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Jonah Naghi
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New hope for a shared Arab-Jewish future

Cooperation and shared grief are uniting populations with a history of conflict and mutual suspicion
An Arab woman and a Jewish woman put together supplies at the Jewish-Arab relief center in Rahat, Israel (Shir Nosatzki, 2023).

After Hamas’s onslaught on October 7 when they killed at least 1,200 Israelis and kidnapped over 250 people, and in the midst of the devastating war we are currently seeing in the Gaza Strip, many have feared another escalation in violence between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens in Israel proper.

Indeed, after the violence we saw in Israel’s Jewish-Arab mixed cities during the Gaza war in May 2021, one may have assumed that we would see another outbreak of ethnic violence between Jews and Arabs in Israel. However, after three months of war, not only has the relationship between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens been one of the few arenas of relative calm in Israeli society, but we are actually witnessing a historic desire for a renewed coexistence between them.

Shortly after Hamas’s attack on October 7, a poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Index (IDI) found that roughly 70% of Israel’s Arab citizens said they feel they are a part of the State of Israel – an all-time high in the last 20 years. In addition, a poll conducted by the Konrad Adenauer Program for Jewish-Arab Cooperation at Tel-Aviv University revealed that more than one-third of Israel’s Arab citizens said that “Israeli” is the most important part of their personal identity – the highest it’s ever been.

At the same time, polls indicate an increased desire among Israel’s Jewish citizens to create a more equally shared society with their Arab counterparts. For example, another recent poll conducted by the IDI found that 56% of Israel’s Jewish citizens want to amend Israel’s controversial nation-state law that was passed in 2018, “so that it includes the principles of full equality for non-Jewish citizens of the state.”

These statistics may come as a pleasant surprise after the violence that took place within Israel’s mixed Jewish-Arab cities in May 2021. Understanding the reason for this support for coexistence and inclusiveness during such a devastating war is therefore significant.

One factor that may be bringing together Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens is their shared sense of grief. Approximately 50 to 100 of the 1,200 Israelis who were killed, and some of the people who were kidnapped during Hamas’s rampage on October 7, were Arab citizens of Israel. Indeed, Hamas fighters made no distinction between Jew and Arab during their onslaught, and many of those bloody instances – and stories of heroism where some Israeli Arabs, such as Awad Darawshe and Amer Abu Sabila, literally sacrificed themselves to save their Jewish counterparts – spread throughout Israel via social media.

Witnessing and hearing these collective horrors and acts of heroism may have helped bring Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens closer together through their shared grief. As Israeli-Arab activist Muhammad Zoabi wrote just a few weeks after Hamas’s attack, “On October 7, it was that same exposure that made us feel more Israeli than ever – when we saw…the footage of our mass murder…it triggered a deep sense of solidarity from the Arab community, bolstering a shared sense of being Israeli.”

A second factor may be the robust cooperation between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens at the civil society level during the war. Many of the civil society organizations that have been assisting the Israeli families that were hurt by the October 7 attack have focused specifically on coexistence and cooperation between Jews and Arabs in Israel. Perhaps the most prominent example of such cooperation is the Jewish-Arab relief center in Rahat, Israel.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended an event at Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts where we met Shir Nosatzki and Hanan Alsanah, two of the founders of the relief center, and they spoke about the work they do.

According to Shir and Hanan, the Jewish-Arab relief center in Rahat is the first of its kind and they are hoping to create four more centers in northern Israel. Its primary purpose is to provide services for the basic needs of families who were hurt by the attack on October 7 and to create a space for Israeli Jews and Arabs to see the humanity in one another. About 1,000 volunteers provide services for approximately 500 families, which is roughly evenly split between Jewish and Arab families.

Shir further elaborated on the ways their services and this space for coexistence are helping to build a more inclusive Israeli identity:

“Our work helps push this new identity into a place of partnership with fellow citizens who wish to work toward a shared future and who value life and safety. We help redefine who’s our partner in this aspiration for life and who’s an agent of chaos and fear. This is the real division. We’re drawing a new line – this is not a war between Jews and Arabs, it’s a war between extremists and moderates, a war between agents of fear and those who seek life.”

Shir’s comments indicate an opportunity in Israel that must be salvaged. The events on October 7 will inevitably reshape Israeli identity for the foreseeable future, but what that new Israeli identity will look like may depend on what happens now. Will it be a more exclusionary identity where extremists on both sides continue to create division and conflict, or will it be a more inclusive civic identity where Jews and Arabs work together to ensure a future with peace and equality between them? We must work together to make sure it is the latter.

About the Author
Jonah Naghi is a Boston-based writer and the Chair of Israel Policy Forum's IPF Atid Steering Committee in the city of Boston. A frequent commentator on Israeli-Palestinian and US-Israel affairs, Jonah has spent extensive time in the region and received his Masters in Social Work at Boston College (2020) and LCSW (2021). All the views expressed are his own.
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