The Jewish Week interviewed Daniel Seidemann on the Arab situation in east Jerusalem. Seidemann is a leftwing supporter of the Palestinian nationalist cause who even rationalized the physical attack he experienced while driving in east Jerusalem. He explained why he was not interested in the police catching the attacker: “[These attacks] end not when Palestinians behave better, or when our Shin Bet becomes more efficient. It ends when occupation ends. Until then, I remain a symbol of that occupation, and not without reason. And no good deeds, as it were, will redeem me or protect me.” Elsewhere, he claimed it was ridiculous to believe that low east Jerusalem voter turnout in municipal elections was partially due to voter intimidation by Palestinian organizations even though that is exactly what a Meretz candidate claimed.
Not surprisingly, in his interview, Seidemann stated, “The Palestinians of east Jerusalem see themselves as living lives of desperation … under a government that is apathetic if not hostile to their needs.” The very next day, The Jewish Week published a letter from someone who had just toured Jerusalem with Seidemann and wrote, that the “city’s 300,000 Arabs live in squalor and neglect.”
In my published letter, I pointed to a Ha’aretz article that summarized the successful efforts of Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat to improve the lives of Arabs living in east Jerusalem: investments in infrastructure and transportation, planning of neighborhoods, building of schools, and a dramatic expansion of medical facilities where today the health quality indices for east Jerusalem are the same as for west Jerusalem. Barkat solved the problem of ownership rights that has been a barrier to housing renovation and also made it easier for east Jerusalem residents to be connected to the Israeli water system.
These efforts have led many east Jerusalem Arabs to seek Israeli ID cards. More and more high-school graduates are attending special schools that prepare them to enter Israeli colleges. Indeed, in a 2012 poll when asked “In the event of a permanent two-state solution, which state would you prefer to live in?” 35 percent of east Jerusalem Arabs preferred Israel, 30 percent opted for Palestine while 35 percent refused to answer. While events in the last four months have worsened the situation, Seidemann mistaken assertions give a false impression of the attitudes of east Jerusalem Arabs and their treatment by government officials.
The Jewish Week also had an opinion essay by Martin Raffel who quoted Israel’s new president Reuven Rivlin on the long history of state-sponsored discrimination: “We must state plainly: the Israeli Arab population has suffered for years from discrimination in budget allocation, education, infrastructure and industrial and trade areas.” He then referenced statistics provided by Ayman Seif, director of the Authority for Economic Development of the Arab, Druze and Circassian Sectors in Prime Minister’s Office: 51.4 percent of the country’s Arab families and 62.5 percent of Arab children live under the poverty line, compared with 15 percent of Jewish families and 23.8 percent of Jewish children.
Over the last six years, Arab citizens of Israel have had an unprecedented growth in occupational and educational attainment thanks in large part to the affirmative action policies initiated by Seif’s office. For the first time, large numbers of Arab teachers are being hired by Jewish schools to teach subjects other than the Arabic language. For the first time, Arab students are entering the high-tech fields through Technion in the same proportion to their share of the population. Arab towns are adding infrastructure to enable them to gain industrial jobs at an unprecedented pace. And finally, the government has made clear that it will change the funding formula that has hindered Arab towns’ ability to provide local government services.
Unfortunately, instead of discussing the remarkable progress made under Seif’s leadership, Raffel immediately focused on the proposed Knesset bill “which would enshrine in the form of a basic law Israel’s identity as a nation of the Jewish people.” The result is that readers are left with the impression that little has been done to combat the longstanding discrimination Arabs have experienced and things are getting worse as the rightwing government is moving to solidify their second-class status.
Elsewhere, David Remnick also noted that Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin “has emerged as the most prominent critic of racist, rhetoric, jingoism, fundamentalism, and sectarian violence.” While applauding Rivlin sincerity, Remnick believes he is an isolated member of Likud where the new guard has little interest in reducing “the unequal status of Israeli Palestinians and the utter lack of civil rights for Palestinians in the West Bank.” Indeed, he supports the assessment by Peace Now’s founder Avishai Margalit that the vast majority of Likud supporters “believe in apartheid in the West Bank.”
The New Yorker published my letter pointing out the remarkable economic and occupational progress being made. How different the narrative would have been, however, if Remnick had referenced the occupational and educational affirmative action programs sustained by the Netanyahu government often supported by the very rightwing politicians being criticized. While Rivlin has gone further than virtually all of his Likud colleagues, these initiatives demonstrate that it is false to paint the Likud with a simplistic anti-Arab stereotype.
We must respond to the anti-Arab rhetoric and actions that have increased since the Gaza War. But we should also be aware of the important advances made and, indeed, realize that these advances are one of the reasons for the upsurge in anti-Arab attitudes. Sikkuy’s co-director Ron Gerlitz noted, “Today, Jews in Israel are not always in a position of superiority; they are no longer at the top of every ladder, every ranking, and every situation” and this is what the Jewish nationalists are responding to. He concluded, “The attacks on the Arab citizens of Israel are serious, undemocratic, and dangerous, but—and this is the main point—their intensity also attests to the strength and success that Arab society has achieved and to the positive forces in Israel society that are promoting equality and partnership.”