That we need a reminder to integrate Arabs is shameful

Our leaders have turned a blind eye to the alienation of 20% of the population.

By
November 14, 2010 22:46
4 minute read.
RABBI SHMUEL Eliyahu, chief rabbi of Safed.

Eliyahu 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

British Jewry is to be congratulated.

With the establishment of the UK Task Force on Issues Facing Arab Citizens of Israel, it is showing that sincere supporters of the State of Israel are not afraid of tackling the country’s most pressing domestic challenge: the full integration of the Arab minority into its economic, cultural and political life.

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While the Declaration of Independence promises “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race or sex,” this worthy goal has never been met.

Indeed, the socioeconomic gaps between Jews and Arabs continue to widen each year. As the recent annual poverty report published by the National Insurance Institute noted, the Arab sector is the country’s poorest, with 56.9 percent of families living below the poverty line, as compared (to the still shocking) national average of 20.5%.

The aims of the British task force, which is backed by a number of leading mainstream communal organizations, are clear and simple: To deepen UK Jewish engagement with, and understanding of, issues facing Israel’s Arab citizens and leverage communal resources to provide effective solutions; to ensure that engagement with the issues is sustained; to encourage member organizations to work with Israeli partners to strengthen civil society activity, including Jewish and Arab leadership, and to build links with international partners engaged in similar endeavors to ensure effective engagement with the issues.

There are those, of course, who will say that British Jews should concentrate their resources on Israel’s Jewish citizens only, but this narrowminded attitude misses the point. As the cochairs of the UK Task Force recently wrote: “British Jews who care about Israel should care about its 1.5 million Arab citizens. Fully integrating the Arab minority is vital to Israel’s prosperity and cohesion...

[and] is central to the state’s economic prospect, as well as its global standing as the one true democracy in the Middle East.”

IT IS a matter of shame that we need a reminder from British Jews as to the importance of integrating the country’s Arab citizens. In recent years, hand-in-hand with the despicable rise in power of Israel Beiteinu and the racist passions it encourages, there has been a hardening in Israeli-Arab attitudes to Israel as a Jewish state, which can only be damaging to the country’s future.

The annual index of Arab-Jewish relations, conducted by University of Haifa sociologist Sami Smooha, tracks this growing alienation. Support for the proposition that “Jews in Israel are a people who have a right to a state” has declined from 75.5% in 2003 to 60.8%, while support for “two states for two peoples” has plummeted from 88.8% to 65%.

Those Arabs who list Israeli citizenship as the most important aspect of their personal identity have dwindled from 29.6% to 19.8%, while those who identify primarily with the Palestinian people have gone from 18.8% to 32%.

Furthermore, the number who believe that “despite its shortcomings, the regime in Israel is a democracy for the Arab citizens as well” has fallen from 63.1% to 50.5% while the minority that supports using “all means, including violence” to achieve political ends has jumped from 5.4% to 13.9%.

These are truly frightening figures and demand a concerted reaction on the part of the country’s leadership. No country, and certainly not one that faces the challenges this one does, can afford this level of alienation among 20% of its population.

But our leaders have turned a blind eye to this problem. It’s not hard to imagine Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu making an impassioned speech about anti-Semitism in Europe should, say, a leading bishop instruct his flock from the pulpit not to rent out properties to Jewish tenants.

And yet, when Safed’s Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu issued a halachic ruling last month prohibiting Jews from renting homes to Arabs in the center of the town, there was no condemnation from any senior figure.

Eliyahu, who let us not forget is employed by the state, has form on this issue. He was charged four-and-a-half years ago with making racist remarks against Arabs, but the charges were dropped after he promised to retract them. Puzzlingly, there has been no move on the part of the legal authorities to reinstate these charges after his recent outburst and Eliyahu continues to bring home a healthy salary each month from the state coffers.

The situation in Safed is particularly disturbing. There are 500 Arab students enrolled at Safed Academic College, who have been the target of ugly public attacks, which even culminated in violence against three of them. Eli Tzvieli, an 89-year-old Safed resident, has meanwhile received death threats after renting an apartment to Beduin students. And yet nobody, not even the national student union, has come out in support of these Israeli citizens seeking to live close to their place of study.

The UK Task Force on Issues Facing Arab Citizens of Israel certainly has its work cut out for it.

The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.


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