Coffee, Zionism and our Arab minority

At my daily morning coffee stop, the barista checks with me to make sure I still want “hafuch, gadol, hazak, lakachat,” a large, extra-strong, cafe hafuch to go. I always do. The shop is conveniently located and serves a  beautiful cross-section of people in this country I love. The other day, I stood near two thirty-something women placing orders, one wearing a hijab, the other not. After the fact, I recognized that this was the first time in two years of stopping here that I saw Arab women as customers. I placed my order and waited. 11 shekel and worth it.

The barista turned to the Arab woman. Her tone challenged their order in Hebrew. Now, I have experienced taxi-driver ulpan help before. Israelis are happy to offer grammar and vocabulary corrections. It’s affectionate and helpful. This sounded different and I felt the difference in the pit of my stomach.

Nu! Mah at rotzah!?” “Nu, what do you want?!” the barista demanded.

The two Arab women looked at each other. I couldn’t tell if the look meant, “What is her problem?!” “Does she think we are idiots?!” or “Should we just get  out of here?”

The woman wearing the hijab politely restated her order.

B’seder…” the barista snapped. The two women took their coffee and sat down outside.

Then, just like that,  everything returned to a typical morning at the shop. The barista looked at me, smiled, passed me the coffee and wished me a good day. Coffee in hand, I left to catch my bus.

I love being an Israeli citizen, part of the majority, living according to the Jewish calendar, speaking Hebrew and all the other daily experiences that add new levels of meaning to my life. I get to participate in the greatest experiment in Jewish sovereignty since the destruction of the Second Temple. In less than two months, I get to vote in national elections and be part of the conversation about the future of Zionism, Judaism, pluralism, equality and democracy.

Zionism embodies the tensions between Israel being “a nation like all other nations” and “a light unto the nations,” the tensions between the values of being a Jewish and a democratic state.  We have mastered the art of being a nation like all nations.  We have corruption, discrimination against and exclusion of women, a growing income gap between rich and poor, a lack of affordable housing and a long list of other challenges,  just like other countries.  And, yes, there is racism, discrimination against and inequality toward our Israeli Arab minority, just like other countries that struggle with the scourge of racism.

It is incontrovertible truth that Israeli Arab citizens enjoy greater freedom here than their counterparts in ANY other Arab country. It is also incontrovertible truth that we have a long way to go to achieve equality for Israeli Arabs and Jews alike. A quick walk through the “mixed” neighborhood of Abu Tor in Jerusalem bears witness to the extent of the inequality. The streets in the Jewish parts of the neighborhood are well managed which is not the case in the  Arab section. The infrastructure lags far behind that of Jewish part of the neighborhood. This is just one example of the way discrimination and racism raise their ugly heads regarding the Arab minority. There are plenty of others.

Given limited resources and the myriad of problems faced, prioritizing is difficult.  A budget, however, is a financial expression of national priorities. This election is about shifting priorities to provide greater funding to different national challenges – improving education, reducing poverty, lowering the cost of living — from the priorities of the previous Knesset. Times demand that this shift extend to how we relate to the Israeli Arab minority as well.

It is time for Israel to undertake the equivalent of the Marshall Plan, the one never carried out after Israel won the War of Independence. After WWII, the victorious United States invested $17 billion in the reconstruction of European countries, including in defeated axis countries like Germany, Austria and Italy.  The logic of such an investment was obvious. The impact is felt today, long after the conclusion of the plan.  Israel should make thiseffort not only because of the obvious benefits to both sides but because it is the right thing to do.

Let’s call our “Marshall Plan,” the “Herzl Plan,” dedicated to the chevra chadasha — The New Society — envisioned in Theodore Herzl’s utopian novel, Altneuland.  Anyone could become part of the New Society. Arab members played key roles in the novel.  The Herzl Plan would make major infrastructure and educational investments in Israeli Arab neighborhoods, villages and cities.This would demonstrate, in concrete ways to Arab citizens and to us, that equality in treatment of all citizens is a core value of the Jewish and democratic State of Israel.

After implementation of the “Herzl Plan,” Israel will still need a program to create trust and relationships between Israeli Arabs and Jews.  We need to interact with one another in meaningful ways.   The best way to eliminate mistrust, to grow trust and confidence,  is to meet, get to know the “other.”  Our President, Reuven “Ruvi” Rivlin, is making the improvement of treatment of our Arab minority a cause celebre of his presidency.    Perhaps he can take this to the next level and create a national, large-scale effort to break down barriers, on the individual level,  between Arab and Jew. In doing so, President Rivlin would give life to Herzl’s Altneuland dream.

As a new oleh, I invested time getting to know the country and making a life for my family.  Mission accomplished! Now, it is time to turn attention and energy to contributing to the Zionist enterprise.  While I already do so in a number of ways,  I see this is an area where I am not yet involved.  In fact, my only interaction with Israeli Arabs up until now has been with service workers – taxi drivers, restaurant and maintenance workers.  There is an inherent imbalance in the service worker – customer relationship.  The service worker will always be polite and will probably agree with me because the interaction is transactional, not relational.  I need to change this.  How? I am sure someone who reads this will have a suggestion of an excellent effort or projects in which to get involved .  I look forward to your suggestions.

As I left the coffee shop, I asked the woman, now drinking her coffee, if she got what she ordered.

“Yes. Why?”

“I didn’t like the way she spoke to you.  It was wrong. She doesn’t speak like that to others,” I responded.

She smiled and said, “I’m used to it. That’s the way it is.”

“Yes, but it shouldn’t be.  That’s what has to change….” I said before I ran to catch the bus.

About the Author
Loren is a new Israeli Citizen and a rabbi. He lives with his wife and their two daughters in the Talpiyot neighborhood of Jerusalem. Their son attends college in the US. Loren was the director of several Jewish overnight camps including serving as the founding director of Camp Ramah Darom and Camp Yofi: Family Camp for Jewish Families with Children with Autism.
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