Breaking the other silence

Image courtesy of The Abraham Initiatives.
A man at a demonstration wearing a shirt that says 'Arab Lives Matter' in English, Arabic, and Hebrew. (courtesy, The Abraham Initiatives)

Since arriving in Israel in September, I encountered a political slogan that I never heard on my North American university campus: not “Am Israel Chai” or “Free Palestine,” but “Arab Lives Matter.”

“Arab Lives Matter” is a slogan popularized by The Abraham Initiatives, a non-profit aiming to fulfill civic and social equality between Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel. Inspired by the influential Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, the campaign aims to draw attention to the disproportionate number of murders among Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Unlike its American counterpart, however, Arab Lives Matter focuses on murders that are the result of criminal activity as opposed to police brutality or racially motivated conflict. The campaign also differs as it calls for greater, more effective policing among Palestinian-Israeli communities – not police abolition – as a remedy to these problems.

It is likely that you have already read an article – perhaps on Haaretz, The Jerusalem Post, or even here on The Times of Israel – that ends with one of the sobering statistics on how many Palestinian citizens of Israel have been murdered this year. These statistics are available to the public because The Abraham Initiatives tracks the murders of Palestinian citizens of Israel, hoping that sharing these tragedies can bring attention to the urgency of this issue.

In 2022, The Abraham Initiatives reported a shocking 116 murders among Palestinian citizens of Israel. Many of the victims came from the Galilee region and mixed cities in Israel, and most deaths were the result of gun violence. Many of these victims were young people, including a victim as young as two years old. As of May 30th, 2023, there have already been 85 murders of Palestinian citizens of Israel this year.

This violence has traumatized Israel’s Palestinian citizens. According a 2022 study of residents in Umm-Al Fahm, a predominantly Palestinian town in northern Israel, 92% of respondents cited crime and violence in their city as the most important issue to their community, outweighing inequality, unemployment, or the floundering Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Likewise, many residents of Umm-Al Fahm reported a strained, distrusting relationship with the police – a relationship that has no doubt worsened since the recent election.

Despite this suffering, some security officials in Israel place the onus exclusively on Palestinian society for these tragedies, while ignoring the state’s responsibilities to protect all its citizens. These statements portray the murders of Palestinian citizens of Israel as an inevitability, rather than a preventable tragedy the state can and should help minimize. Unfortunately, a toxic culture of victim-blaming has become normalized in Israel that ignores many of the root causes of these problems.

This high murder rate among Palestinian communities in Israel is a result of many factors, including low socio-economic status and a lack of access to education and career opportunities. With stark economic disparities and dwindling hope for a better future, many Palestinian citizens of Israel turn to crime, which in turn fuels and perpetuates many of these murders. Coupled with a government that at times expresses ambivalence to this situation, all Israelis must emphasize that “Arab Lives Matter.”

The Arab Lives Matter campaign must inspire change among the Israeli government and society. In the short term, the police and the government must envision tackling crime and violence in Palestinian communities as a foremost priority. General Resolution 549 provides 2.4 billion shekels for tackling crime and violence in Palestinian-Israeli communities over a five-year period. This investment will fund programs to confiscate weapons and build new police stations in majority-Palestinian neighborhoods. This resolution – built upon The Abraham Initiatives’ recommendations – is a positive step in the right direction, and Israelis must continue to support similar policy.

In the long term, Israelis must also continue to promote both government and grassroots initiatives to improve the socio- economic conditions of Palestinian citizens. General Resolution 550 invests 30 billion Shekels in encouraging economic development for Palestinian citizens of Israel, including in areas such as education, health, and welfare. Investing money and care into Israel’s most vulnerable sectors will provide opportunities for Palestinian citizens to escape destructive cycles of poverty and violence. This strategy – not racist remarks by Israeli officials – will provide a safer Israel for everyone.

Prior to moving to Israel, I had no idea about the high murder rate among Palestinian citizens of Israel, just as I did not know about the plight of Eritrean asylum seekers, food insecurity in the ultra-Orthodox community, or post-traumatic stress disorder rates among IDF veterans. These issues do not inspire flashy campus narratives the way talking about the Israel-Palestine conflict does, but they nevertheless texture and contextualize the dynamics of life in Israel today.

Understanding these nuances has given me a greater appreciation for Israel and its complexities today. With more information, I can see beyond the catchy slogans and laptop stickers on campus to notice how events in this country connect and interrelate. In the fall, when I return to university in North America for a master’s degree, I know my time here will allow me to engage with campus politics and media coverage on Israel more holistically. I challenge myself and my peers to focus not only on the stories that make headlines in the media, but the communities – and lives – often omitted from the conversation.

About the Author
Sam Shepherd (he/him) is a recent graduate of McGill University, where he studied history, literature, and Jewish Studies. He is currently volunteering in Lod as part of the Yahel Social Change Fellowship, in which he works as an English-language teacher and community volunteer. Sam is also an intern at the Abraham Initiatives for 2022-2023.
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