As a former employee of the Israel Foreign Ministry, Birthright alumni, and Hillel participant, I consider myself a strong supporter of the State of Israel. I am fully aware that Israel is a country still in its infancy, grappling with its identity, and struggling with how to be an equitable democracy for all of its citizens. The country defines itself as a Jewish State, the very definition of which is constantly debated against the backdrop of a lack of a formal Bill of Rights.
Israel’s population is diverse and complicated. Its Arab citizens comprise about 20% of the total population, and include Muslim, Christian, and Bedouin Citizens. These often “forgotten” citizens of Israel face numerous barriers to full integration and political engagement. This trend is best observed in “mixed cities” where about 13% of Arab Citizens are living alongside Jewish neighbors. Among their challenges, citizens face discrimination in resource allocation, and exclusion from both the economic sector and public policy decisions. In Arab majority towns, residents suffer from the presence of organized crime and an absence of a police presence to combat it. The severe lack of public land makes infrastructure development nearly impossible. In the towns themselves, there is often little economic opportunity.
Last week I was privileged to participate in The Abraham Fund Initiative (TAFI) retreat for its international board members. I had the opportunity to visit Kfar Qasem, about an hour outside of Tel Aviv along Israel’s border with the West Bank. While touring the town and hearing from some of its residents, I was struck by how insular the town is. Kfar Qasem is located just two kilometers away from the neighboring Jewish town Rosh HaAyin, yet the two populations rarely come into contact. This is not a viable way to sustain a country, and will only lead to more isolation and distrust.
As an Israel supporter, I have always been insistent that there needs to be a dedicated fight for civil rights of minorities. After visiting Kfar Qasem, I realized the problem is much broader. It is easier to discriminate against a group of people who seem foreign. Encounters with the “other” are crucial to creating a sustainable society in Israel, one that is shared and not divided.
There is an immense amount of work to be done in order to achieve this goal. The Abraham Fund makes an important contribution to the effort by creating shared learning opportunities for Jewish and Arab citizens from a young age. The purpose is to combat prejudices and break down the language barrier between Hebrew and Arabic speakers.
In the policy arena, the Authority for the Economic Development for Minority Sectors, at the Ministry of Social Equality, has been awarded a budget to implement governmental programs to reduce economic disparities between populations, although the outcome remains to be seen. The solution for increasing minority enrollment in higher education remains elusive, with the Arab minority having to pass an entrance exam that requires them to have proficiency in Hebrew and English, second and third languages to their native Arabic. This, in addition to lack of college preparation is problematic. TAFI is trying to make progress by encouraging a commitment to diversity from universities in order to support Arab citizens who are already enrolled in higher education.
When the length of Israel’s existence is compared to a human lifespan, the country is considered the equivalent of a three year-old. The country has time to find solutions to these issues and create a more equitable society, but concerted efforts must be made to do so. According to Amos Shocken, publisher of the Haaretz newspaper, who we also met with on the retreat, Israel must address the needs of the population within its borders immediately. He claims there has been an erosion of democratic values which will be problematic for Israel’s future. This is illustrated in the results of a study conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute. According to the study, a majority of Arabs don’t see a contradiction between their Israeli and Palestinian identities. Israeli Jews, however, are not as open to inclusion of Arab citizens in national identity and policy making. The challenge for TAFI and other concerned citizens is to enhance the voices of Arab citizens of Israel and involve them across every area of Israeli society in order to make their voices heard, ultimately legitimizing and embracing their status as a valid and important minority in Israel.