'Arab citizens' search for equality stymied by conflict'

"Both sides must instill in the next generation a message of coexistence," minister encourages National Service for Arabs.

arab women from back 88 248 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
arab women from back 88 248
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

Political leaders gathered on Thursday to takepart in the 5th annual Jaffa Convention on relations between Jewish andArab citizens.

Sevencabinet ministers and more than a dozen MKs attended and spoke aboutthe challenges facing the non-Jewish population in its search forequality in the Jewish state.

The conference, which took place two days after Israel receiveda stinging report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation andDevelopment criticizing it for its large social gaps that disadvantageArab Israelis and haredim, was once again held under the slogan "A Callto Action."

Many of the speakers referred to the report, describing it as a"mirror for the Israeli society," and expressing hope that change couldbe achieved.

"The day has come to turn over a new leaf in therelationship between the State of Israel and the Arab minority," saidEducation Minister Gideon Sa'ar (Likud). "Though it is in the commoninterest of all Israelis to do so, there are two main obstaclespreventing it from happening: first, the Arab-Israeli and theIsraeli-Palestinian conflicts, which strongly influence the Arab-Jewishrelationship and will continue to do so until they are resolved; andsecond, the strong currents in both the Arab and the Jewish populationsthat promote segregation and alienation of the Arab population from thestate."

Sa'ar said that to solve the problem, both sides must instillin the next generation a message of coexistence. National service forthe Arab population could go a long way towards changing people'sperceptions, he said.

Sa'aralso spoke about the gaps in the Arab education system, saying thatalthough his ministry was working to better fund the Arab schools,changes must also be made within the communities themselves.

"We need to move towards a new system of selecting teachers andprincipals in the Arab sector. It's not always the case that the besteducators are given the jobs, and that has to change," said Sa'ar. "Ibelieve that education is the key to solving inequalities as well aschanging perceptions… The political leadership on both sides must sendout a clear message against racism. There will always be two peopleshere and change must come."

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai (Labor) said that until theIsraeli-Palestinian conflict was resolved, equal rights would never beon the top of the national agenda, but that on the local level thingscould be corrected more easily. He cited Jaffa as an example of thecourse of actions that should be followed.

"Over the past decade we have invested more than a billionshekels in Jaffa. The investments were directed towards physicalimprovements, but also towards things like education, health andwelfare," said Huldai. "We are proud to be hosting this conventionhere. This convention is not afraid to put things on the table and saythey need to be fixed. That is a vital first step."

Former Meimad MK Michael Melchior, the founder and chairman ofthe Citizens Accord Forum for Jews and Arabs in Israel, which organizedthe convention, said it was impossible to wait for the externalconflict to end in order to solve the internal inequalities. In a statethat describes itself as Jewish and democratic, Arabs should not besubject to the kind of discrimination that currently exists in terms ofpractical realities and government policies, he said.

"The dialogue that arises from fear and suspicion escalatesinto hatred, and as we saw in the last election [in February 2009],hatred generates votes," said Melchior. "We have to create a newdialogue. It is inconceivable that the Jewish state be associated withalienation of a minority. It is inconceivable that a Jewish stateincludes the reality of discrimination."

Hadash MK Afo Agbaria, the chairman of the Knesset'sArab-Jewish Relations caucus, said time was running out on solving theinternal conflict and that he saw the rift between the sectorscontinuing to diverge.

"I don't accept the notion that our problems can't be solveduntil the Palestinian conflict comes to an end. As citizens of Israel,I see no reason why we should be held hostage. We have been here sincethe birth of the state and for more than 62 years we have shown that weare in favor of peace and helped build the state. The Arab citizens canbe a bridge for peace," he said.

Agbaria's caucus co-chairwoman, Kadima's Orit Zuaretz, said a change of priorities had to be expressed in government budgeting.

"It reeks of hypocrisy and double standards when the governmentand the Knesset speak of equality and at the same time hold discussionson loyalty tests and promote segregation laws," said Zuaretz. "Ademocracy is tested on its attitudes towards its minorities and we allknow that if you are not wealthy, fair-skinned and educated, yourchances of succeeding in life are reduced. If you are a Beduin womanfrom Rahat, nobody glances in your direction."

Zuaretz said that the caucus planned to continue promotingequality for all citizens. She called on Sa'ar to promote Arabicstudies in the education system, for the establishment of a daydedicated to Arab studies and for the mandatory teaching of Arabic forall students, starting in first grade.

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni (Kadima) said equality was not afavor meant for a certain population but an integral part of the stateand its values.

"Throughout the state's existence we have not provided theArabs with equality. We all know it, but have done nothing to correctit," she said.

Livni said that the conflict with the Palestinians had acritical effect on Arab-Jewish relations because the conflict was oneof nationalities. The only solution to the conflict was two-states, andonce that was achieved the Arabs in Israel would have to let go oftheir national aspirations and seek to integrate fully in Israelisociety, she said.

"The Arab leadership must come out and say that they want to befull citizens in the State of Israel and be willing to fight for theirrights. I will fight alongside you in that battle," said Livni.

Government Services Minister Michael Eitan(Likud) celebrated the fact that there were five ministers from hisparty in attendance. He said that he hoped the message of equality andintegration that came from the leadership would trickle down to theparty's members and that the dialogue would continue within society.

MinorityAffairs Minister Avishay Braverman (Labor) spoke about his commitmentto the population groups under his charge. The desire for full equalitywas not only just, but also smart. The major source of growth for thefuture of Israel rested in the young Arab population, and instead ofturning them into adversaries, Israel should enlist them in an effortto boost prosperity, he said.

The discrepancies between Arabs and Jews in Israel was one ofthe main problems holding Israel back from gaining membership in theOECD, Braverman said. Israel met most of the requirements to join thegroup of developed countries, including regarding GDP andentrepreneurial activities, but when it came to employment inequality,Israel was in last place among all developed countries, Braverman said.

"We should use the OECD report as a mirror, so as to better seeourselves and what we have to amend," said the minority affairsminister.

Braverman announced that the cabinet would hold a specialmeeting dedicated to the Arab minorities, where he would push forministers to commit to real funding and improvements, specifically ineducation, housing and employment.

Silvan Shalom (Likud), deputy prime minister and the ministerof Negev and Galilee affairs, spoke about the importance of changingthe national priorities. Instead of focusing on external and securityissues, Israel should look inwards and solve the urgent problems thatexist in education, health and welfare.

Theonly way to overcome the financial gaps between the populations was tomake higher education more accessible to the Arab population, Shalomsaid.

Other speakers were Industry, Trade and Labor Minister BinyaminBen-Eliezer (Labor) and ministers without portfolio Bennie Begin andYossi Peled, both from the Likud. The American ambassador, JamesCunningham, was unable to attend as scheduled due to a meeting with USMideast envoy George Mitchell, who is in Israel for a round ofdiplomatic meetings. Cunningham's deputy, Luis Moreno, spoke in hisplace.