Battling over equality

Israel has a duty to provide full civic equality to its Arab citizens, but it must also protect its Jewish identity.

May 18, 2017 11:49
4 minute read.
Palestinian Land Day

Israeli Arabs raise Palestinian flags at a Land Day rally, March 30. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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ISRAEL’S VERY legitimacy as a Jewish state is under attack. Abroad, Israel is being attacked by the radical Left and supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Inside of Israel, attacks are being leveled by some Arab Israeli leaders who often negate the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. The Israel Democracy Institute’s most recent Democracy Index found 77% of Arabs do not agree that Israel should be defined as “the state of the Jewish people.” There is a tendency to put off coping with the “big question” of identity because the gap between how the Jewish majority and Arab minority perceive the state’s character seems unbridgeable. But refusing to confront questions of identity and failing even to attempt to reach a consensus on these issues are mistakes for which both groups are liable to pay dearly.

The State of Israel has an obligation to protect itself and its Jewish identity as long as it does so while creating full civic equality for the members of the state’s Arab minority.

The state, and the vast majority of its Jewish citizens, is willing to grant equality to Arabs in Israel. But equality means different things to the Jews and the Arabs. Jewish state officials talk about civic equality for Jews and Arabs on issues such as state funding and individual rights. The Arab minority’s leaders demand equality at the national level, which would mean a fundamental change in Israel’s character as a Jewish state.

How so? The Arab minority’s road map to the realization of its national vision is based on “The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel” (2006, the Supreme Monitoring Committee for Arab Affairs in Israel). Ideas that appear in the paper are the basis for Arab Israelis’ nationalist attitudes, and strategies are being created to fulfill them. The paper does not recognize Israel as a Jewish state or a democracy, but rather an “ethnocracy” and the result of Western colonialism. The goal, according to the paper, is to transform Israel into a consociational democracy in which Jews and Arabs have equal rights in the decision-making mechanisms at the national level, as well as the allocation of rights and resources. The paper seeks recognition of Arabs’ national rights, based on their being indigenous to the land; an acknowledgement of the nakba 1948 Palestinian exodus and compensation for this national calamity; and, as part of such compensation, a restoration of the native Arab population to its land. According to “The Future Vision of Palestinian Arabs in Israel,” Arab-Palestinian national identity and Jewish national identity will be given equal weight in the state’s symbols and laws, which also means the repeal of the Law of Return.

Since the paper was written, Arab discourse related to its minority’s rights as a national group has gained power. For example, a striking statement in the Joint Arab List’s official platform explains that the List’s purpose is to work for recognition of Israel’s Arabs as a minority with native rights, as well as promoting the work of the Supreme Monitoring Committee. While the platform does not explicitly negate the State of Israel’s Jewish character ‒ since the List might be disqualified from running for the Knesset if it did ‒ a fairly simple reading of the text makes this the obvious conclusion.

Further, new Arab efforts call on international conventions and UN resolutions to demand Arab rights in Israel, part of the Supreme Monitoring Committee’s attempt to internationalize the conflict, not only with regard to Israeli rule in the territories but on internal matters between Israel and its citizens.

The implications of Israeli Arabs seeing themselves as possessing rights as a native-born group are dramatic and could influence the day-to-day lives of all Israelis. For many Arabs, the debate over rights to the land and other resources is not a question of civic equality that every citizen of Israel is entitled to by law. Rather, this is a national issue and a building block toward the Arab minority’s goal of attaining rights afforded to a national group. In this context, Arab political leaders and intellectuals are working to build a consciousness among Israel’s Arabs as a distinct national group. Our recent Democracy Index showed that Israel’s Arab and Jewish citizens alike feel Israeli Arabs are discriminated against; 53 percent of Jews and 91 percent of Arabs agree that Arab citizens are discriminated against. Much remains to be done to correct this ill. But some issues must be examined within a broader context. The State of Israel has a right and duty to protect its identity as a Jewish state, and defend itself against the trend among leaders and public figures of subverting Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state.

Dr. Shuki Friedman is director of the Center for Religion, Nation and State at the Israel Democracy Institute.

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