Jews and Arabs living side by side

Democracies are judged by efforts to assure minorities genuine equality – not only in their laws’ official texts, but also in day-to-day reality.

Israeli Arab protesest 311 (photo credit: Ammar Awad/Reuters)
Israeli Arab protesest 311
(photo credit: Ammar Awad/Reuters)
Ever since the Likud party won the pivotal national election of 1977, its leaders and rank-and-file adherents have been proclaiming that Israel is “a Jewish and democratic state.”
The former qualification is arguable if only because nearly a fifth of the population is not Jewish. And the latter is difficult to maintain if only because the state does not have a written constitution which would assure democratic behavior and restrict government involvement in religious affairs and activities.
Democracies are judged by the status of their ethnic, religious and racial minorities and by their efforts to assure them genuine equality – not only in their laws’ official texts, but also in day-to-day reality.
The status of Israel’s Arab minority (nearly 20 percent of the population) is a case in point.
Here are a few examples: Only 2% of Israeli Arabs are employed by the various government ministries, except in the Interior Ministry, where they constitute 6% of the staff (presumably because its tasks require more contact with Arabs than any of its counterparts); the diplomatic corps includes a minuscule number of Arabs of whom only one ever served as an ambassador; industries whose output is linked to national defense do not hire Arabs, a policy facilitated by the requirement that all employees must be former military personnel.
This excludes Arabs simply because they are exempt from compulsory conscription; Until Ariel Sharon’s ascension to the premiership in 2001 few if any boards of directors of state-owned companies had Arab members. (Sharon ordered that each of them must include at least one Arab.).
Housing is another sector in which discrimination if not outright prejudice against Israeli Arabs is a perennial problem.
In one recent case, an Arab couple had to go to court to be able to live in a house they had bought in one of the (predominantly Jewish) settlements in the Wadi Ara (also known as Emek Iron) area of central Israel. They were rejected by their prospective neighbors simply because of their ethnic and/or religious identity. The fact that the husband was a member of one of the elite professions did not mollify those who opposed the requisite real-estate deal.
A distinguished and nationally known Israeli Arab journalist told of the problems that confronted his daughter who had married a Jordanian.
“She wanted to come back to Nazareth to be at her ailing mother’s side,” he said. “The authorities refused to allow her husband to join her here.”
Such a restriction would not have been imposed had he been a citizen of a country outside the Middle East. Jordan’s commitment to a peace treaty with Israel did not carry any weight in his case.
One of the consequences of the Israeli Arabs’ problem as citizens of the so-called Jewish and democratic state is that their younger generation must cope with a much narrower range of opportunities in the country’s economic sphere. Youthful ambitions must conform to conform to the Israeli reality.
In the United States, the belated realization that the long-segregated school system (“separate, but equal”) that existed until the 1960s caused a psychological handicap that denied young blacks genuine equality as advocated in the US Constitution led to fuller democratization of the school system.
There is ample evidence that the Israeli Arabs want to be and indeed are an asset to the country in which they live. They play an important role in the national economy, obey the law and coexist peacefully with their Jewish neighbors.
A recent proposal by right-wing members of the Knesset that some of their towns be transferred to the projected Palestinian state as part of a territorial exchange with the Palestinian (National) Authority was rejected in toto and dismissed by them as a denial of their rights as citizens of Israel (!) One of most disappointing aspects of this situation is the antithesis of what many Jews abroad expected 64 years ago (in 1947) when the Jewish state was in its final embryonic stage.
They thought it would be an example to the rest of the world insofar as its treatment of minorities was concerned. After all, they thought, after nearly 2,000 years of diaspora during which Jews were the victims of prejudice, discrimination and physical cruelty, they expected the Israelis-to-be to treat the Arabs and all other minorities in exemplary fashion.
Unfortunately, this was not to be.
In today’s Israel there is far too much callousness in the mine field of inter-communal relations.
It even extends to the ostensibly decent and well-meaning adoption of the two states for two peoples concept and is epitomized by the slogan fostered by Ehud Barak when he ran successfully for the premiership: “Us here; them there.”
Ironically, interest in the Arabic language, Arab history and culture among the Jewish majority is minimal among Israel’s most outspoken peace advocates. Relatively few of them know Arabic or wish to know it. Concurrently, there has been little if any reciprocation for the Israeli Arabs’ unabashed adoption of Hebrew as their second language – a state of affairs that did not exist during the first decade of Israel’s existence.
And the fact that graffiti artists are sullying the country’s cities and towns with tributes to the late Rabbi Meir Kahane’s advocacy of mass expulsion of Israeli and presumably of Palestinian Arabs (from the West Bank) with the words, “Kahane Was Right” is a reprehensible expression of this shameful attitude.
It is time for a reassessment of the core issues of Jewish-Arab coexistence in Israel, for a reform of the elementary and secondary school curricula that would encourage the study of Arabic as the country’s second official language and stress the positive aspects of Arabic culture.
After all, the “Golden Age of the Jews in Spain” was the outcome of a flourishing exchange of ideas and values between the two peoples. And since history can repeat itself, let it do so in this sphere here and now.
The writer is a veteran journalist.