It’s about time to make the Arab citizens of Israel visible.

I’m talking about the 20% of Israel’s citizens who remain mostly invisible to Israel’s Jewish citizens.  Yes, we pass by them in shopping malls, pharmacies, universities, hospitals and other public places.  And sometimes we talk to them when we call customer service at the cable or cell phone companies.  But by and large we don’t really see them.  We don’t visit their communities, our children learn in totally separate (and unequal) schools and they are largely excluded from the public space that we the Jews continue to own and operate almost exclusively.

I write as someone who works for a shared, Jewish-Arab civil rights organization (www.sikkuy.org.il) and continues to believe in the importance of implementing the equality guaranteed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence:

“(Israel)…will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.,.”

One of the areas that I’ve been looking at lately concerns the myriad academic and professional conferences held in Israel on topics of public interest from which Arab speakers are almost totally absent.  These events are widely publicized and are often used by public figures and politicians as occasions for issuing important pronouncements. One would expect that the conference organizers would seek out professionally knowledgeable voices from the Arab minority to participate in these events, just as they make sure (or should) to balance relevant representation from other important groups (women, immigrants, religious etc.).

Surprisingly (well I’m not really surprised, are you?), the opposite is the case. In the event Arab citizens are almost totally excluded from this very vital form of public discourse in Israel.

Let me give you a few examples from recent weeks:

The annual conference on “Social-Public Law in Israel 2012” sponsored by the law faculty of Tel Aviv University – 16 speakers on the program (15 Jews and 1 Arab) – http://www.law.tau.ac.il/Heb/_Uploads/dbsAttachedFiles/kenesshnati2012.pdf

Conference on “Green Growth and Green Employment: World Trends and the Israeli Case”, sponsored by the environment ministry, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and Macro, the Center for Political Economics — 20 speakers on the program (no Arabs) http://www.macro.org.il/lib/File/Green%20Jobs/InvitationGreenJobs.pdf

Colloquium on “The Jewish Obligation to the minority in a national state” at The Van Leer Jerusalem Institute” – 8 speakers on the program (no Arabs)

First conference of the Forum for Civic Action on “What Lessons Can Israel Learn from the Scandinavian Social Welfare Success Story?” —Seven speakers on the program (3 Scandinavians, 4 Jews, no Arabs) http://www.israel-restart.com/economy/

The 9th Annual Conference on Health Policy sponsored by the National Institute for Health Services and Policy Research — 59 speakers on the program (57 Jews, 2 Arabs)http://www.israelhpr.org.il/1058/480.htm

2050 Environment – Economy/Environment/Society sponsored by Tel Aviv University and Professor Yuval Levi, Adv. – with a host of environmental organization and business logos on the program – 27 speakers (no Arabs)

The Middle East Forum at the Menachem Begin Center, Jerusalem, will hold a discussion on “’Jerusalem’: How Important is it to Muslims?”  — 7 speakers (no Arabs)

The last item is particularly noteworthy because the Begin Center is not a political organization but a state-sponsored institution that has the advancement of “democracy” as one of its goals. So do you think they could find an Arab or a Muslim to speak on this subject?

The picture is not totally bleak. The Konrad Adenauer Foundation and The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development should be commended for their “Interfaith Climate and Energy Conference” which has 19 speakers on the program (4 Christians, 11 Jews and 4 Arabs).  In addition, there is simultaneous translation between English, Arabic and Hebrew.  http://www.interfaithsustain.com/interfaith-climate-and-energy-conference/#conference-schedule

And Shutafut-Sharakah – Organizations for Shared, Democratic and Equal Society of which Sikkuy is a member (http://shutafut-sharakah.org.il/eng/about-2/), deserves a gold star for its work in monitoring this issue and working to advance inclusion of Arab citizens in the public discourse.

There is no shortage of Arab citizens in Israel with the academic and professional background to participate as experts in their fields both on topics specifically concerning the Arab citizens and on general issues relevant to Israel and the world. There are Arab citizens serving in senior position in the academic community, in the civil service, in the health and justice systems and as heads of major NGOs.

For the sake of fairness, they should be sought out.  But more importantly every time we Jews close off the public space to Arabs, every time we marginalize them, every time we exclude them, every time we make sure not to see or hear them, we do damage to the very core of the democratic civil society we urgently need to strengthen in Israel — this is a vital Jewish (and Arab) interest.