Redefining the Arab sector

A controversial new piece of legislation distinguishes, for the first time, between the Muslim and Christian population.

Christmas is long over but Santa still climbs the walls of this Christian family home in Jaffa; (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH 90)
Christmas is long over but Santa still climbs the walls of this Christian family home in Jaffa;
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH 90)
WHEN I ask Rajaa Natour, an Arab community leader in Jaffa, if Israel’s Christian and Muslim Arabs are separate communities, she looks incredulous.
“Of course not! We are all Arabs, we all have a shared history, culture and memory,” she says.
Natour insists that most Israeli Arabs see themselves as part of the same nation, and that their shared Arab identity is more important than religious differences.
Though she is a Muslim, born and raised in the Arab village of Qalansuwa near the Green Line, when asked about her religious identity, she tells The Jerusalem Report that she is an “Arab Palestinian.”
“That’s a national identity, not a religious one,” she adds.
I meet Natour in the courtyard of Sadaka Reut, the Jaffa-based NGO where she works to promote intercommunity dialogue.
Dressed in smart slacks and a sweater, with her black hair tucked into a fashionable beret, Natour tells me it is absurd to be discussingwhat she says are “merely superficial” differences between Christian and Muslim Arabs.
Absurd or not, there is an ongoing passionate debate in Israel over whether the Jewish state’s Arab minority should be divided into its different religions. That debate was sparked by a controversial new piece of legislation that distinguishes, for the first time, between the Muslim and Christian populations.
The new law, sponsored by Likud Knesset Member Yariv Levin, has pitted Christian Arabs who want a separate identity against those, like Natour, who say the government is simply trying to “divide and rule” the Arab minority.
On the surface, the new legislation, which passed its third reading in the Knesset at the end of February, appears positive. It prescribes that a Christian representative be appointed to the panel of the Employment Commission’s Advisory Committee for Equal Opportunity. Levin, who chairs the coalition government, claims his new legislation will help improve employment opportunities for the tiny Christian community by separating them from the Muslim population rather than “lumping minorities together,” as he puts it.
However, by explicitly designating Christians and Muslims as separate minorities, Levin’s bill has angered some of the Arab population who say it is the latest in a series of government tactics to weaken the Arab minority and prevent Israeli Arabs from making collective demands.
Natour says she is vehemently opposed to the new legislation. “The Jewish state is simply creating internal divisions that don’t exist,” she argues, stubbing out her cigarette sharply, as if to force her point home.
There are around 1.57 million Arab citizens in Israel – 20 percent of the country’s population. The vast majority (82 percent) of Israeli Arabs are Muslims, including the Bedouin population. Christians of various denominations comprise 10 percent of the Arab population, with Druze citizens making up the remaining 8 percent.
While the story in the rest of the Middle East has been one of declining Christian populations, Israel’s Christian community – 80 percent of whom are Christian Arabs and the rest mostly immigrants from the former USSR – is on the rise.
According to figures released in December 2013 by the Central Bureau of Statistics, the Jewish State’s Christian population grew by 3,000 in 2012. In sharp contrast, other countries in the region have seen Christian communities shrink, a result of reduced birth rates, economic decline, and – in some places – violence and persecution. Almost half Iraq’s Christians have left since the 2003 US invasion; tens of thousands of Syrian Christians have fled the civil war, and Egypt’s Coptic population has declined by about half over the last century.
Christian communities in the West Bank and Gaza have also shrunk, according to the World Christian Database, which says Christians accounted for around 5.3 percent of the population in 1970, but have plummeted to less than half that.
Here in Jaffa, some 16,000 of the town’s 46,000 residents are Arab. Of those, approximately 5,600 are Christians and the rest Muslim.
Natour says the real divide is not within the Arab community itself, but between Arabs and Jews. Jaffa’s Jewish and Arab children do not study together and the two communities rarely have opportunities to meet. Separating Christians and Muslims will neither promote equal opportunities for Arabs nor help the government solve the Arab-Jewish divide, she believes.
ISRAELI ARABS from other mixed towns echo Natour’s remarks. In Haifa, where 10 percent of the city’s population of 270,000 are Arabs, including an estimated 16,500 Christians, Jews and Arabs are also relatively segregated, according to Jafar Farah, the director of Mossawa Center, a Haifa-based NGO that promotes Arab rights.
Farah, himself a Christian, says Levin’s new law is “irrelevant” in terms of improving employment opportunities for Christians.
“To be honest, no one in the Arab community even cares about this law. We’ve got more important issues to deal with,” he retorts.
Far more serious, Farah tells The Report, are the gaps between Israel’s Arabs of all religions, and Jewish citizens. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, Arab citizens contribute just 8 percent to the country’s GDP.
Meanwhile, a recent report by the National Council for the Child showed that the economic gaps between Jews and Arabs are increasing, with 65.8 percent of Arab children living under the poverty line, compared with 24.2 percent of Jewish children There are also severe housing shortages among the Arab population, particularly compared with the Jewish population, Farah says. A study by Sikkuy, an NGO that promotes equality between Jews and Arabs, found that Arab municipalities control only 2.5 percent of land within Israel.
Farah says that as the economic disparities between Jews and Arabs have grown, so too have other divisions between the twocommunities. “In Haifa, neighborhoods are divided and Arab kids don’t study with Jews,” he says. The situation has deteriorated in the last two decades, with former mixed Jewish-Arab schools closing, according to Farah.
Farah says Levin’s bill could encourage these divisions by fracturing and weakening the Arab minority – something he believes would only damage Israel’s chances of a lasting peace with its Arab citizens. “Levin wants to treat Israel’s Muslim Arabs as the ‘enemy,’” he says, recalling comments Levin made to the Hebrew daily Maariv, in which the Likud MK said Christians were Israel’s “natural allies, a counterweight to the Muslims who want to destroy the state from the inside,” Farah says “What Israel needs is to have peace with the Arabs. Dividing them won’t help,” he contends.
Yet, while Farah and several Christian MKs, including Bassel Ghattas of the Balad Party, have been vocally opposed to the new law, others in the Arab-Christian community have been just as supportive. They insist they are Israelis first and foremost, and that they want full integration into Israeli society.
Last July, a group of Christians created a new party, B’nei B’rit Hahadasha (Sons of the New Testament), which promotes that integration, including via service in the Israel Defense Forces (currently army service is not mandatory for Christian or Muslim Arabs).
The leader of the group, Bishara Shlayan, tells The Report that he is not interested in what he calls a “political show” over integration; he simply believes that, as Israelis, Christians should be part of Israeli society.
Shlayan says he supports Levin’s legislation because it means the government will give minorities the specific assistance they need.
“Each sector has its own requirements. As a Christian, I have my own requirements. So, yes, we should be separated,” he insists.
For Shlayan, however, the ultimate aim of making distinctions between Christians and Muslims is not to separate the Arab community, but to strengthen Israeli identity for all citizens. “At the end of the day, we are all Israelis living in one country – together,” he concludes.
Another Christian, Shadi Halul, who heads a forum that supports Christian- Arab enlistment into the IDF, has gone further, insisting that Christians are not Arabs. “While Israel continues to define the Christian population as an inseparable part of the Arab minority group, the integration of Christians into the state will continue to be a failure,” he states on his forum’s webpage.
While Shlayan and Halul say the goal of recognizing Christians as a distinct minority is to promote Israeli citizenship, others say this is a minority view.
MARZUQ AL-HALABI, a Druze journalist from Daliat al-Carmel, 20 kilometers southeast of Haifa, says the government sees Christians as a “soft target” to split from the Arab community and believes Israel did the same with the Druze minority. Halabi says the goal of Levin’s legislation and other initiatives, such as encouraging Christians to serve in the army, is to push Christians away from the Palestinian identity and cause.
“That’s what happened to the Druze community. They were asked to serve in the army as a step to pull the Druze toward the Jewish state,” he says.
Israel’s 125,000-strong Druze population was recognized by the state as a distinct religious minority in 1957 at the request of its own community leaders. Druze men have served in the IDF since 1956, with only a small minority refusing to do so – among them Halabi, who says he was imprisoned for six months in 1979 for being a conscientious objector.
According to Halabi, as a result of thegovernment’s policy of treating them as separate from the rest of the Arab population, the Druze have been “pushed out” of the Arab Palestinian community. “Now a lot of Druze citizens vote for Zionist and right-wing parties. They still have their Druze religion and the Arabic language, but politically they are part of the right-wing Israeli community – which is absurd,” he laments.
Though some like Halabi say the new legislation will weaken Arab Christians’ affinity with the Palestinian cause, others believe the attempts to define Muslims and Christians as separate will only serve to strengthen their Palestinian identity.
“You know, we should be thanking Yariv Levin. He has put the question of who is Palestinian and who is not under the spotlight,” says Nora Mansor, a young Arab teacher from the mixed city of Acre, north of Haifa. Arab political parties in Israel will take advantage of the debate over Palestinian identity, she adds.
Mansor, whose family is of mixed Christian and Muslim heritage, says she identifies herself as an Arab-Palestinian rather than Muslim or Christian.
Like Farah, who describes Haifa as a divided city, Mansor says Arabs and Jews in Acre also live in separate communities.
“[Arabs] here are angry because they feel they are treated differently from the Jews,” she says. “Israel keeps reminding us that we are different.”
While Arab Israelis disagree over whether the new legislation and other initiatives to differentiate between Christians and Muslims will strengthen or weaken Palestinian identity, others who oppose the bill say the focus should be on developing Israeli identity and citizenship.
Aya Ben-Amos, who directs advocacy policy for the Abraham Fund, which works to build equality between Arab and Jewish citizens, says that by focusing on ethnoreligious identities the government is weakening Israeli civic identity.
“The new legislation tells Christians, ‘if you don’t define yourselves as Arabs, you can get equal rights.’ That’s damaging, and it reduces the potential for Arabs and Jews to live together,” she tells The Report.
Ben-Amos believes a Palestinian national identity is not incompatible with an Israeli civic identity and that the majority of Israeli Arabs want to be part of Israeli society. “But only as equals,” she argues. “And the way to achieve that equality cannot be through a policy of divide and rule.”
Mansor says her desire – beyond improving the economic and social position of the Arab community – is to stop the debate about differences between Christians and Muslims. Instead, Mansour insists that all Israel’s citizens should work together to heal the rifts between the country’s Arab and Jewish populations. “We can’t just rely on politics, and we can’t just work from the Knesset,” she says.
Mansor admits she is “not very optimistic” that things will improve soon, particularly after Levin’s bill passed its third reading in the Knesset at the end of February. “There needs to be a drastic change and reform in Israel’s policies. Everything is shifting to the right. There needs to be a change in the mindset of the mainstream in Israel,” she says.
According to Mansor, grassroots organiza-tions should help present a different narrative about Jews and Arabs in order to change that mindset from the ground up, rather than waiting for the government to impose ways of thinking.
In Haifa, Mossawa’s Farah says the Jewish majority also needs help from the Arab population. “We feel our mission is to reach out to the Jewish population and help end their isolation from us and from the Arab region,” he says. “Levin and his friends are proposing separation and divisions, but what we propose is a shared future.”
Back in Jaffa’s narrow, crowded streets, with their odd mix of crumbling old buildings and new, architect-designed apartment blocks, signs of the divide and signs of attempts to heal it are written on the walls. On Michelangelo Street, someone has daubed the Arabic phrase, “There is no God but Allah” several times on the side of a tiny local synagogue.
Next to it, there is a faded municipal election poster from the Yafa List, a political party that says it sees Jaffa as an “equal and multicultural city, one that will serve as a model for real coexistence.”
Across the street in Sadaka Reut’s offices, Rajaa Natour says the concept of coexistence is not good enough, and that she wants to see what she calls “binational dialogue,” where Arabs and Jews will actively cooperate with each other rather than merely living side by side.
Natour agrees with Mansor that rather than relying on lawmakers to take action, it is up to Arab and Jewish citizens themselves to reach out across the divide and help make equal opportunities.
“After all, who will create a just, equal society in mixed cities like Jaffa? Levin? No, it will be the local residents. That’s Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Together,” she emphasizes with a grin.