Critical Currents: The Other in our midst

Even the Knesset has done little to protect its minority members from racist slurs.

naomi chazan 88 (photo credit:)
naomi chazan 88
(photo credit: )
The single most important issue on Israel's agenda in its 60th year is the deteriorating relationship between its Jewish and Arab citizens. An atmosphere of acrimony, suspicion and unconscionable intolerance is being fueled daily by political forces bent on stripping 20% of the country's citizens of their basic rights - destroying not only our democracy but also our humanity in the process. No challenge is more pressing or more fundamental than to come together to unite in thwarting this internal assault on the essence of Israel's being. The leaders of the organized campaign against the Arab community are in ongoing contravention of the letter and spirit of the Declaration of Independence. In 1948, the leaders of the new state promised that "...it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture." Israelis of all walks of life cannot permit diehard zealots, for whatever reason, to defy this charge; if they do, they will be defiling their own heritage and squandering their destiny. ISRAELI ARABS, Palestinian by identity and Israeli by citizenship, are tested at every turn. Over the years they have been subjected to systematic discrimination: Their cultural affinity has been belittled, their local authorities underfunded, their development prospects curtailed, their employment opportunities circumscribed and their collective and individual legitimacy consistently questioned. Recently, as an educated generation of Palestinian-Israelis has attempted to assert their national affinities and to demand full and equal rights as citizens, they have been subjected to relentless attacks both as individuals and as a group. The easiest targets have been their elected representatives in the Knesset. They are the butt of constant verbal abuse - nary a session passes in which they are not referred to as "traitors," "fifth columnists," "enemies of the state." Their probity is questioned, their loyalty is doubted and their status is undermined. Any vigorous opposition to policies in the occupied territories is pounced on as evidence of subversion; any misstep is seen as proof of betrayal. They are reminded repeatedly that their very presence in the legislature is an act of undue generosity that can be revoked at any moment - as if equal representation for all citizens is not an unassailable right, but a gift that can be withdrawn at will. Members of the National Union, the National Religious Party, Israel Beiteinu and their individual allies in other parties - hyperactive in their legislative initiatives to limit Arab representation - seem to have forgotten that Israel's founders were explicit on this point. In 1948 they pledged that the Arabs in Israel will participate "...on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions." Yet the Knesset itself, as the country's sovereign body, has done little to protect its own minority members from racist slurs. Knesset member Effi Eitam tells them with impunity that "there will come a day when we will expel you from this house and also from the national home of the Jewish people." Avigdor Lieberman taunts them with abandon ("you are temporary here") and devises plans for a wholesale transfer of Arab citizens. He is not even reprimanded. THIS LAXITY in government circles inevitably gives license to the use of racist language and the proliferation of similar sentiments in society at large. Jewish youth are exhibiting increasingly exclusionary tendencies, the media is replete with anti-Arab diatribes, daily humiliations abound, hate crimes have increased and assaults on Arab population centers go unanswered (vide the Purim campaign of the National Union in mixed cities, organized "to keep the country Jewish"). Freedom of speech, however, does have its limits - it becomes incitement when it is aimed at a particular individual or group, suggests specific action and is reiterated constantly. Condoning these expressions may unleash a witch-hunt of uncontrollable proportions. The anti-Arab climate prevalent today, rooted in a combustible mixture of paranoia and nationalist fervor, threatens to transform Israel into precisely the kind of society it was designed to prevent. All the diversity of Palestinian-Israelis notwithstanding (four political parties in the Knesset, rifts between secular and religious, nationalists and pragmatists, Marxists and capitalists, rural dwellers and urban residents), they are lumped together indiscriminately and attacked collectively. Mercifully, these latest manifestations of gross prejudice have been met with a growing awareness of the Jewish obligation to correct the results of decades of discrimination and unequal treatment. Formal policies, coupled with massive civil society efforts (mostly funded by world Jewry), are now being devised to bring about substantive improvements in everything from education, infrastructure, housing, employment and health, to cultural freedoms, collective rights and the entrenchment of fundamental norms of human dignity and respect for the other. But these efforts, however sincere, will yield little if not accompanied by an equally vigorous clampdown on the purveyors of hatred and intolerance. Herein lies Israel's most profound challenge. It must meet the ultimate test of any true democracy: the ability to safeguard the full civil rights of all its minorities. And it must stand up to its Jewish brief: to ensure that none of its citizens is treated in a way that was unacceptable to Jews in the past and would never be countenanced by Jews today. Recognition of difference, respect for the dignity of the other and full equality for all citizens are the reasons for Israel's existence, and the keys to its survival.