Does equality stand a chance?

The relations between the Arab citizens of Israel and the State of Israel and the relations between the Arab citizens of Israel and Israel’s Jewish citizens are difficult and fraught. These are two groups that differ in almost every possible way: religion, language, culture, and national identity. Almost all Jews and Arabs live in their own localities and study in separate educational systems. Moreover, the Arab minority is indigenous; it had been the majority group and in 1948 became the minority in the wake of the Nakba, the peak of the violent conflict between the Zionist movement and the Palestinian Arabs in Israel. The national conflict still exists, and the relations between the Jewish citizens and Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel are part of it.

Israel’s Arab citizens suffer from severe inequality in many areas. The 65 years of discriminatory allocation of resources since the founding of the State (including the transfer of land and of many means of production from Arabs to Jews during the first two decades of Israel’s existence) have created a physical space in which Jewish citizens and communities have more resources than their Arab counterparts, including land and industrial and employment zones. There has never been parity between the two populations in the regular allocation of funds from the State budget in any sphere. In the realm of national resources and national symbols, there is not merely inequality; there is total Jewish control of the symbols of the State and the definition of the State. Jews also have exclusive possession of the keys to the State and to naturalization, which is reserved only for Jews.

Is there, nonetheless, a chance for equality between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens? I believe there is. But before looking to the future, I would like to look at the present and examine the trends that currently characterize the relations between Arabs and Jews in Israel and between Arabs and the State. It is common to think that relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel are getting worse. I think that this belief is mistaken. As I have seen in my work during the past five years as co-executive director of Sikkuy – The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality, there are a variety of attitudes and actions in relations between Arabs and Jews in Israel.

There are many voices, forces, policy, and actions that oppose equality and partnership between Arabs and Jews and work against Israel’s Arab citizens. Discrimination against Arabs is not new. The negative trend of recent years has three main characteristics. The first is political legitimacy: Avigdor Liberman built an entire political campaign that was directed against Arab citizens in the elections for the 18th Knesset and was subsequently appointed foreign minister in the government that was formed. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu joined forces with Liberman in late 2012 to form the joint Likud-Beiteinu list for the current Knesset, Netanyahu gave full political legitimacy to the man who had led that campaign and who symbolized the attack on Israel’s Arab citizens. It is hard to overstate the severity of this deed.

In the last Knesset, we saw a wave of legislative initiatives that targeted Israel’s Arab citizens. These initiatives were supported and promoted by MKs from Yisrael Beiteinu, and parliamentarians from the Likud and even Kadima supported the initiatives. A prime example is the Nakba Law that was passed by the Knesset. One of the most appalling pieces of legislation on the books, it authorizes the finance minister to reduce government funding to any public body that marks the anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel as a day of mourning. Thus, for example, the finance minister could reduce the regular budget of an Arab local authority if that authority commemorates the Nakba. This law, which is aimed directly at Israel’s Arab citizens, passed with the support of nearly all the parties in the coalition.

Second, the citizenship of Israel’s Arabs is being called into question in an unprecedented manner and there are frequent proposals to strip Arab citizens of their citizenship. These initiatives range from Liberman’s idea of a land swap in Wadi Ara (which would involve massive revocation of Israeli citizenship) through various attempts by coalition members to pass a variety of “no loyalty, no citizenship” laws, which have introduced into public discourse the notion that the citizenship of Israel’s Arabs is dependent on their bowing to the consensus. There is no longer a question of whether Arabs can be trusted or whether they should be allotted resources or rights in return for fulfillment of obligations (these are problematic questions, but they are not new). This is a quantum shift—an attempt to strip Israel’s Arabs of their very citizenship. To date, the attempts to revoke citizenship have failed, but the message to the Arab citizens is clear: either keep quiet or lose your basic civic rights.

The third new development is violent attacks against Arab citizens. Despite the pain of the loss of life in the conflict between Jewish and Arab citizens inside Israel (including the 13 people killed in the events of October 2000, but others as well, on both sides), one can say in general (and certainly as compared to other places in the world) that the conflict between Jews and Arabs in Israel is a nonviolent ethnic conflict that is taking place in the context of a violent ethnic conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. The wave of violent attacks against Arab citizens and their property during the past two years, the number of casualties, the sense of fear among Arab citizens, and the inability of the police to respond effectively—these are all new and disturbing trends.

These three new characteristics join the long trend of utter indifference to how the Arab-Palestinian citizens feel about the Israeli occupation, which oppresses members of their people. The occupation is nearing its fiftieth year. But when Israel launched its operations against the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip in 2008–2009 and again in 2012—offensives in which the IDF killed nearly 1,500 Palestinians (many of them civilians and children)—no one took into account that the people that the IDF was attacking were the people of Israel’s Arab citizens, and in many cases, were their family members.

The political and social forces that are working to curtail the rights of Israel’s Arab citizens have, unfortunately, gained public support and unprecedented power in the government, in the current Knesset, and in the last Knesset, and are achieving their aims in various fields. However, at the very same time and in the very same place, other powerful, influential, and no less numerous forces are working to promote equality and partnership and to develop good, humane, and normal relationships between Jews and Arabs in Israel. Following are some examples.

As part of Sikkuy’s equality policy promotion activities, I meet regularly with senior officials of government ministries. Almost each and every time, I am surprised to meet government workers who not only admit that unequal policies exist but are also working to increase the resources allotted to Arab localities and attempting to close the gaps. From my acquaintance with government officials I can attest that this is not unusual; in fact, it is actually a widespread phenomenon. The Israeli government uses a broad spectrum of policy tools to promote employment for Arab citizens, including the powerful and expensive tool of providing employers who hire Arabs with subsidies for salaries in various economic sectors, such as hi-tech.

Senior economic figures in the public service, academia, and the private sector consistently speak out in favor of promoting employment of Arab citizens, integrating them into the economy, and narrowing gaps. For the past several years, The Marker, the main financial paper in Israel has been waging an ongoing and systematic campaign on the issue. An increasing number of important businesspeople are working steadily and are investing personal and organizational resources to integrate Arab citizens into the companies they manage and to absorb them into Israeli society and the Israeli economy. These businesspeople are joining the vigorous activity of civil society organizations working to promote an equal and shared society, and are becoming involved in professionalizing these organizations and expanding their support base. It is also important to mention Jewish philanthropy, especially organizations in the United States in the center of the political map that are working to promote equality. These philanthropies are allocating more and more resources to organizations that seek to strengthen Arab society in Israel. In addition, a gain in symbolic resources was recently announced, when the University of Haifa declared that some Arab holidays would be official vacation days on the academic calendar.

The efforts of government officials and opinion shapers to enhance the situation of Arab society and promote equality are not taking place in a vacuum. In fact, they enjoy extensive public support. A comprehensive public opinion poll conducted several years ago by Sikkuy revealed that most Jewish citizens (74%) recognize the fact that there is discrimination against Arab citizens and that 60% of Jews see increased equality for Arab citizens as in the national interest. Almost 40% of Jews are in favor of a plan that would narrow the gaps between the sectors even if it would harm them personally, expressing willingness to pay a personal price in order to achieve this goal. The study also showed that most of the Jewish population supports economic, political, and social integration of the Arab citizens of Israel (70%, 52% and 65%, respectively).

In the wake of activity by these actors in recent years, we have witnessed a steady narrowing of the gaps between Jews and Arabs in the material domain. The rate of this decrease is extremely slow, but the trend is clear and even widespread. In some policy areas, there has been a noticeable improvement in allocations to Arab citizens and communities in areas such as the allocation of budget-balancing grants to local authorities, education and welfare budgets, and public transportation services. The employment rate among Arab women has doubled, from 10% in 1990 to 22% in 2011. The percentage of Arabs in the civil service rose from 5% in 2003 to 8% in 2012—a 60% increase in less than a decade. Between 2009 and 2013, over 1,000 Arab workers joined the high-tech workforce, blazing the trail for others.

It is not my intention to whitewash reality. There is severe, deep-seated, and structural inequality between Jews and Arabs in Israel, which is a direct result of discriminatory policies that continue to the present day. Almost all the progress that has been made has been in the material realm, rather than in the realm of symbolic resources. Nonetheless, it is important to point out that at the same time, there is also a positive trend and some people and organizations are making practical and productive efforts to reduce inequality. It is also worth noting that the Hebrew-language media, and even more so the Arabic media, emphasizes the negative trend and this prominence affects Israeli society as a whole and the Arab sector in particular.

Thus, two contradictory trends are at work simultaneously within Israeli society: trends that encourage equality and trends that oppose it, trends that aim to create a shared society and improved relations, and trends that encourage separatism and a worsening of relations. Both of these trends are present in the public and political spheres and are tied to each other: they feed off each other. I believe that the negative forces and attacks on Arab citizens are a result of and a response to the increased strength of Arab society and to the beginnings of the integration of Israeli Arabs into the centers of power, the economy, and society in Israel.

As long as Arab citizens were weak and totally excluded, they did not threaten Jewish hegemony. When I was young, in the 1970s, a Jew who never visited an Arab town or village saw Arabs only as manual laborers in landscaping and construction. Today, the situation is entirely different. Jewish citizens who walk into a pharmacy will almost always see an Arab pharmacist; if they go to the emergency room in the middle of the night, they are likely to be treated by an Arab doctor. If they call their HMO or cable company, they will frequently be served by an Arab telephone operator; if they are dissatisfied with their service and ask to speak with the shift manager, they will discover that many shift managers are Arabs as well; and if they are racist enough to ask for a Jewish operator, they will find that there are rules that forbid compliance with such a request. Jewish university students already have Arab lecturers; sometimes they will even have an Arab department chair or college president. There has already been an Arab director general of a government ministry (the Ministry of the Interior) and an Arab minister (the Minister of Science, Culture and Sport). Perhaps the situation today is best represented by the fact that not only is the average citizen exposed to the growing power of Israel’s Arab citizens, but even the president of the State of Israel: Moshe Katsav was tried by a panel of judges headed by an Arab, and was convicted of rape and sent to prison for an extremely long time.

Today, Jews in Israel are not always in a position of superiority; they are no longer at the top of every ladder, every ranking, and every situation. And this shakes up the world order. The nationalist right is extremely concerned by the breaking of the total hegemony of the Jews and the increased power of Arab citizens, and is beginning to take counter-measures. In contrast to many people on the left and in the Arab sector, who make light of the economic and social integration of the Arabs, perhaps people on the right are better at identifying the hidden potential of the situation, are responding to it, and are trying to curtail Arab rights in order to halt what they see as a dangerous process. But their response is a reaction. If Arabs were still only manual laborers, right-wing MKs would not be rushing to limit Arab rights, threatening to strip Arabs of their citizenship, or attempting to thwart their economic integration. The attacks on the Arab citizens of Israel are serious, undemocratic, and dangerous, but—and this is the main point—their intensity also attests to the strength and success that Arab society has achieved and to the positive forces in Israel society that are promoting equality and partnership.

It is unwise to deny the positive trend (in an article that I co-authored with Batya Kallus, we stated that it is dangerous to deny the positive trend “A Dangerous Position” ). Even in the shadow of widespread and methodical discrimination, this trend can bring about far-reaching change, especially if it continues to grow stronger. It can serve as the foundation for constructing a shared and equal society for Arabs and Jews in Israel and improve the socio-economic situation of Arab citizens in a way that will also give them a better opening position when they contend with the big national questions. We should continue to encourage all those working to reduce the gap (in civil society organizations, the media, and especially in government ministries) and provide them with the tools necessary to carry out this process. At the same time, of course, we must redouble the fight against the negative trend in all arenas, including internationally. Racists, people who discriminate, those who are responsible for exclusion, and all those who abet them must pay a price.

Which trend will determine the future of relations between Jews and Arabs? Are we headed toward decreased tensions, good relations, equality, and partnership? Or, heaven forbid, are we headed toward conflict and a deterioration in relations? I don’t know. Over the course of history, ethnic conflicts that were far more violent and challenging have been resolved, while conflicts that seemed relatively calm have become bloodbaths. I will conclude with the words of the Israeli Arab citizen Raef Zreik: “My optimism does not stem from the belief that one can decipher history’s hidden plan or hasten its development. My optimism is more modest: it is the result not of clear analytical thinking but of historical experience. Experience teaches us that sometimes—but only sometimes—there are historical stories with a happy ending. History also teaches us that such endings do not happen by chance; rather, there are those who toil to bring them about. … And it is worth remembering: Just as we have no assurance of success, neither is there any certainty of failure.”

Ron Gerlitz is co-executive director of Sikkuy – The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality, and an expert on government policy toward Israel’s Arab citizens.

This article was first published in Hebrew in Volume 76 of Parliament, the online journal of the Israel Democracy Institute, which focused on issues of inequality between Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel.

The article was also published in Arabic in Qadita website.


About the Author
Ron Gerlitz is the co-executive director of Sikkuy-The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality