Seize the Moment

“Who knows but that for this moment you have reached the rungs of power” [Esther 4:14].

Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List, gestures as he hands out pamphlets during an election campaign event in Tira last week.  (photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List, gestures as he hands out pamphlets during an election campaign event in Tira last week.
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
 Dear Ayman Odeh,
Recommending Benny Gantz to President Reuven Rivlin as the nominee for prime minister was a huge, positive step for Israeli Arabs. It does not matter that for tactical reasons, Blue and White has passed the mandate to Likud first.
The message has gone forth. Henceforth, no right-wing politician who wants to be prime minister can allow himself to do what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did – play to extremists in his base and on the Right by putting the Arabs down as traitors-in-waiting. Nor will they dare negotiate to bring racist Kahanists into the Knesset in order to get extra seats. Nor will they brazenly post on Facebook that the Arabs would annihilate us and then blithely disown the comment.
Such tactics – although never intended for anything but short-term political gain – will now be established as having a serious, likely permanent, political cost. The Smotriches and Zohars won’t be deterred – but any political types with serious hopes of becoming prime minister one day will get the message, loud and clear. Don’t mess with demonizing the Arabs: If you do, you lose out.
It was never about whether you were ready to join a governing coalition. Nor is Blue and White able or willing to invite you in. Such a step is too soon for most of the Jewish Israeli public. You and the Joint List (or a fraction thereof) will have to change certain behaviors and policies in order to break down powerful elements of distrust and resentment among Jewish Israelis. In response, Jewish-Israeli public opinion must mature and incorporate the full implications of being a democratic state in terms of acceptance and affirmation of minorities.
But by acting to join the process of forming a government, you have opened the door to an era of Israeli Jewish-Arab cooperation in discovering a common destiny – in making Israel a Jewish and democratic state in which Arabs and all minorities are fully at home and fully equal.
To truly make history, you must not stop here. Seize this moment. This should be your first decisive step in a lifetime mission. Accept the Jewish state, but determine to make it a democratic regime that will fully integrate its Arab citizens. Driven by a politically energized Arab minority, the state will move toward full civic equality – toward equal opportunity; full access to higher education; adequate and equal policing; fair sharing of economic development and infrastructure building; genuine multiculturalism; and respect for differences in the private sphere. If you and your community will it, it is no dream.
You would have to make up your mind to become the Martin Luther King of the Arab Israelis. In the United States – knowing the existing inequality, the entrenched racism within the majority, the social barriers, and the existing problematic cultural norms inside the black community – MLK decided not to lapse into black separatist nationalism. He was determined to drive the country to live up to its higher ideals and become a true democratic society for everyone, equally.
You, and the Israeli Arab community after you, would have to make a similar determination. This means giving up being soft or empathetic on Palestinian terrorism. This means turning your back on flirting with Islamic fundamentalist rejection of the right of Jews to a state. You would have to give up showing disrespect for Jewish political allies, past and present, like Shimon Peres. There would be no more appealing to alienated elements in the European Union and other foreign powers or the United Nations, charging apartheid. You would have to give up the trope that Israel is entirely to blame for Palestinian social problems, or retrograde governance – or all the ills of Arab society in and beyond Israel.
TO GO down this road, you would have to wager that the Jewish majority can be inspired/driven/pulled toward living up to the Declaration of Independence. The founding document and basic charter of Israel states that it “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race or sex.” Help all the people of Israel realize the Declaration’s promise: that the state “will be based on freedom, justice and peace” and “will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants.”
If you do this, you will massively upgrade the lives and dignity of all the Arabs and other minorities in Israel, with spillover and impact on the Palestinians and beyond. You will become one of the heroes and moral guides of the Jewish population, as well as making their lives so much better. This is despite disillusionment and disappointment among liberal and moderate Jews, and despite the growth in numbers of Jews who do not feel that Arab equality is essential or who put control of larger territory ahead of citizens’ rights. I assure you that a significant majority of Jewish Israelis will come together for the realization of full democracy in the Jewish state.
I do not underestimate the incredible effort and risk you would be taking to pursue this path. In the past you flirted with this approach – then turned back, presumably for weighty reasons. You will encounter fierce backlash in your party and your community. Martin Luther King was assassinated and his vision is not yet fully realized. But his cause – freedom, equality, dignity for all – is well on its way to realization. You too can become an iconic figure – a liberator and life improver for your people, a great Democrat, a moral hero for the Jews – and a blessing in the Middle East.
Seize the moment. To paraphrase my tradition: “Who knows but that for this moment you have reached the rungs of power” [Esther 4:14].
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg is an oleh (immigrant) who was a leading public intellectual and communal activist in American Jewry for half a century.