Why we must better integrate non-Jewish Israelis
On the morning of October 8th, Israel’s Arab political leadership immediately condemned the Hamas-led Oct 7th massacre. Some encouraged their constituents to stay home out of fear of escalating violence within our borders. They voiced a communal sense of shock and a shared sense of mourning, adding to the stories of the victims the stories of Arab, Druze and Bedouin communities who lost loved ones that dark day. Despite this, anti-Arab incitement flooded social networks and police did next to nothing.
Since Oct 7th, the Jewish-Israeli political establishment has made some effort to bridge our communities. As Benny Gantz emphasized in a video address, the war we are fighting is a war to protect all of our homes. To protect Israelis of all types, including the Bedouin communities in the Negev, the Arab citizens Hamas preyed upon, and the non-Jewish citizens targeted by rockets.
While select leaders have visited the funerals of non-Jewish heroes who protected Israelis with their lives, we need to do more. It is not enough to just condemn anti-Arab incitement. It is not enough to just thank them for their steadfastness. We must recognize our non-Jewish citizens as essential, both to our society as it is now and to the one so many of us have fought to protect. Not only because it is morally the right thing to do. Not only because we need calm within our borders. But also because it is absolutely strategically critical if our intention is to ensure Israel’s resilience.
The State of Israel simply cannot function without an engaged, contributing non-Jewish Arab community. Approximately half of Israel’s new doctors are not Jewish. A growing majority of our nursing professionals are non-Jews, as are a majority of our pharmacists, service professionals, construction workers, and supermarket clerks. The Jewish National Home would logistically fall apart without our non-Jewish citizens.
While this realization has caused some in Israel to panic, I believe this reality reflects our age-old hope. The prominence of non-Jews in Israel is a triumph of Zionism. Zionist visionaries clearly recognized the importance of including the residents of the land who reside among us. From Herzl to Jabotinsky, there was never an assumption that Israel would be a Jews-only country. That Israel’s Arab leaders identify proudly as Israeli – even while celebrating their Palestinian heritage and expressing sympathy for Gazan innocents forced into Hamas’ House of War – strengthens our hope that we can realize those visions in our time.
If Israel pre-October 6 was engaged in a battle between its Jewish and Democratic values, the aftermath of October 7 reveals that Israel resilience depends on an Israeli identity that is greater than the sum of its parts. While many Jews already recognize the covenant of fate binding our victims, we need to recognize our covenant of destiny: Israel will be lesser and more brittle without an Israeli identity that includes Israel’s non-Jews as a core part of our national story.
A blueprint for a resilient Israel needs institutions that include Israel’s non-Jewish community as an inherent part of Israel. It needs to expand our political reality to reflect the mixed multitude of modern Israeli identity. It needs to tell the story of our ancient peoples in the context of our modern reality, reminding us that our ancestors found peace only once they achieved coexistence in the land. Practically, I believe this will require us to:
- Enrich our collective relationship to the history of Israel through stories of all Israelis, via movies, television series, web shorts, comic books, literature, and other cultural works
- Increase representation of diverse Israeli communities in all public and private boards and institutions, to reflect the needs and aspirations of our overlapping communities
- Expand our system of government from one where winner-takes-all (‘Meshilut’) to one where none-are-coerced (‘Atzmaut’), by devolving power to the municipal level where cultural groups are best represented, and to provide regional representation in national government where shared local priorities can be addressed free from parliamentary coalition pressures.
We can no longer afford to ignore the centrality of the non-Jewish experience in Israel. We can no longer imagine Israel would be safer or more prosperous when Jewish-only coalitions govern and allocate the resources of our State according to shortsighted, sectoral interests. Our people – all of us – have been through hell and are clawing our way back. So far we are surviving because we are all playing a part, despite our differences, in choosing life. We will thrive if we build a new state on this common foundation, a state with its roots in our traditions, in our common love for our land, and are able to grow together aligned in common purpose to address the common challenges we face.
How can you help to widen the definition of Israeli identity? National identities are built based on narratives that tell us who we are, what Benedict Anderson called “imagined communities.” Those of us engaged in public diplomacy have a crucial role to play in this retelling of the Israeli story. Here are a few ways in which we can contribute:
- Highlight the heroism of Israel’s non-Jews in response to the massacres of October 7. We need to honor the actions of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens by sharing their stories, and remembering them alongside all of the other acts of bravery and heroism. We must ensure that any communication that mentions the response includes both Jews and non-Jews working with common purpose.
- Remind the world that Israel is a diverse democratic nation united to defend ourselves. Yes, Israel is and should forever be the homeland for the Jewish People. It is also the most diverse, tolerant cultural capital of the Middle East. Emphasize when sharing our resolve that we stand together – Jews, Muslims, Christians – as Israeli citizens to ensure massacres of our people never happen again. Decry and denounce any incitement – against Arabs and Jews – which seeks to tear us apart.
- Reach out to non-Jewish Israelis to ask them what Israel means to them. Ask those who experience Israel differently than you do to share their stories with you, open yourself to their understanding of Israel and their legitimate wants and desires to be accepted by Israel as coequals without compromising who they are. Work with them to widen the circle of Israeli identity and to imagine how our community can reflect our ancient aspirations and present realities into building a better, safer, more prosperous future for us all.