Thanks to government initiatives, there has been a broad-based improvement in the educational and occupational attainment of Arab citizens of Israel. In a recent essay, Ron Gerlitz (“Does Equality Stand a Chance”) noted how these improvements have generated a backlash among rightwing Israeli Jews who are falling behind; a response similar to the white backlash in the 1970s when US government policies moved American blacks forward. This essay will explore the ways these advances have created fractures within the Israeli Arab population that threaten its traditional leadership.

Between 1997 and 2005, after adjusting for inflation, the median Israeli Arab family income declined while Israeli Jewish family income grew substantially. In 2005, the Future Visions document was a unifying document with the Israeli Arab community. With the growing economic disparities between Arab and Israeli families, support for Arab autonomy was widely accepted; and the political leadership of the High Follow-up Committee and nationalist Balad party was widely accepted.

The situation of Israeli Arabs, however, began to improve under Olmert and these advances accelerated during the Netanyahu administration. As initiatives proved to be successful, despite the opposition of nationalists, more and more Arab community leaders began to cooperate with government agencies, particularly those that were aligned with Hadash. At the same time, educational and occupational initiatives began to improve the possibilities for Arab women and their labor participation rates increased substantially; for women 30 to 39 years old, it increased from 24 percent in 2005 to 34 percent in 2010.

These transformations have also occurred in East Jerusalem. Mayor Nir Barkat has substantially improved government services: investments in infrastructure and transportation, planning of neighborhoods, building of schools, and a dramatic expansion of medical facilities where today the health quality indices for East Jerusalem are the same as for West Jerusalem. These efforts have led many East Jerusalem Arabs to link themselves to the Israeli state, including a dramatic increase in residents seeking Israeli ID cards. Despite the efforts of nationalist leaders, more and more students are enrolling in school programs that prepared them for the Israeli matriculation exam.

Tensions increased when the national service option was initiated. In response, nationalist youth leaders began a campaign of intimidation. Despite these efforts, Arab enrollment has increased each year. So far, participants have been primarily Christian, Druze, and Bedouin women. However, given the benefits to both individuals and their communities, it is only a matter of time before other Muslim youth will join.

All of these changes suggest that nationalist objectives are finding less support among an increasingly upward mobile Israeli Arab populace. As more enter the middle class and have hopeful aspirations for their children, they seek constructive engagement rather than a confrontational, separatist stance. If these economic and educational trends continue, Balad will represent only those Israeli Arabs who have fallen behind.

These improvements have also created tensions within the family clan system. As more Muslim youth enter the university system and attain professional employment, they desire to move away from their home village: to Beersheva, Haifa, or Nazareth. This movement has so far been restricted to sons. However, as more Arab women expect to remain in the workforce after marriage, as more teaching positions open nationwide, it will become increasingly difficult to keep daughters in their home villages. These factors may have been an important reason why in the last election cycle, a number of Hadash mayors have been replaced by representatives of the major families.

Arab educational and occupational advances will continue despite an Israeli Jewish backlash. And Arab women will force substantial accommodations from their village leaders. However, Jewish Israelis must find ways to extend these gains into social and political spheres. As long as national symbols are solely Jewish, as long as there is no signal that responsible Arab parties can be part of a national coalition just as Jewish religious parties have been, full equality will not exist. And without full equality, nationalist voices within the Israeli Arab community will be able to maintain a significant following and continue to play a disruptive role.