Ibtisam Mara’ana-Menuhim said inexcusable things about Remembrance Day. It would have been better had these words never been uttered, even by someone who was not on the Labor Party’s list of Knesset candidates.
Every year on Remembrance Day, a joint ceremony is held to commemorate Jewish and Palestinian victims. I have never attended one of these ceremonies, and it’s doubtful that I ever will. But I’ve always believed that this ceremony should be allowed to take place and that the participants’ wishes be respected. The desire of Jewish and Palestinian bereaved parents to participate in such a ceremony shows human sensitivity and tolerance toward former enemies. It lets parents on both sides experience together with each other the pain of losing a loved one. This is an exciting step that reflects our ability to overcome hatred, pain and hostility, which are the dominant feelings each side has felt toward the other in the past.
In the face of such manifestations of compassion and rapprochement, Mara’ana’s words of nine years ago sound not only hurtful, unnecessary and lacking the desire of both sides to find new avenues of connection that could lead to a reconciliation, but they are also an example of a tedious and disappointing return to the rhetoric that both sides should have abandoned ages ago.
And yet, on the fringes of the heated debate that was initiated by Israel’s far Right and their demand to disqualify Mara’ana’s right to run for a seat in the Knesset arise a few thoughts that I’d like to share with my readers.
I, of course, approve of the High Court of Justice’s decision to allow Mara’ana to run for a seat in the Knesset. First, the fact that she has married a Jew, she had to overcome the alienation of her community which must have affected her life. Moreover, Mara’ana has stated that she supports Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, and that Israel’s Jewish heritage and holidays are an integral part of the country’s traditions and her life. Whether these claims reflect her true original opinions or are the result of her recent maturation, they are surely far-reaching and, in some ways, even more patriotic than the beliefs of some Jewish MKs, for whom no one is questioning the legitimacy of their Knesset membership. But, beyond the skirmish over Mara’ana’s candidacy for the Knesset, which was led by the great democrat and knight of civil rights Itamar Ben-Gvir, we need to answer the more fundamental question about our legitimate expectations of Arab citizens of Israel.
If the extraneous noise surrounding her Knesset candidacy puts this issue on our agenda, then perhaps it was worth it. What can we really expect from Arab-Israelis?
Loyalty to the state and to its laws? Of course. It’s inconceivable that they would not be loyal to the country, and indeed the vast majority of the Arab-Israeli population is unreservedly loyal to the State of Israel and its laws. On the other hand, should we expect Arab-Israeli citizens to sing the Zionist songs together with the Gevatron, the music troupe I love so much?
The time has come for us to lay out what we expect from them in a fair and reasonable way, and for us to stop with the sanctimonious hypocrisy that ignores the fact that being an Arab-Israeli has not been easy, simple or enjoyable since Israel was founded.
We’re demanding loyalty to the state and will insist on receiving it. That is crystal clear. And yet at the same time, throughout most of the years of Israel’s existence, we have led Arab-Israelis to believe that they are not equal citizens and that they should never expect that to happen one day. We have discriminated against this community for years by restricting their freedom of movement (for reasons that may have been justified at the time) and we’ve blocked their freedom of speech in a variety of ways that do not necessarily correlate with the rules of democracy we so love to flaunt. For many years, Arab schoolchildren could not benefit from high-level education and services like Jewish schoolchildren did. We prevented Arab-Israelis from improving their quality of life, opening up businesses and creating employment and industrial centers.
For decades, we refrained from installing basic infrastructure in Arab towns and neighborhoods. Many Arab villages to this day still do not have proper sewage disposal, and waste can be seen flowing in the streets. Roads are poorly maintained in Arab towns and residents fail to receive the social and welfare services they desperately need. The quality of life in Arab areas is nowhere near the level that we expect the state to provide us and what we consider essential to ourselves. The state must rectify this situation.
HOW CAN we expect, after seeing all this, that the Arab-Israeli population express unending gratitude toward the state for letting them live here? Israeli-Arabs are loyal citizens and I believe that they love their country and are happy to be part of Israeli society. If they had to choose between living in Israel and living in a Palestinian state, most if not all of them would probably prefer to live with us among Israel’s Jews. Arab-Israelis want to live in a country that is tolerant and fair, one that can accept and respect others who are different. Arab-Israelis want the state to treat them as equal citizens. They want their young to receive the same opportunities in education, business, in the public sector and in every facet of life. More than anything, Israeli-Arabs want public discourse to be different and for us - the Israeli Jews - to be more patient and tolerant towards them.
Throughout the entire history of the State of Israel, only once did an Arab serve as a minister. It was Raleb Majadele, a member of the Labor Party, who served as a minister in the government I headed. Today, talks of cooperation with an Arab political are more of a manipulative move intended for the purposes of maneuvering rather than a genuine desire to prepare for a new, more enlightened and tolerant political and social reality.
In a country where the incumbent prime minister signs surplus vote-sharing deals with extremists such as Otzma Yehudit’s Ben-Gvir, and in a reality in which people openly and publicly lambaste anyone who dares to think about collaborating with an Arab party in the upcoming government, how do we have the gall to be so arrogant and condescending as to demand that the Arabs be grateful for all of the wonderful things we’ve supposedly done for them? At the end of the day, this all comes down to one unfortunate statement made years ago by one young Arab woman, who happens to be married to a Jew. Since then, she has apologized numerous times for what she said. Has Ben-Gvir, a partner of the leader of the gang from Balfour Street, apologized yet?
When was the last time we demanded that Ben-Gvir and his friends on the Knesset list stop inciting against Israel’s Arab citizens, or make this a condition for receiving the right to be members of the Knesset in the spirit of democracy? The time has come to put an end to our sanctimonious hypocrisy and learn how to act in a more mature manner.
I’m not asking Arab-Israelis to be more devoted to the state’s values than the fascist right-wingers are, who are now at the center of our political consensus.
Anyone who is not willing to demand that Ben-Gvir and Religious Zionist Party leader Bezalel Smotrich swear allegiance to the State of Israel as a democratic country and not only as a Jewish state should not be allowed to demand from Arab-Israeli citizens things that we aren’t willing to require from the gang of extortionists who openly brag about their right to deny Arabs and Palestinians basic equal rights they deserve.
This election is a crucial test of the willingness of the enlightened majority of people living in the State of Israel to restore sanity and equilibrium and to help us find a more balanced way that includes accepting Arab-Israelis as full citizens who are part and parcel of Israeli society and not to constantly suspect them of being disloyal to Israel, which is their home, too.
The writer was the country’s 12th prime minister.