angered many Arab-Israelis, who saw it as a slap in the face and a culmination of years of institutional discrimination.
“The coronavirus had a positive impact on relations between Jews and Arabs,” said Ali Mahameed, a high school teacher from the city of Umm al-Fahm.
“During the crisis, we forgot about the incitement by several Israeli leaders, including [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, against the Arabs. Unfortunately, in recent years the Arabs have been facing a massive and unprecedented campaign of delegitimization. But during the crisis, this campaign almost vanished, and even our [Arab] Knesset members lowered the volume and focused their efforts and rhetoric on health issues related to the coronavirus. The new Israeli government must work to further improve relations between Jews and Arabs.”
Indeed, a survey released last week by the Israel Democracy Institute showed that the coronavirus helped improve relations between Jews and Arabs. The majority of the general public (57%) believed that Jewish-Arab relations have improved, the poll found. When broken down by nationality, Arabs recognized even greater improvement than did Jews – 65% versus 57%, respectively. The survey, conducted by the Migdam Institute on behalf of IDI, interviewed 769 men and women aged 18 and older between April 30 and May 3.
Mohammad Darawshe, a political analyst with the Givat Haviva Center, the national education center of the Kibbutz Federation dedicated to promoting mutual respect, civic equality and cooperation between divided groups in Israel, said that the coronavirus was a “mutual enemy” for Jewish and Arab citizens in Israel.
“But this time it was a neutral enemy that allowed both communities to take the same side,” Darawshe explained. “In addition, the high, disproportionate rate of Arab citizens in the medical industry offered them the opportunity to be in the forefront of the mutual battle against the virus. Arab doctors and nurses and cleaning staff at the hospitals were true heroes of the battle, and endangered themselves for the collective good of all Israelis.”
Darawshe pointed out that Arab municipalities worked with the IDF Home Front Command and the police to jointly coordinate efforts to control public behavior to reduce social interactions. “They also jointly identified needy families and distributed food and supplies. This experience will not be forgotten by the public in both communities for some time.”
The respected political analyst warned, nonetheless, that politicians “are already forgetting about this cooperation.”
For example, Darawshe said, when the government started compensating municipalities for their losses during the crisis, Arab municipalities received less than 2% of the funds it dedicated, “despite the fact that they serve 21% of the population, and despite the fact that Arab citizens are 23% of the medical staff combating the virus.”
Earlier this month, the heads of the Arab local councils declared a general strike in protest of the government’s failure to comply with their demands for adequate compensation for the losses they suffered during the coronavirus crisis. The Arab local council heads sent a letter to Netanyahu in which they warned that unemployment among Arab-Israelis has surpassed 40%, as businesses close down one after another.
“We are sick of empty promises and discrimination,” said MK Yousef Jabareen (Joint List). “The Arab local councils, where 1.2 million citizens live, are getting only 2.3% of the financial aid. If that’s not discrimination, what is?”
Jabareen and other Arab MKs believe that the incident at Tel Hashomer was also another example of discrimination against Arab-Israelis. In addition, they said, they see the incident as a “direct result of continued incitement against the Arab citizens and their representatives.”
“What happened at the hospital was tragic,” said Ibrahim Masarweh, a businessman from the town of Kafr Kara. “The man had mental issues; the feeling among many Arab-Israelis is that he was shot just because he was an Arab. There was no need to kill him.
“When you watch the video of the incident, you forget about all the positive things that happened between Arabs and Jews in the past two months. I hope this incident won’t have a negative effect on relations between Jews and Arabs. It’s time to build bridges, not destroy them.
“The Arab citizens are not an enemy from within; we are not a cancer. Rather, we are citizens seeking equality and justice.”
Dr. Warda Sada, an educator from Kafr Yasif, said she agreed with the results of the IDI poll that showed an improvement in relations between Jews and Arabs during the coronavirus crisis.
“The incitement against the Arabs in the past few years had a negative impact on our relations with Jews,” she said. “Tensions reached a peak after the passing of the Nation-State Law.
“The outbreak of the coronavirus, however, saw Arabs and working together in various fields. Jews had an opportunity to see that many Arabs, including doctors and nurses, were playing a major role in the fight against the disease. I hope that relations between the two communities will continue to improve after the crisis.”
Afif Abu Much, a computer engineer, publicist and political activist from the city of Baka al-Gharbiya, said that what is interesting about the IDI poll is that while it showed that relations between Jews and Arabs have improved, it also indicated that relations between the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community and the rest of Israeli society appear to have been damaged. Some 62% of the general public – 57% of Arabs and 63% of Jews – said that the coronavirus crisis moderately or even greatly damaged this relationship, according to the poll.
“The results of the poll come as a surprise to those who have been monitoring relations between Jews and Arabs, especially in the past year,” Abu Much said. “It’s also surprising to see that relations between the haredi community and the rest of Israeli society have worsened. The question, however, is whether the talk about improved relations between Jews and Arabs is real or fake. Another question: will the improved relations continue after the coronavirus crisis ends? This, in my opinion, will be the big challenge.”
Abu Much said he believes that the future of Jewish-Arab relations depends on the political atmosphere in Israel.
“Under Netanyahu, Jewish-Arab relations became the best political commodity,” he added. “My expectation is that the Arabs will again feel the heat if Netanyahu sees that his legal problems are escalating, now that his trial is about to begin.”