In the last election campaign, especially as Election Day drew near, I found myself engaged over and over again in almost the same conversation with friends who identify with the liberal-democratic camp in Israel: “The Arabs have to go out and vote,” they asserted passionately. “You have to take responsibility for your own destiny, and impact your future by exercising your democratic right,” they added.
I relayed to them all of the reservations held by the many discouraged Arab voters who, fed up with all the promises, were not planning to go to the polls. My explanations were brushed aside with scorn. “This is no time to be self-righteous,” they said. They even dismissed the suspicion that Likud activists, backed by the Prime Minister, were planning to intimidate Arabs who showed up at polling stations.
As for myself, I took their arguments very seriously. I was convinced that the elections were indeed an historic political opportunity and understood my responsibility as a citizen of Israel. I passed on the message to all of my family members and my close circle of friends, as did many other Arab citizens of Israel, some of whom canvassed door to door, while others used social networks to put intense pressure on their fellow Arabs to persuade them that their vote could make a difference and that there was now a chance, albeit tenuous and fragile, for a historic change in Israel.
And indeed, our efforts bore fruit. On September 17, 2019, we turned Benjamin Netanyahu’s nightmare into a reality – the nightmare that he described on Election Day four years earlier, when he howled that “the Arabs are streaming to the polls in droves.” Despite their fears, the threats, the intimidation, and the apathy, Arab citizens stepped forward, with a turnout much higher than in the elections for the 22nd Knesset.
Today, when the time has come to translate the Arabs’ higher voting rate into genuine political change, I’m searching for all those who back in September, on the eve of the election, made so many promises. And what do I encounter? Israeli Jews who are afraid to do their democratic duty and speak out in a clear and confident voice in support of the Arab citizens’ right to enjoy a share of political power, for the first time in 71 years of statehood – which would give them the opportunity to influence government policy on a long list of civic issues.
The Prime Minister’s incendiary remarks Monday night, directed against me and the entire Arab society, accusing our elected representatives of seeking to “destroy the country,” have become standard fare, but they were especially painful this time. The following day, ultra-Orthodox MKs from United Torah Judaism and Shas distanced themselves from the prime minister’s insults, and later, in the evening, President Rivlin issued a heartfelt and laudable condemnation. But among the wider public, it seemed that Israeli ears had become hardened to Netanyahu’s racist statements. In the immediate aftermath, my friends and all those who insisted that we must go vote, uttered not a single word of condemnation. Calling these statements paranoid does not make them any weaker. The absence of condemnation was no less than a shirking of responsibility and civic duty.
I am not overstating my case when I assert that there is also a solid Jewish basis for such a reaction. I am reminded of the demand that the inspirational Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel made of American society many decades ago – words that still resound throughout the world: “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
We Arabs have done our duty. Now it’s your turn.
Nasreen Hadad Haj-Yahya is the director of the Arab-Jewish Relations Program at the Israel Democracy Institute.