On My Mind: Population swap conundrum

26 years ago, American Jewish organizations galvanized in response to Knesset member elected on platform to push Arabs out.

By
February 22, 2011 23:11
3 minute read.
Kisra Samia is home to about 7,000 Druse

Kisra Samia 311. (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Umm el-Fahm was not originally part of Israel. Jordan consented to include the strategically located community – then a town of 4,500 – on the Israeli side of the 1949 armistice line established after theWar of Independence.

But some Israeli Jews want to reverse that decision of 62 years ago. Reducing the number Arab citizens, now 20 percent of the population, they believe, would benefit the country’s future. Umm el-Fahm, its largest Arab city, with a population of 43,000, is therefore a target.

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Umm el-Fahm, as far as we know, was not one of the Arab communities that, according to the ‘Palestine Papers’ released in January, then foreign minister Tzipi Livni proposed to include in a Palestinian state during bilateral peace negotiations in 2008.

Baka al-Gharbiya and Barta were mentioned. However, with few exceptions, the residents of these and other Arab towns would oppose such a proposition. They want to fulfill their aspirations as Israeli citizens.

Still, it has become clear that a permanent peace agreement will involve a land swap. This accommodation will meet the need to include most of the Jewish settlers in West Bank communities near the Green Line, and the Palestinian desire to secure the equivalent of virtually every inch of land in the West Bank and Gaza.

While most reports and maps indicate that the area offered for a swap does not include Arab communities, the conflict has engendered an undercurrent of distrust among Israel’s population.

THE ISRAEL Democracy Institute found last year, as it did in 2009 in its annual Democracy Index report, that 53% of Israeli Jews agree that the government should encourage Arab emigration.

This antagonism toward Arab citizens is more prevalent among immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

The IDI report revealed that 71% of them, compared to 50% of long-time Israelis, would favor the departure of Arabs.

The sizable and influential FSU population’s long-term impact on policy is potentially significant. Indeed, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman gives Jews from the FSU, including those in the US, where they comprise some 25% of New York City’s Jewish population, enormous pride.

But Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu ran in the 2009 Knesset elections on a platform hostile to the Arab minority.

Since joining the Likud-led coalition two years ago as the second-largest faction, Israel Beiteinu has introduced a number of bills aimed at the Arab minority.

It advocates a territorial swap that includes existing populations. “The responsibility for primarily Arab areas such as Umm el-Fahm and the Triangle will be transferred to the Palestinian Authority. In parallel, Israel will officially annex Jewish areas in Judea and Samaria. Israel is our home; Palestine is theirs,” states the party on its website.

Inspired by this contentious political atmosphere, Baruch Marzel and Itamar Ben-Gvir organized a demonstration in Umm el- Fahm last October to coincide with the anniversary of Rabbi Meir Kahane’s assassination in New York. In July 2009, a protest in the Beduin town of Rahat was yet another attempt to intimidate, or provoke, Israeli Arabs. That march, led by MK Michael Ben-Ari of the National Union, followed another protest at Umm el- Fahm in March, also led by Marzel.

In response, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin visited the city and made it clear that it was an inseparable part of the country. Indeed, the Declaration of Independence recognizes the Arab minority as an integral part of the country.

Other political leaders need to emphasize that Arab citizens are safe. Schools must work harder to inculcate in young Israelis – both Arabs and Jews – understanding and appreciation for each other. Civil society groups dedicated to advancing Jewish-Arab relations are critical to these efforts.

Jews in the Diaspora, including those from the FSU who have settled in the US and attained leadership postions, also have a responsibility to speak out. After all, the values that undergird the American Jewish community are also at the bedrock of Israel.

Twenty-six years ago American Jewish organizations galvanized in response to a member of Knesset elected on a platform to push Arabs out. A nationwide effort succeeded in banning Kahane from speaking engagements in Jewish communities across the US. The notion that any politician might still contemplate some kind of population exchange is anathema, and should be vigorously opposed. Ultimately, such rhetoric threatens not just one group, but the very fabric of democracy.

The writer is director of communications for the American Jewish Committee.


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