In 1966 Israel lifted an 18-year military administration that had been put in place to control the Arab communities in Israel. Curfews were lifted, partial civil rights that had previously been extended to Jewish citizens (who also had many rights curtailed) were provided and the Arab community’s interface with Jewish society was no longer through soldiers and border police in their villages. A year later, following the 1967 war, that military administration, so versed in dealing with “the Arabs” would be put in place in the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan and Sinai.
It is sometimes forgotten today, especially by those who want to paint an idyllic picture of 1950s Israel, how quickly military rule was lifted from Arab citizens in Israel, only to be re-assembled across the Green Line.
It is not a surprise to learn - when one reads books on the early years of the administration of the West Bank, Gaza and Sinai by authors like Gershom Gorenberg - that among the first Jewish Israelis to set up communities in the Jordan Valley and Golan were left-leaning kibbutz members. Yitzhak Tabenkin pushed through a resolution in the Kibbutz Movement for an “action of major dimensions to settle areas of the land that were cut off from us during the War of Independence.”
There was much commonality between the way Israel looked before 1966, in terms of relations between Arabs and Jews, and the way the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan and Sinai were administered after the 1967 war. If you begin to look at the transition from the 1950s Israel to post-1967 Israel in this way one conclusion that emerges is that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has its roots in the pre-1967 view of the Arabs in Israel.
One must ask, what if the road to Ramallah runs through Nazareth? What if Israel had embraced the Arab citizens in the 1950s and 1960s? What if instead of curfews and a military administration, it had created a shared society then? What if it hadn’t instituted a separate Arab school system so that everyone grows up never meeting the “other”? What if towns, cities and rural communities had become mixed over time, instead of having acceptance committees that kept every rural community ethnically homogenous? For many in Israel that seems like a radical thought.
But why? Why is it odd to imagine that people living in the same country as equal citizens would over time heal the wounds of 1948? Instead, the antipathy between Jews and Arabs inside Israel and between Israeli leaders and Palestinian political aspirations, have grown over time. Prime minister Yitzhak Shamir said “the Arabs are the same Arabs” and Golda Meir claimed the Palestinians as a collective people did not exist.
Beyond the bifurcation of Arabs into Israeli-Arab citizens of Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, the conflict with the Palestinians is increasingly seen in simple terms. Amos Oz wrote in early March, “If there will not be two states here, and fast, there will be one state here.” In his analysis he presented “the Arabs” as a monolithic entity.
“I am not sure that the altercation with the Arabs can be ended overnight...A great many Israelis, too many Israelis, believe – or are being brainwashed into believing – that if we only take a very big stick and beat the Arabs with it just one more time, very hard, they will take fright and once and for all let us be.” He claimed “the Palestinians are our neighbors.”
Last week the Joint List headed by Ayman Odeh, a veteran Hadash Party politician, won 13 seats in the Knesset. Reacting to the fact that some Jews had voted for the Joint List (which also has one Jewish MK: Dov Henin), writer Benny Ziffer complained about “this far from small group of Jews who tried to integrate themselves into the Palestinian people and merge with its national aspirations.” He noted: “One can understand the desire of Jews of conscience to mingle with Arabs in order to do battle against the phenomenon of hatred of Arabs.”
Mingle with Arabs? How does a country that is almost 70 years old, in which 20% of the citizens are from one minority group, find it so objectionable or shocking to see “mingling”? Why is it only acceptable if it is about anti-racism? The view of Arabs in 2015 Israel is as filled with fear, stereotypes and wildly racist statements as in 1948. Meyer Levin wrote a satire in Commentary
in 1951 mentioning “Jews from Arab countries...they are no better than the Arabs, uncivilized, you’ve got to build them from the ground up.” In 2015, reacting to the choice of Lucy Aharish, an Arab TV presenter, to light a torch on Israel’s Independence Day, Haaretz
columnist Gideon Levy claimed she does “not look Arab, sound Arab or dress Arab.” What does it mean to dress like an Arab? A blog at The Forward
made the odd comment that Ayman Odeh’s family picture, posted on Facebook, “Looks like an average Israeli Jewish family.” What does that mean? Maybe the average Israeli Jewish family looks like an Arab family? Has anyone considered that? What does it mean to “dress like an Arab” or to “dress like a Jew”? Even outside of hateful racism, everyday stereotypes run wild in Israeli society on the Left and Right, unchallenged.
The emergence of a large, united Arab party has not stirred the majority in Israel. Whereas foreign media gave it prime coverage, local media shrugged its shoulders. Commentator Hussein Ibish correctly called the Joint List “historic,” but falsely concluded it could be a “potential kingmaker in Israeli politics.”
Those who think the Joint List will play a role in any coalition are mistaken because they don’t understand how far away the Zionist Union is from even the approach of Hadash. The Israeli Zionist Left never courted Hadash when it was a Jewish-Arab communist party running by itself. Why would it court a list including Balad (whose Haneen Zoabi the Zionist Union supported banning) and the Islamic members of Ta’al? Those who claim that the Joint List is problematic for including Balad and Ta’al never wanted a partnership with Hadash. They didn’t want a partnership with Ayman Odeh by himself, despite his extensive efforts at outreach to Jewish communities and his outspoken comments about the joint struggle of poor Jews and Arabs in Israel. It doesn’t matter that he is secular and not, as one commentator described the Joint List as “homophobic and polygamous Arabs,” because he is beyond the pale anyway just for being an Arab.
If the Joint List hangs together it will champion with a louder voice the desires of Arab citizens, such as Negev Beduin. Israel’s newly elected Knesset members have a chance to commit themselves to creative and original policymaking and give the Joint List a chance. For years the Arab Knesset members, whose antics sometimes bordered on the extreme and whose statements were unpalatable to the public or inflammatory, were ignored. And in ignoring them and their electorate they grew more resentful and alienated. Voter turnout declined. This election saw a rise in that turnout to levels not seen in 20 years.
Who benefits from the exclusion of the Joint List and treating it like a pariah or a voice not worth hearing? It may sound odd, but Benjamin Netanyahu has a chance now, after having offended Arab citizens with his pre-election comments, to make amends and reach out. It’s true that the peace negotiations in Ramallah are not going anywhere. The least Israeli politicians can do is start now to address the concerns of Arab citizens.
Otherwise the self-fulfilling prophecy of everyone who talks about “the Arabs” will be correct. Building a positive constructive relationship with Arab citizens in Israel will also help in any final-status negotiations in the West Bank.
It can be accomplished by challenging the daily racism in the media and accepting Arab voices as legitimate and not in need of being filtered. The Negev Beduin are a case in point. For years they were a pet project of “coexistence” groups, Jewish academics and activists, trying to turn them into “indigenous” people as if they could or should be put on some reservation, like Native Americans. But their demands were not about indigenous rights, but rather pragmatic rights, such as land, housing, water and electricity. Who benefits from their continued impoverishment and relegation to a massive shadow economy on unregistered land? This is just one issue crying out for a new creative solution.
Why wait another 70 years to start making progress? It’s not 1966. Israel has a chance to begin addressing what once went wrong between the citizens of the state.
It may find doing so will open doors elsewhere as well.