Arabs and Jews work together at the port in Haifa..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent denunciation of discrimination against Arab Israelis, prompted by the firing of Arab workers in Ashkelon, is as welcome as it is strikingly inconsistent with his support for a Basic Law enshrining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Indeed, this law is unnecessary and self-defeating, assuming its goal is to maintain Israel as a Jewish state. In fact, what would best ensure the maintenance of a Jewish majority and Israeli values would be to end all forms of discrimination against Arabs rather than to further exclude them from full participation in the national life of Israel. Although this might seem like paradoxical wishful thinking, it is supported by data, and it is certainly more realistic than expecting that binding, official relegation of 20 percent – and close to 50% if the West Bank were to be included – of Israel’s population to second-class citizenship will somehow secure the Jewish state.
I am part of a group of researchers that has been conducting research on how social change influences human development. To test this, we look at cultural groups that have undergone significant social change within their communities over the course of three generations. One such group is the Muslim Arab Israeli community living in the Haifa district, including Wadi Ara. Among our results we have found that Arab village adolescents, compared with their parents and grandparents, are more likely to have educated parents, have fewer siblings, have non-Muslim friends, use personal mobile technology and watch non-Arabic language TV. Notably, greater parents’ education was found to be related to lower birthrates across generations. Moreover, among each generation, but particularly among the adolescents, those with the types of characteristics described above tend to value gender equality, personal choice regarding work and education and the acceptance of multiple points of view as possibly legitimate. That is, their personal values are moving quickly toward the values of the Jewish majority.
These findings challenge commonly accepted conceptions underlying concern for Israel’s Jewish future. For one, a common assumption is that there is an unbridgeable divide in the values and mentalities of Arabs and Jews. But, this is increasingly and dramatically less the case. As Arabs participate more in educational, economic, technological and pluralistic life in common with the Jews, the values of Arabs and Jews are also becoming more aligned.
This is not to dismiss serious ideological divisions that remain. It is instead to recognize the processes of social change that have occurred and will continue to occur.
Although perhaps not by design and perhaps even contrary to the explicit national aspirations of many Arabs and Jews, in actuality Arab Israelis have increasingly become part of what is Jewish Israel with shared values and daily life. Full integration and acceptance of Arab Israelis as Israeli nationals would thus help secure the Jewish state. Sharpening the ideological divisions and enforcing exclusion, as would the Jewish nation-state law, is counterproductive and ultimately endangers that aim.
Secondly, it is commonly assumed that Jewish Israel faces a demographic problem. But our findings are consistent with statistics from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics: there were 3.8 children in the adolescents’ families compared with averages around eight for their mothers and grandmothers.
The CBS has the average number of children per mother at 3.6 in 2008 compared with 4.4 in 1985 and 2000, and 8.4 in 1986. As Jewish and Arab populations have similar birthrates, Israel within the 1967 borders including Jerusalem should continue to have about a 75% Jewish population for the long run. Moreover, our findings are entirely consistent with what happens around the world: greater education is related to lower birthrates. For those concerned that a shrinking relative Jewish population requires enshrining Jewish nationhood, a better solution would be to spend the same amount per Arab pupil as is spent per Jewish pupil. In addition, access for Arabs in higher education needs to be increased, along with more accessibility to jobs that require such education. This would allow both even greater integration of Arabs into the national and economic life of Israel and the maintenance of the relative population size.
The actual demographic threats to a Jewish Israel come from the Palestinian claim to a right of return and having a single state with equal population numbers. The adoption of the Jewish nation-state law does nothing to address these issues. It will just focus attention on the uncomfortable reality of a democratic nation that would officially exclude significant numbers from full national citizenship, and provide the Palestinians with cover for rejecting any proposed solution to move forward from the conflict.
Netanyahu, at least when he assumed office in 2009, contended that the road to reconciliation between Palestinians and Jews was through economic development in the Palestinian territories.
But rather than consider this as a realistic, complete solution to the conflict about the territories without any larger political agreement, I would suggest that his thinking is perfectly appropriate in guiding policy regarding the state’s relationship with Israeli Arabs. Working to equalize the socio-demographic statuses of Israeli Arabs and Jews will go a long way to bringing some commonality of values, along with the maintenance of current population proportions, that will allow both Arabs and Jews to feel secure in their state.
The author is a senior lecturer at in the Department of Education at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev whose research is supported by the United States-Israel Bi-national Science Foundation (BSF).