In a poll released a few days before the elections in March– which was reported on in one of Israel’s main daily newspapers, Yediot Aharonot–there were some amazing findings about the attitudes of Palestinian Arabs of Israeli citizenship concerning the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and to the future of their lives as citizens in the state of Israel. These findings not only contradict much of the “conventional wisdom” about Palestinian Arabs who live in Israel, but they also point the way for new possibilities for Arab-Jewish Coexistence within the country that were unimaginable if one listened to much of the extremist political rhetoric of some of the prominent leaders of the Palestinian Arab minority in Israel.
In the survey– which was conducted in Arabic by Yosef Maklada, Director of the Statnet Research Institute, and was published on March 13th, 2015, the Friday before the elections in Israel—77% of the Palestinian Arabs of Israel said that their new Joint List should focus on economic and social changes in the Arab sector in Israel (as opposed to only 16% who said that their political party should focus on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict). In addition, 71% favored the Joint List joining the coalition government! Furthermore, 64% were optimistic about the future of relations between Arabs and Jews in Israel!!
These remarkable findings of this poll shed important light– which is often not seen amidst the darkness of the statements of some Israeli Jewish politicians, including our Prime Minister, on the eve of the election—on the real hopes and aspirations of Palestinian Arabs who are citizens of Israel who make up 20.7 % of the population of Israel. According to the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, the State of Israel has a population of approximately 8,296,000 inhabitants as of the end of 2014– 75% of them are Jewish, about 6,218,000 individuals, 20.7% are Arabs (about 1,719,000 individuals), while the remaining 4.3% (about 359,000 individuals) are defined as “others”.
It seems that the overwhelming majority of Palestinian Arabs who live in Israel are not as radicalized as our mass media generally portray them. On the contrary, even though they are not “Zionists” –they would certainly have preferred that the Zionist movement did not come into being and turn them into a minority in their own land—they nevertheless are overwhelmingly pragmatic and are seeking ways to integrate into Israeli society, while at the same time they wish to preserve their own cultural and religious identity as much as possible.
The critical question now and for the future is: How will the Jewish majority respond to this?
With a right-wing government in Israel about to be formed—with many of the political parties who will be in the government expressing openly anti-Arab attitudes on a daily basis and seeking to pass laws which will further discriminate and isolate Palestinian Arabs in Israel—the prospects for improvement in Arab-Jewish relations in Israel do not appear to be too promising. It appears that once again, another Israeli government will do everything possible to continue to marginalize the Palestinian Arab community, even if this is clearly against the enlightened self-interest of the state of Israel.
There is, however, one bright light on the horizon in Israeli leadership. This is coming from a former politician who has recently turned statesman. I am referring to Israel’s relatively new President, Reuven Rivlin (in office since July 24, 2015), who has made Arab-Jewish Coexistence within the state of Israel one of his most important flagship issues. To his credit, President Rivlin has realized and stated over and over again, that destiny has brought Jews and Arabs to live together within the state of Israel, so we might as well get on with this.
He repeats this message often and with utmost seriousness even though, as a veteran Likud politician, he does not extend his thinking on this issue to the issue of how the state of Israel ought to relate to Palestinian Arabs who live in the West Bank (or Gaza). Rivlin believes that the state of Israel should actually function as a democracy, at least vis-a-vis Palestinian Arabs who are citizens of Israel and live within the green line. As far as Palestinians who live in the West Bank or Gaza,he prefers to main silent–probably because this is too “political” and he wants to be a president of all the people—even though it is widely known that in his political days, he was a supporter of the Greater Land of Israel movement, and was not in favor of territorial compromise.
Nevertheless, President Rivlin has become the leading Jewish Israeli spokesperson for the democratic rights of Israel’s Palestinian Arabs. In addition, he has repeatedly rejected racist speech and prejudicial attacks by Jews against Muslim and Christian Arabs, and their mosques and churches in Israel.
Last year, before he became President, he joined a demonstration organized by the Tag Meir Forum, at which I was present, against the Tag Mechir (“Price Tag”) phenomenon of vandalizing property and writing anti-Arab graffiti on walls. On that day, we were denouncing vandalism in the Israeli Arab town of Abu Gosh. And since he has become president, he has made it very clear that these attacks—which are widely known to have been carried out by young Jewish settler extremists—must be unacceptable in our society.
It is my hope that President Rivlin’s leadership in this matter will not just be symbolic. I believe that he represents mainstream Jewish thinking on this issue in Israel. Most Jews know that since “we were strangers in the land of Egypt”— we know from our history all too well what this is about—it ought to self-evident and abundantly clear that the state of Israel should treat the non-Jews in our midst in a fair and decent way. Much more needs to be done about this, beyond lip service, in the months and years ahead.