Lowering the bar

Arab Israelis remain destined to play the role of usual suspects forever called on to prove their allegiance to Israel.

December 28, 2015 20:51
3 minute read.
An Israeli Arab casts her ballot at a polling station inside a church in the northern town of Reineh

An Israeli Arab casts her ballot at a polling station inside a church in the northern town of Reineh. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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December marks the fifth anniversary of the democratic revolts that swept through the Middle East in 2010. Hailed at one time as an Arab Spring, these revolts failed to bring about a more democratic and prosperous region. In Cairo, the spirit of Tahrir Square was squashed under the boots of the Egyptian Army. In Libya and Syria, democratic aspirations were soon answered with barrel bombs and tanks. As The Wall Street Journal’s Sohrab Ahmari wrote last week, the Middle East is less stable and less hopeful than it was five years ago.

When examining why the Arab Spring revolts have failed, Ahmari turns his gaze to Israel, arguing that had Arab liberals learned from Israel how to create a thriving democracy, their countries may not have disintegrated in front of their very eyes. Moreover, Ahmari states that five years after the Arab spring Israel’s Arab minority remains the freest in the region.

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While Ahmari’s depiction of Israel is flattering, it is also misleading. Ahmari seems to have committed a commonplace Israeli intellectual faux pas in which the status of the Arab Israeli minority is compared to that of minorities in neighboring Arab states rather than other liberal democracies around the world.

Indeed when Israel wishes to exhibit the robustness of its economy it compares its GDP per capita to that of other OECD nations. When it wishes to boast its status as a high-tech Mecca it compares the number of Israeli startups to that which may be found in the Silicon Valley and when marveling at its protection of freedom of speech Israel elevates itself to the likes of the US and Sweden.

Yet whenever Israel reflects on the status of the Arab minority, it lowers the bar and is content with comparing itself to Egypt, Syria and Lebanon.

This analysis always reveals that as long as they are not crushed under the weight of tanks, or forced to flee their homes, Arab Israelis have nothing to complain about.

This lowering of the bar conceals the true character of Israel’s democracy. For throughout its 67 years of existence, Arab Israeli political parties have never been asked to join an Israeli government.


Although one in five Israelis is an Arab Israeli, no Arab has ever been a contender for the premiership or the presidency. To this day, only one Arab Israeli has served as a minister in an Israeli government.

Even in the fourth estate of Israel’s democracy Arab Israelis are not represented. There are no Arab Israeli news anchors nor have Arabs ever hosted ratings bonanzas such as Big Brother or The Voice. And while all three television channels have commentators on Arab affairs and the Arab world, these commentators are Jewish rather than Arab.

Arab Israelis are thus segregated from Israeli government, media and culture.

Perhaps the most telling statement regarding the ongoing exclusion of Arabs Israelis came from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who during the recent elections warned Israelis that “Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves.”

As this statement implies, Arab Israelis remain destined to play the role of usual suspects forever called on to prove their allegiance to Israel.

Five years after the ousting of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, most commentators argue that the Arab Spring has turned into a long winter. Amhari urges Arab nations to emulate Israel rather than condemn it.

I suggest Israel turn its gaze to Tunisia where the hope of the Arab Spring lives on in the form of an inclusive democracy dedicated to the promotion of all its minorities.

The author is a PhD student at the University of Oxford.

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