As the majority of Israelis have busied themselves with rituals of atonement and preparation for the upcoming holidays, a significant minority has been otherwise engaged. For the last few days, the Arab sector has taken to the streets to protest the lack of action to quell rampant violence and high crime rates in the sector.
The protest has been largely met with a half-hearted shrug by the government of Israel – or worse. The essence of the reaction of many Israelis, and the political establishment, to the protest was captured by Minister of Internal Security Gilad Erdan, who stated on Radio Jerusalem earlier today that “Arab society is very violent. It’s connected to their culture. Many disputes that, here, would be settled with claims – there they draw knives and guns.”
It is stunning to see the Minister of Internal Security – charged with authority over the police forces, inter alia – so blithely writing off some 21% of Israel’s citizens as violent criminals eating their just desserts. It is also a display of shockingly blunt racism from a ranking government official. And it explains a lot about the state of Israel’s Arab citizens, and the true causes underlying the ongoing protests.
When the State of Israel was first founded, and for the first decade-and-a-half of its existence, Israel’s Arab citizens lived under martial law. In 1966, the government lifted the state of martial law and set about removing the legal structures that had anchored the status of Israeli Arabs as second-class citizens. Even so, though our Arab compatriots have been equal under law for the better part of a century, they are rarely treated as such in practice. Arabs continue to face widespread suspicion and rampant discrimination in Israeli society.
This trend was particularly pronounced throughout the two election campaigns that marked 2019. In both campaigns, Israel’s largest and ruling party, the Likud, stoked sectarian fears against the Arab population as a centerpiece of their campaign. What began as hints and allusions during the first election season became far more blatant in the second. On September 11, the Likud’s chatbot was temporarily banned from Facebook for spamming followers with messages shrilling that “The Arabs want to destroy us!” There could be no doubt, to Israel’s Arab citizens, where they stood in the public’s esteem.
It was on the backdrop of this unabashed incitement that MK Aymen Odeh, chairman of the Arab Joint List that won a substantial 13 seats in the present round of elections, made repeated statements to the effect that the Arab parties might break from tradition by joining a Leftist government – something that has never happened in Israel’s history. Until now, the Arabs have always remained in the opposition. The move seemed indicative of a new determination that the Arab sector could no longer afford to be uninvolved in shaping the country’s future.
Many were surprised by the sudden enthusiasm this seemed to instill in the Arab public, with remarkably high turnout that landed the Arab parties a potential kingmaker roll in the formation of the new government. The hopes that spurred this sudden interest were quiclly dashed, however, when it became evident that a majority of parties in the Knesset would not tolerate sitting with Arabs in the government. MK Avigdor Lieberman, himself coming off a considerable election victory, released an immediate statement vowing that he would never entertain the possibility of sitting with the Arab parties, even if it meant that his party would be forced into the opposition.
With dizzying speed, Israel’s Arab public was catapulted from the spotlight back into irrelevance. They have scarcely been mentioned in the coalition negotiations that have since commenced – negotiations that are clearly and hopelessly deadlocked without them. In the following weeks, a string of violent murders in Arab cities – and the subsequent and expected lack of police interest – sparked the current protests.
There are those in the national discourse who will argue that Erdan is not wrong. After all, can we really deny the honor killings and gang violence that are known to occur in the Arab sector? Have we failed to notice the gunfire at weddings and parties, the praising of murderers that follows terror attacks?
To those arguments, I humbly submit: No. We have not. Those of us who would decry our government’s treatment of the Arab minority are not ignorant of the differences in culture that distinguish Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens. We are not so steeped in our political correctness so as to be unable to acknowledge reality. On the other hand, reality can be subject to wildly varying interpretation, based on the facts and evidence one examines – or chooses to omit. That there is violence in the sector is beyond dispute. Why is an entirely different question.
We cannot view the trends of violence in Israel’s Arab minority population as divorced from the circumstances and external influences that have defined that society throughout the State’s history. It is impossible to speak of a “culture of violence,” for example, without acknowledging the gross withholding of funds for education in the Arab sector perpetrated by successive Israeli governments, for example. Neither can this “culture of violence” be properly understood without acknowledging the refusal of the Israel Police to assign sufficient forces to Arab cities and neighborhoods. It almost goes without saying that the environment of poverty and squalor resulting from Israel’s discriminatory resource allocation policies have a significant impact on the “culture” that many Arab Israelis are raised in. All of these trends can be inexorably linked to the lack of representation of the Arab sector in the government since the founding of the State. And why haven’t they sat in the government? One might refer to Mr. Lieberman or Mr. Erdan for the answer to that question.
This afternoon, Odeh responded angrily to Erdan’s statement: “Crime in Arab society is not a product of Arab culture but government racism, a minister who sees us as enemies and refuses to protect us from the criminal organizations that obtain the vast majority of the weapons from the military. Erdan must realize that there is no room for this kind of racism in 2019. The minister is demonstrating a tribal government culture with no hint of citizenship. We will continue the fight for the most basic right of every citizen – the right to life and security.”
Indeed, it is time for us to acknowledge the truth: That it is we who have fostered this culture of violence, by withholding from certain citizens the environment of comfort and stability that we, ourselves, have benefited from. We cannot fairly compare the “culture” of an Arab child raised in conditions of oppression to that of a Jewish child raised in opulence. Baqa al-Gharbiyya is not Tel Aviv, as the budgetary gaps between the two cities will clearly attest. Would we not bridle if our own representatives were treated as pariahs in the halls of the Knesset, denying our neighborhoods critical resources? If we were raised under martial law, and our children forced to make do with the worst of education, lawlessness, crumbling infrastructure and rampant discrimination, how cynical would we find those insinuations by cabinet ministers that the crime in our neighborhoods results from our “culture?”
True, we can hardly blame honor killings on systemic discrimination. It is a sad trend that persists throughout much of the Arab world. On the other hand, we can blame the failure of certain elements in Arab-Israeli society to modernize on the failure of our own government to integrate and incorporate that culture into our own. If some Arab cultural practices (which, I should note, are far from being universally accepted) seem archaic to us, then we must ask if those elements would still be present in their current form had we not sequestered that culture in its entirety away from the progress of our universities and institutions. After all, there would be no weapons at weddings if weapons were regulated in Arab villages the way they are regulated in Jewish ones. And it is just as likely that there would be no significant difference in the rates of crime if our police forces operated at full capacity in Arab neighborhoods, the way they do in ours.
There are those who will associate the atmosphere of distrust for Israeli Arabs with the often ambiguous relationship between Arab Israelis and Palestinians. It is true that many Arab Israelis and Arab representatives have adopted the Palestinian identity; but if this is true, it says as much about our own disenfranchisement of the sector as it does about any perceived disloyalty. From outright segregation, to discrimination, to incitement, we have spent decades suppressing and alienating Arab Israeli citizens, and then accusing them of the products of those very policies. As Jew, we should be all too familiar with the dynamics that inform one’s sense of belonging to a larger society, particularly in the case of minorities. Would we be so quick to align ourselves with a society that shuns us? There’s no need to ponder that one – history has addressed it thoroughly enough.
But if the turnout rates of this past election are indicative of one thing, it’s that the winds are starting to change: Israel’s Arabs want in. They want to be a part of our society, to participate in Israeli government and in our shared culture. Israel’s Arabs extended us the olive branch this September when they came to vote for representatives who, for the first time, offered real participation in the legislative process and institutions of the State. And the disgraceful way that they have been subsequently shut out of that process is no less than a slap in the face.
So yes, there is anger on the streets. Yes, there are protests, and they are neither random, nor sudden, nor unwarranted in any sense. Today, Israel’s Arab citizens are not protesting one or two murders, nor the police’s apparent apathy, but an entire national identity that has sought to isolate them from their rightful place among us. They are marching to remind us that they are Israelis, too, and deserve to be a part of our society. Far from disloyalty, it is a message of fierce determination to seize onto the collective Israeli identity that we all take such pride in. And, if we have any hope for the future of our country as a free and pluralistic society, it is a message we cannot afford to ignore.