Strike a democratic bargain

Israeli Arabs should be encouraged to choose leaders willing to accept minority status and work within the framework of a Jewish, democratic state.

December 3, 2010 13:29
3 minute read.
Avigdor Lieberman and Haneen Zoabi

lieberman zoabi 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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The Israel Democracy Institute’s annual survey of sentiments toward democracy among Israelis, released this week, revealed disturbing levels of Jewish intolerance toward Arab Israelis.

For instance, 53 percent of the Jewish public said that the state was entitled to encourage Arabs to emigrate from Israel; 55% said that Jewish municipalities should receive more state funding than Arab municipalities; 46% admitted to being bothered by the possibility of having Arabs as neighbors.

Prof. Tamar Herman, a senior research fellow at IDI, noted that the Arab-Jewish conflict is the most problematic cultural divide in society, which “casts a shadow on Israel’s democratic character.”

Knesset Deputy Speaker and former cabinet minister Ghaleb Majadle (Labor), a Muslim Arab, said the survey results “should be a warning light for the leaders and opinion makers in Israel.”

Arab Israelis cannot be absolved from their share of responsibility for Jews’ negative attitudes. As Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman pointed out, leading Arab figures such as fugitive former MK Azmi Bishara and Union of Arab Community-Based Associations director Amir Mahoul have reportedly spied for Hizbullah, while MK Haneen Zoabi helped support Hamas by participating in the Mari Marmara’s attempt to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza.

Indeed, Arab Israelis’ potential political power is often squandered on demagogic Israel-bashing and support for Palestinian extremism instead of focused on the practical improvement of Israeli Arabs’ standing in society. The three Arab parties and their 11 MKs are increasingly situated beyond the ideological pale, and thus have ever less effective political influence.

In addition, a series of political initiatives – such as A Future Vision, A Democratic Constitution, The Haifa Declaration, and An Egalitarian Constitution – launched in recent years by the Arab-Israeli intellectual elites to end discrimination, have made unrealistically radical demands on Israel such as the repeal of the Law of Return, the demotion of Hebrew from the official language to an official language alongside Arabic, and the revising of practically every aspect of Israeli existence – starting, on the “symbolic level,” with the name “Israel” itself, the national anthem Hatikva, and the Israeli flag with its Star of David, and ending, on the “practical level,” with the return of Arabs to villages deserted by their families in 1948 and the restitution of lands expropriated for Jewish use.

Even the positive rise in Arab Israelis volunteering for National Service – 1,517 this year and even more expected next year – has been stymied, sometimes with threats, by Sheikh Raed Salah and others affiliated with his wing of the Islamic Movement. All of this anti-Zionist activism by some in the Arab Israeli minority comes against the backdrop of Israel’s ongoing conflict with the Arab states and hundreds of millions of Arab and Muslim neighbors.

DESPITE THIS state of affairs, the IDI survey found that most Jews still adhered to liberal views on issues such as freedom of speech. Fifty-four percent of the Jewish public oppose legislation that would penalize anyone who speaks out against Zionism and 50% agree that it is important to allow non-Zionist political parties to participate in elections. And Israel endeavors to foster equality, at least in areas of policy that are regulated by legislation, such as health insurance, child allotments and social security.

Undoubtedly, there is plenty of room for improvement.

State funding still discriminates against the Arab municipalities and the Arab school system, though it has improved significantly in recent years.

And Arab Israelis are underrepresented in the public sector, not just because of security concerns.

But Arab Israelis must also change their attitude toward Israel. They cannot expected to become Zionist patriots. But it should still be possible to strike a democratic bargain – one whereby Israel would undertake to carry out a wide range of anti-discrimination programs to make up for years of neglect, and Israeli Arabs, for their part, would choose leaders willing to accept minority status and work within the framework of a Jewish, democratic state rather than seek to overthrow it. If such an arrangement could be reached, the vast majority of Jewish Israelis would be significantly more tolerant of their fellow Arab citizens.

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