Just as Menachem Begin once famously declared: "There are judges in Jerusalem," so too must we now declare, "There are judges in Nazareth." In a striking ruling last week, Nazareth Magistrate's Court Judge Yuval Shadmi refused a prosecution demand to jail an Arab teenager charged with assaulting a police vehicle near Nazareth at the time of Operation Cast Lead, saying the state discriminated against teenage Arabs.
"Israel operates on two fundamentally different levels of enforcement for ideological offenses committed by Arab and Jewish minors," Shadmi wrote in his judgment, although he still sentenced the youth to 200 hours of community service for his actions.
Comparing the state's treatment of Arab teens who attack the police or security forces with that of young Jews violently protesting the disengagement from the Gaza Strip, or teenage haredi demonstrators in Jerusalem, the judge noted that while legal proceedings against the Jewish lawbreakers were usually canceled or frozen before an indictment was served, the Arab minors were regularly convicted and sent to prison.
"This sectoral discrimination can no longer be tolerated," Shadmi wrote. "If the state believes that 'ideological' offenses by youngsters justify lenient enforcement, it should apply this policy to all youngsters, regardless of their nationality or religion."
Judge Shadmi's ruling was limited to the particular instance in front of him, but the "sectoral discrimination" he referred to tarnishes all aspects of the life of the country's Arab citizens. As Labor MK Ofir Pines-Paz told a conference last month, as reported in this paper, "The Arab minority in Israel is structurally discriminated against and has been since the day the state was founded."
DRAWING ON his past experience as interior minister Pines-Paz gave as an example the equalization grants worth billions of shekels that are given to local authorities according to a complicated equation that determines how much each local authority should receive.
"I quickly learned that if you took an Arab village and a Jewish village with roughly the same amount of people, you'd see that Jewish towns would usually receive more. When I examined why this happened, it turned out that the equation held a number of components that don't apply to Arab villages, for example, points given for immigrant absorption. It's a collection of little things, but it doesn't take much for big gaps to grow when you're talking about such huge sums."
But this is hardly news. As the Or Commission into the events of October 2000, when 12 Israeli Arabs and one Gazan were killed while protesting Israel's response to the outbreak of the second intifada, reported: "The Arab citizens of Israel live in a reality in which they experience discrimination as Arabs."
The commission then went on to note that "this inequality has been documented in a large number of professional surveys and studies, has been confirmed in court judgments and government resolutions, and has also found expression in reports by the state comptroller and in other official documents."
And yet little progress has been made over the past decade in solving this problem. Ariel Sharon's government, for example, decided to set a goal of ensuring that 10 percent of all government employees would be Arabs by the end of 2008. The deadline for achieving this aim has since been pushed back to 2010 because by 2008, only 6% of civil servants were Arabs. What should catch the eye here is that the original 10% target was not particularly high, given that Arabs constitute 20% of the population.
As a result of discrimination, poverty is also significantly higher in the Israeli-Arab sector as compared to the Jewish sector, although anti-Arab discrimination is not the only reason for this state of affairs. As Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz pointed out last week, the low workforce participation rate of Arab women, due to their decision to stay at home, also plays a significant role.
With only one wage-earner in the family, a vicious cycle of poverty takes root, and the inequality between Jewish and Arab towns, as outlined by Pines-Paz, is further enhanced by the widespread non-payment of municipal taxes in the Arab sector, which in turn leads to reduced municipal services, primarily affecting the poor.
Indeed, the difference in municipal tax collection rate between the Arab and Jewish populations is staggering: The collection rate in the Arab sector stands at 18.6% as opposed to 53.7% in the Jewish. Interestingly, according to a recent Ben-Gurion University doctoral study, the low responsiveness of Arabs to municipal tax payment is not related to anti-Israeli sentiment or lack of enforcement, but rather stems from the Arab sector's low socioeconomic status and an inability to pay - property tax amounts to 6.9% of an average Arab family's income as opposed to 4.6% of an average Jewish family's - and residents' dissatisfaction with the level of integrity of their municipal authorities.
Such a situation, of institutional discrimination on the one hand, and poverty on the other, is a recipe for disaster. No country, least of all one facing Israel's challenges, can afford to allow one in five of its citizens, who comprise a distinct national minority, to suffer in this way, particularly given the increasing radicalization of the Israel-Arab sector.
In his ruling, Judge Shadmi wrote that anti-Arab discrimination in the courts was "common knowledge," adding that "this sectorial discrimination can no longer be tolerated."
He then acted on his words, setting an example for the rest of us to follow.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.