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Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Israel’s Arab Sector: Best and Worst of Times

Here’s a head scratching, Israeli paradox. An increasing number of Israeli Arabs have entered the middle class in professions such as medicine (doctors, pharmacists, nurses), education (teachers, principals), and government administration (civilian and even army). That’s the good news. On the other hand, the Israeli-Arab streets are running with blood, accounting for the vast majority of murders and other types of mayhem. That’s really bad news. So how and why do they both exist at the same time?

It turns out that a paradox is not necessarily a contradiction. In this specific case, it actually constitutes two sides of the same coin!

In a word (or two), the underlying problem is economic inequality, a phenomenon found worldwide from time immemorial. When you and your neighbors and the rest of whatever society you happen to be in are all poor, you don’t feel the psychological pain of not “keeping up with the Joneses” (or Goldbergs or Darwishes). However, when you’re poor but some of those neighbors have made it into the middle class, and a few even beyond that – that’s when you feel the sting of poverty. This is precisely what’s happening in Israel’s Arab sector.

Before jumping into the details, a word about Israel’s “Arab sector.” It is not homogeneous. The large majority are Moslem, but the country also has Christian Arabs, Druze, and Circassians. Thus, the sector has several “religious” faces. It also has several geographical-ethnic sides, mainly the ethnic mainstream on the one hand and the Bedouin on the other (who themselves are split between the north, politically radical, and the south, politically moderate a la RAAM of Mansour Abbas who joined the previous “Change Government”). In short, the problem of relative deprivation within the large Arab sector is not only found within and among the mainstream Moslem group, but also is tinged with inter-subsector jealousies and conflicts between different Arab groups. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll stay within the overall Arab sector, but important nuances do exist.

Let’s start with the upbeat side of the equation. Some of the statistics are truly stunning. Almost half the new, incoming doctors in Israel are Arab or Druze! (They now constitute close to 20% of all physicians – close to their proportion within Israel’s overall population.) They already constitute around half of all pharmacists in the country. In the decade from 2010-2020, the number of Arab students in Israel’s colleges more than doubled – here too, now approximately the same as their overall population percentage. During that decade, they doubled their number in engineering, thereby joining Israel’s high-tech success story. No surprise, then, that the average Israeli Arab’s family income increased by 50% over the same period.

The downside of Israel’s Arab sector is equally astonishing in its negatives. More than 70% of homicides take place in the Arab community, even though as just noted they only constitute 20% of Israel’s total population. In effect, that means that in the past several years, proportionally about ten times more Arabs were killed than Jews – almost all by other Israeli Arabs, most involving either organized crime internal warfare or domestic violence. A 2020 report found that “Arab citizens are involved in 93% of shooting incidents, 64% of murders, 61% of arson incidents, 56% of weapons offenses, and 47% of robberies. [As a result] In 2020, 56% of those imprisoned for criminal offenses in Israel Prison Service facilities were not Jewish.” (https://www.inss.org.il/publication/violence-arab-sector-in-israel/#:~:text=Arab%20citizens%20make%20up%20about,and%2047%20percent%20of%20robberies). The situation has not gotten any better in the past two years.

Why these depressing numbers? First but not foremost, Israel’s Arab population is heavily skewed to the young – and (male) teenagers/young adults everywhere in the world are far more prone to criminal behavior than older adults. Second and far more influential: the sector has suffered for decades from governmental neglect (and at times outright budgetary discrimination), leading to poor education, severe housing shortages, lack of municipal investment (part of which is due to the Arab mayors’ not enforcing local tax payment requirements), and in general a dearth of financial services (loans, bank branches etc.). The worst situation is found among the Negev Bedouins (illegal polygamy there doesn’t help matters either). Here the problem of relative deprivation can be seen in its most acute form: socio-economically rich towns (e.g., Omer outside Beersheva) in close proximity to Bedouin tent hovels, some of which aren’t connected to Israel’s electric power grid or even have running water! Another source of relative deprivation felt by the Arab lower class: as a result of severe zoning restrictions by the Israeli government over decades that did not enable expanding Arab towns and cities territorially, increasing numbers of educated, middle class, Israeli Arabs have begun moving to what in the past were exclusively Jewish residential areas. This has led to the further destitution of Arab municipalities losing a major source of local taxes.

As the saying goes, things have to get worse so that they can get better. The Negev has become the southern equivalent of the “Wild West,” with most of the robberies et al against Jewish towns and cities. In the North (as well as in central Israel’s “mixed” cities), shootings have begun endangering Jewish bystanders and all law-abiding Arab citizens. The government finally “woke up” last year and significantly beefed up its police force, even establishing a special unit to fight Arab organized crime (for over a decade now, Israel’s police have somewhat successfully fought and dismantled the country’s Jewish organized crime gangs.)

To quote Charles Dickens’ first paragraph in his novel A Tale of Two Cities, all too appropriate for Israel’s Arab sector: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” The trend is moving in a positive direction, but the neglect has been going on for so long, and the problems so deep, that it will take more than a simple “cleaning up operation” to socio-economically bring Israel’s Arab sector close to the rest of the country. But at least there’s been a real start on that long, future road.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) presently serves as Academic Head of the Communications Department at the Peres Academic Center (Rehovot). Previously, he taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published five books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com
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