Bad news and good non–news: Israeli Arabs and Western values

Even under the worst circumstances, Arabs, Muslim and Christian alike, are not immune to liberal attitudes.

Arab construction workers atop a building in the Tekoa settlement. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Arab construction workers atop a building in the Tekoa settlement.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The bad news is the general strike carried out by the Arab sector on Wednesday in protest against the demolition of illegal buildings in Kalansuwa.
While it is true that there should be zero tolerance for all illegal building in both Israel and the occupied territories, it is also true that the jurisdiction of Arab towns and villages needs expansion and proper zoning to meet the housing needs of their rapidly expanding populations. The news is bad because it illustrates once more the dangerous gap which exists between Jews and Arabs in their common homeland.
However, there is also some good non-news.
Heading the non-news is the latest annual poll conducted by the prestigious Israel Democracy Institute among Israeli Arabs, who constitute a fifth of the country’s citizenry: Only 12% of the Arabs polled said that their identity was Palestinian; for 29% it was their religion; for 24% it was Arab; and – surprise, surprise! – for 25% it was Israeli.
Public opinion polls should be handled with caution, but this latest one chimes in with other developments characterizing the Arab minority in the Jewish state: There has been a gradual shift in Israeli Arabs’ attitude toward Western values. In fact, the Israeli-Arab minority appears to have formed a community which is distinct from its brethren across the border: They have evolved into a multi-cultural society, which, while sharing a strong religious and nationalistic common denominator, incorporates a growing strong Western-style liberalism, perhaps as a reaction to the horrors of the “Arab Spring.”
Take the liberal litmus test of attitudes to gay rights as a yardstick. A Pew Research Center poll, conducted in 2013 in Arab countries, asked “whether society should accept homosexuality.” A vast majority (97% in Jordan, 95% in Egypt, 93% in the Palestinian Authority) gave a negative reply. Three years earlier, in a poll sponsored by a German foundation, 45% of Israeli Arabs supported equality for gays.
Indeed, Israeli Arabs, dominated as they are by the Muslim faith , amazingly support civil marriage (43%), and the proportion of Israeli Arabs supporting separation of state and religion and gay marriages is truly astounding – 65% and 45%, respectively. The University of Haifa’s Prof. Sammy Smooha’s latest poll reveals the extent of this unheralded shift: 52.9% of Israeli Arabs advocate a policy that would integrate Israel into the West and maintain only necessary links with the Arab world, and this proportion grows to 62% when dealing with Israel’s external cultural links, a higher level than the Jewish-Israeli response (58.9%).
Interestingly enough, there is a similarity in these surveys between Jewish and Arabs responses. Anyone who is not familiar with the national conflict between Arabs and Jews, would deduce from these polls that the major conflict in Israel is between liberal and religious Israelis, both Arab and Jewish.
This shift toward a more liberal persuasion is accompanied by a softer attitude toward Israel, the country of their citizenship, but also the enemy of their people. This tendency manifests itself in various areas; integration into the Israeli economy and society, and, most important, the failure of the recent “knife intifada” to infect the Arab community of Israel (outside of eastern Jerusalem). There are many indicators of this shift: the dramatic growth in the number of Arab students in universities, of civil servants in government and of women representatives in local councils. Not less important are manifestations of popular culture: an Arab commercial inserted into a popular Hebrew TV program: a novel by an Arab author hitting the Hebrew best-seller list; Arab-subject melodramas popular on the Hebrew TV screen.
There are also signs of economic and social integration: an increased, though still smallish, number of Arab-Jewish hi-tech joint ventures; 10% of Israel’s judges are Arab as well as many of its doctors; 20% of pharmacists are Arab. Each item may not make the headlines, but together they are the biggest non-news story told about the Middle East.
This does not necessarily affect the political stalemate, but it is a ray of light in a dark scene and perhaps proves that even under the worst circumstances, Arabs, Muslim and Christian alike, are not immune to liberal attitudes.

Prof. Amnon Rubinstein is a university professor at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya and a former minister of education, as well as the recipient of the 2006 Israel Prize in Law.