Critical Currents: Shaping a common civil space

Critical Currents Shapi

October is indelibly imprinted as a traumatic month in Israel's recent collective memory. But while the 1973 threat to its physical survival is revisited almost religiously each year, the same cannot be said of the danger to its civil and social fabric posed by the events of October 2000. The Arab riots that led to the killing of 13 Israeli citizens and one resident of Gaza exposed the extent of distrust, discrimination and mutual disillusion which, although comprehensively addressed by the official Or Commission established to delve into what happened in "Black October," have yet to be seriously tackled by policy-makers and citizens alike. Nine years have elapsed since, in the words of the members of the commission, "the events of October 2000 shook the earth." During this period, little has been done to defuse the sources of tension that paved the way to the implosion of violence. Even less has been invested in achieving the goal of what the investigators described as the only option for Arab and Jewish citizens, "living together with mutual respect." This task is now more important than ever: The future of the country's innermost being - its social cohesion and democratic character - depends on its realization. THE CONSEQUENCES of ongoing inaction, of the inability or unwillingness to rectify the lessons learned from the events of October 2000, are everywhere apparent. In its landmark analysis, the Or Commission concluded that "government handling of the Arab sector has been primarily neglectful and discriminatory. The establishment did not show sufficient sensitivity to the needs of the Arab population, and did not take enough action in order to allocate state resources in an equal manner. The state did not do enough or try hard enough to create equality for its Arab citizens, or to uproot discriminatory or unjust phenomena.... As a result of this and other processes, serious distress prevailed in the Arab sector in various areas. Evidence of the distress included poverty, unemployment, a shortage of land, serious problems in the education system and substantially defective infrastructure." Since precious little has been done to alter conditions, the situation has, sadly, deteriorated, making this description even more pertinent today. Unequal allocations between the Arab and Jewish sectors continue apace. The Barak government's promise of a substantial infusion - to the tune of NIS 4 billion - immediately after the October events fell by the wayside along with his coalition. The Lapid Committee established to implement the Or Commission recommendations failed to introduce policies that substantially ameliorated the situation in Arab towns and mixed cities (as the Acre riots of last October so painfully demonstrated). And the resurrection by the present government of the tellingly named position of minister for minority affairs has yet to be accompanied by the resources needed to give it meaning. Arab-Jewish discord has been fueled in the process, as frustration and mutual suspicion have proliferated. The publication of the "Future Vision" documents by Arab intellectuals under the auspices of the Arab Follow-Up Committee, far from generating a serious dialogue as intended, created a backlash which prompted a spate of constraining legislation and increased intercommunal mistrust. In this environment, charges of collective disloyalty have been rampant, gross bigotry has been condoned and outright racism against Arabs - anathema in the past - has been allowed to percolate into the highest echelons of the country's power structure. The spillover effects of this state of affairs on the social order have been nothing short of disastrous. The great Arab-Jewish rift has become the prelude for other sectarian closures. Israeli society increasingly resembles a series of disconnected communities with little interchange and fewer commonalities. THE NORMATIVE adhesive is also unraveling. Without the essential democratic foundations of pluralism and tolerance, the unwavering protection of civil liberties is waning. Acceptance of dissent is limited, opposition is meager and personal freedoms are flouted. Violence is commonplace in homes, schools, streets and highways. The growing disregard for individual rights has inevitably bred alienation and undermines both central authority and legitimacy. The relations between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority are thus at the heart of Israel's substantive existence and, because democracies are judged by how they treat their minorities, the key to its long-term democratic viability. Enormous attention and creativity must therefore be devoted now to shaping a common civil space for all Israel's citizens. The starting point for such an undertaking must be the recognition that different traditions, historical events and narratives inform the collective experiences of Arabs and Jews, and in all probability will continue to do so for some time to come. As the Or Commission put it so aptly: "Arab citizens must bear in mind that Israel represents the realization of the yearnings of the Jewish people for a state of its own, the only state in which Jews are the majority, a state that is partly based on the ingathering of the Jewish exile, and that this is the essence of the existence of the state for its Jewish citizens." In turn, "...the Jewish majority must bear in mind that the state is not only Jewish, but also democratic.... The majority must understand that the events that made the Arabs a minority in the state were for them a national catastrophe, and that their integration into the State of Israel was attended by painful sacrifices. The majority must respect their identity, culture and language." Acceptance of these diverging collective realities is a prerequisite for devising common symbols with which all citizens can identify; by giving them public expression, however belatedly, it might be possible to begin to lay the groundwork for a vibrant joint society. To move forward within these powerful subjective parameters, it is also necessary to carefully define the boundaries and contents of the civil spaces shared by all Israelis. Clearly equality in access and allocations in the fields of education, land rights, infrastructure, social services, development and employment must be vigorously safeguarded. So, too, should the guarantees provided by civil, political and human rights since, by definition, advanced democratic states belong unquestionably to all their citizens. The purposeful construction and entrenchment of a shared civil arena can be carried out only through conscious cooperation at multiple levels: between local communities, civil society organizations, the private sector and government agencies. It requires official policies, guidance, budgets and, above all, commitment. Nine years after the cataclysmic events of October 2000, the time has come to do everything possible and more to set our own house in order. Instead of permitting the still-open wounds of the past to continue to fester and infect its entire body, those who truly care about the country must urgently turn their attention to strengthening the building blocks for joint living. This is the way to help our chances for internal survival and also, by extension, to contribute to the resolution of its conflict with our neighbors.