Israel can learn from Martin Luther King

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is usually viewed as a real estate dispute, but it’s actually a civil rights issue. The right to live in peace should transcend religion, borders and nationalism, and the measure of success should be the level of civil rights each enjoys rather than the level of fear they inflict on each other. Why? Because the lives of Palestinians and Israelis are so interwoven that neither side can truly rest until both achieve the same basic rights. The idea that each side must first protect its own people is a mistake; the rights of each must be guarded by both. The rights to live in peace, to live as equals, to travel, to associate freely and to practice religion are so basic that depriving one side of any of them cannot allow the other side the peace it needs to prosper.

For reasons religious and historical, most Israelis have trouble accepting this point of view. When the prophet Mosses felt the need to save his people the Israelites, who were slaves in Egypt, he did not fight for equality but rather led them out of Egypt. When Theodore Herzl believed that the Jews in Europe had no chance of ever becoming equal, he laid the foundation of a Jewish State.

In contrast, Martin Luther King, facing widespread racism in the U.S., rejected the idea of American blacks moving back to Africa. Believing America should accept blacks as equals, he demanded that the nation change its attitude to accommodate basic human rights for its black neighbors.

Unlike King, who believed in the integration of his people within the general society, Moses and Herzl saw a need to segregate Jews from the people of Egypt and Europe. But Jewish segregation within Israel has not brought peace. On the contrary, it has bought constant war. Segregation is a recipe for alienation, suspicion, stereotyping and hatred; it undermines dialogue and mutual understanding. Segregation perpetuates hostility and violence and is the antithesis of progress.

Isolating Israelis from Palestinians is not only dangerous and counterproductive, it is nonsensical. Both the peoples have similar culture and history. Most Israelis are of Arab background. Many Israelis speak Arabic, and many Arabs speak Hebrew. They have the same culture, cuisine, even facial features. They visit the same holy sites and vacation destinations. They live in the same land, in close proximity, sharing the same roads, geology, mountains, lakes and other natural environments. An outsider unfamiliar with the region’s languages has a hard time distinguishing between Israelis and Palestinians.

My father, a Jew born in Iraq, spoke Arabic like an Arab and was known in the community as Abu Abraham. One of my uncles was known as Abu Salman, another as Abu Daued. As a child in Israel, I remember my parents speaking Arabic at home between themselves. They loved Arabic music. My grandparents spoke only Arabic and knew scarcely a word of Hebrew. A photo of my grandfather (Abu Salem) shows him wearing an Arabic galabia. The idea that Israelis are different from the Palestinian is factually false. Even their experience of civil rights is similar. Most Israelis, including the Europeans, immigrated to Israel from totalitarian countries, and the first time most immigrants to Israel ever voted was after they arrived. Most Arab Israelis also voted for the first time after the state of Israel was created.

Both Israelis and Palestinians need to adopt Martin Luther King’s teachings to reject segregation and find a way to live in peace. The question Israelis ask is, Can we have a Jewish state and integration at the same time? The question should be, Can Israel remain a Jewish state if it fails to integrate the Palestinians?

Continued segregation of Israelis from Palestinians guarantees perpetual violence, and no country can survive a constant state of war. The human and economic toll on a country that remains in a constant state of hostility is enormous. No country can stay on alert 365 days a year, fit and ready to fight at any moment. No government can count on its young to remain eager to fight forever. At some point, most Israelis’ nationalistic feelings will lessen or evaporate. At some point, Israel will lose the war, either physically or through sheer exhaustion. The time for Israel to achieve peace is now.

Martin Luther King understood intellectually that blacks and white could live as equals. He never experienced full integration himself, but he knew it would happen. He knew that despite the hatred of many whites for blacks, and despite the violence toward blacks by whites, equality was possible. He felt, viscerally, that there was no other choice for American society but to eradicate racism. He faced skeptics who said that blacks and whites could never live together, that they were so different culturally and even biologically, that the idea of living together as equals was impossibility. But King knew that those skeptics were reflecting their own prejudices, not a universal truth. History proved him right.

Martin Luther King did the hard work for us. His blueprints are suitable to the Israel and Palestine conflict, which is an easier problem than the King he faced. One must not forget that American whites had enslaved blacks and were still refusing them access to public services, that whites had only recently stopped lynching blacks and still referred to them in denigrating terms. Equal coexistence between blacks and whites during King’s time was further removed from probability than equal coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians is now.

The best proof that engagement between Palestinians and Jews is a realistic possibility is the coexistence of Arabs and Jews in the present state of Israel. More than 1.25 million Arabs live in Israel as full citizens, most of them Muslims. Accepting the concept of a Jewish state for an Arab Israeli is as hard as it is for a Jewish Israeli to accept the concept of an Islamic state. For Israeli Arabs, participating in Israel’s democracy has another layer of complexity because their brothers and sisters are Palestinian refugees, scattered all over the world because of the establishment of Israel. Israeli Arabs are torn between their loyalty to the state of Israel and their natural loyalties to their brothers and sisters engaged in the unending Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Nevertheless, Israeli Arabs and Jews have exemplary relationships. Israeli Arabs fully participate in its democracy and are represented in the Knesset in the same ratio as the Jewish population. Many Arabs vote for Jewish candidates, and vice versa. Their voter participation rates are identical; their economic and cultural cooperation is complete. Israeli universities include Arab and Jewish students as full and equal participants. Arabs engage in all professions in Israeli society; they are doctors, judges, lawyers and engineers. They travel freely within Israel and engage in business with Jews on a daily basis. Many Israeli Arabs are police officers and even soldiers, and Israel has no abnormal level of violence between Jews and Arabs. While Arabs do not enjoy yet full equality, the relationship between Arabs and Jews in Israeli can objectively be characterized as very good.

No one can minimize this exemplary relationship, and no one, in good conscience, can attribute this relationship to anything other than the political equality that allows engagement between Arabs and Jews. The Arab-Israeli experience inside Israel is proof that the real cure is democracy. Democracy facilitates engagement, which is the best disinfection for hatred.

The relationship between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs differs from the relationship between Israeli Jews and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza in that the latter do not share a democracy. Instead of extending Israel’s democracy to the West Bank and Gaza, Israel chose to occupy the West Bank and Gaza and exclude those 3.5 million Palestinians. The isolation between the two has bred animosity and violence. Israel must find a way to extend democracy to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

About the Author
Josef Avesar is founder of the Israeli Palestinian Confederation, which advocates for a mutual third government for Israelis and Palestinians. An American-Israeli of Iraqi background, he practices law in the U.S., but travels frequently to Israel and Palestine.