On Israel’s relations with its’ Arab minority

The heartbreaking scenes of violence between Jews and Arabs in our mixed cities are already seared in our consciousness. Just in the last couple of weeks, we participated in the traditional Iftar meals with our Arab neighbors and friends and planned more projects to strengthen the delicate human tissue of majority and minority relations in our country.

Many in the Jewish public, shocked by the outbreak of internal violence were preoccupied with the question of who was responsible for starting it. Channel 12 commentator Amit Segal reported that he received the most positive reactions on Twitter to his remark that there is supposedly no symmetry between the Arab rioters and the Jews who responded.

My approach is completely different. It is different not only because the facts presented by Segal distort the overall picture. Distorted because they choose to focus on specific events rather than the context and the factors which generated the violence in the first place.

My approach is also different because I fully understand our responsibility as the majority, as a sovereign. Especially as we the Jewish people, who experienced firsthand the injustices of discrimination and violence against us when we were a minority in Europe, Arab countries and elsewhere.

The obsessive preoccupation with establishing the guilt of the Arab minority without looking at the actions of the Jewish majority is an evasion of responsibility. Responsibility about learning from your own mistakes. Responsibility is also choosing to recognize that from our position of power we can and must be empathetic to the experience of weakened minorities within our midst.

Most of the Jews in Israel choose to ignore the facts that the Palestinians, those living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and those who are citizens of Israel, are members of the same nation. The non-recognition of this fact leads to the Jewish majority in Israel being shocked by the sense of solidarity of the Arab citizens with the symbols of Islam and with the Palestinian narrative.

“How dare they call themselves Palestinians while they are citizens of the state”, many of us ask. The Jewish opposition to the Palestinian identity of the Arab citizens of Israel is a denial of reality. This is a strange denial because at the same time we expect all the Jews of the world to be Zionists and identify with us even though they are citizens of other countries. Whenever the Jews of the world are being accused of dual loyalty, we call it antisemitism, but at the same moment accuse Arab citizens of Israel of the same charge of double loyalty.

Moreover – the “Nation-State Law” – passed in the Knesset of Israel sent a clear message to Israeli Arabs that they are second-class citizens not only de facto but also de jure. Israeli politicians declare that cooperation with representatives of the Arab minority is neither Zionist nor patriotic in a total distortion of Zionism as formulated in our Declaration of Independence.

Then one morning our prime minister remembered that it was possible to scrape a few votes from Arab society and cynically changed his name to “Abu Yair” until the next twist in the plot in which the political picture would change and he would rush to denounce again “the Arabs flocking to the polls.”

Worse, while he was courting the Arabs for votes before the most recent election, Netanyahu worked to bring the Jewish fascist racist political party into the Knesset, giving it legitimacy to be the main instigators who lit the fire and who see the chaos and violence as a tremendous opportunity to increase their popularity. As we have seen many times in history the extremists on both sides are reinforced by violence and fear and therefore perpetuate a cycle. Now the “Kahanists” have government backing and parliamentary immunity.

It is the same mindset that sees the Arabs only as an enemy – that needs to be eliminated – which forces Yeshivas into the mixed cities. They express a trend of coercive Judaization on the part of those settlers who cover with “sweet talk” a colonialist agenda. For what possible reason should Jaffa be Judaized? Are there not enough Jewish neighborhoods in which to establish yeshivas?

Beyond a struggle for identity, the state has established a long record of neglecting Arab society in every aspect. For years we have ignored desperate calls from the leaders of the Arab citizens to deal with the violence in Arab society, to deal with criminals and hooligans amongst them. They warned us that the problem will not remain only in the Arab society, but would spillover.

Now that this violence is directed against us, we are amazed and complaining about those Arab hooligans we ignored. The powerful Israel, whose security forces are able to locate Palestinian terrorists within a few hours or days, is unable to arrest any murderer in the Arab sector and appears as either unable or unwilling to seriously address the deadly phenomenon.

For years, the Arabs of Jaffa, Lod and other mixed cities have been complaining about the effects of the forceful gentrification, in which the market forces ostensibly, but in actuality backed by the Israeli government, are pushing them out of their cities. The apartments of Amidar (a government company) in which they have lived for many years, since the state took over “absentee property” from our War of Independence are required for sums of money that they cannot pay and are forced to vacate for the benefit of the wealthy Jews.

Instead of easing tensions and bringing about a coexistence that builds hope for a better future, professional provocateurs are allowed to feed the fire. Extremist settlers are working to exploit the discriminatory law of “absentee property” in Jerusalem to evict Palestinian families from their homes on the legal basis that Jews owned the property before the 1948 War of Independence. This is while many Jews live comfortably in homes owned by Arabs before that war.

The events of Sheikh Jarrah an east Jerusalem neighborhood, which did not receive much attention in Israel, evoked memories of the Nakba among Israeli Arabs. For many years we adopted the convenient myth that all the Arabs who left their homes during the War of Independence did so because their leaders instructed them to, but today there is a consensus among serious historians about the facts that in many places they were forcibly and sometimes violently evicted. Perhaps this fact explains why Lod and Ramla where the deportation in ‘48 was the most violent, experienced internal violence first this week.

The most well-worn method of igniting a fire is always through the Temple Mount/Haram el Sharif. This time it was done by provocation by settler associations who are so-called “Temple Mount Trustees,” who work strategically to violate the status quo on the Temple Mount. A status quo that is also the infrastructure of our relationship with Jordan. The violation of the status quo aroused deep sentiments of rage in Muslims around the world.

It is not just Islamists who feel connection to the Al Aksa, secular Muslims also see mosques on the Temple Mount as a symbol of Islams historic relationship with Jerusalem. The irrational police conduct, which refuses to learn from the many years of experience in dealing with this sensitive place appear to fuel the fire. As you may recall, even in the events of 2000, the riots were caused by provocation on the Temple Mount. Back then it was a visit of Ariel Sharon surrounded by security guards in the Holy of Holies of Islam that provided the spark. Following the riots in October 2000, a Commission of Inquiry, chaired by Justice Or, drew harsh conclusions about the neglect of the Arab public and the conduct of the police but their recommendations were not implemented. The unnecessary eruption of the mosques caused images that shocked almost every Muslim around the world and provided Hamas with the pretext to begin launching civilian targeted rockets at Israeli neighborhoods and cities.

Indeed, there have also been shocking behaviors of Arab hooligans in Lod, Ramla, Acre, Jaffa, which must be condemned and the instigators brought to justice. But to blame the Arab leadership for not condemning these hooligans after years of shouting that they should be confronted, while the Israeli police do not give it a priority. Meanwhile we put our hooligans and instigators in the Knesset and give them parliamentary immunity, demonstrating hypocrisy and disregard for the problem.

The events of recent days bring many who believe in the coexistence of Jews and Arabs to despair. If we want to live here in a life of peace and prosperity, we and our children must not succumb to despair. We will have to continue to cultivate Arab-Jewish relations from a place of equality rather than arrogance. The time has come to realize the Zionist vision of the Declaration of Independence, which called for complete equality for Israeli Arabs. Change will not come through accusations and the search for symmetry, change will come by taking responsibility. Taking responsibility for our democracy is at the core of the Zionist idea and the key to our existence here.

About the Author
Nadav Tamir is the executive director of J Street Israel, a member of the board of the Mitvim think-tank, adviser for international affairs at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, and member of the steering committee of the Geneva Initiative. He was an adviser of President Shimon Peres and served in the Israel embassy in Washington and as consul general to New England.
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