Laura Mandel (Abraham Initiatives Board Member) was recently detained as a security risk as she was leaving Israel. She was questioned about her work and separated from her belongings (including her eyeglasses and medication) for the duration of her ordeal and her flight home. She later wrote that everything changed when she said the word “Arab.” She was asked by the authorities why American Jews care about Arab-Jewish relations in Israel. What happened to Laura Mandel could have happened to me and others from my community who travel to Israel to evaluate and support grassroots programs that promote shared society.
In February 2019, I traveled to Israel in my role as the chair of the Arab Israeli Subcommittee of the Shared Society platform of the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest NJ. It was my fifth visit since 2012. When I arrived at Ben Gurion (and when I left), I told the authorities that I was there visiting friends and family. This was 100% true: I visited cousins in Kokhav Yair and many friends in the Negev. What if I said I was there in my committee role? In addition to family and friends, I also visited Arab-Jewish shared society programs in Segev Shalom and Beer Sheva. I met with members of the Druze community in Hurfeish. I visited the Hinam Center in Abu Ghosh that brings Arabs and Jews together. I am responsible for allocating funds to programs in this field. I saw incredible initiatives that bridge the divide between the Tribes and create a path forward. If I had told the airport official about this work, perhaps I, like Laura Mandel, would have been detained for hours, treated as a national security risk and separated from my belongings.
Why do American Jews care about Arab-Jewish relations? Why should we care? We care because we hope for an inclusive, strong Israel that lives by the principles of her Declaration of Independence. We care because we believe in the spirit, the idea, the very soul of Israel We care because we believe that when partnerships are strong between Arabs and Jews in Israel, tensions are reduced and relationships can develop. We care because we don’t believe it brings peace to treat a minority population as a perpetual enemy for the actions of their relatives in the PA territories or their ancestors in previous generations. Remember, Arabs in Israel are the ones who stayed. They are the ones who didn’t want to leave while Arab nations attempted to destroy Israel. By staying, they bound their destinies to the Jewish State. They are Israelis.
In America, many defenders of Israel often cite it as the only true democracy in the Middle East, where everyone can practice their religion without persecution. We point out that Arabs hold seats in the Knesset and that there is a high percentage of Arab healthcare professionals and advanced degree students. See, we say, Israel is not an apartheid state! See how it treats Arabs within Israel! They have full rights!
Only, the truth is, they really don’t have “full rights.” Yes, it’s true that Israel is a democracy in a very undemocratic region. Yes, it’s true that Palestinians living in majority-Arab countries have it far worse that Arab citizens of Israel today. Yes, it’s true that Jews are not able to live in Arab countries the way Arabs can live in Israel. However, I don’t think it is helpful to be moral relativists. During this particularly hostile election cycle, Likud arranged for video monitoring of Arab polling sites to suppress the Arab vote, as admitted to by the PR firm they hired. Widespread workplace and housing discrimination exists and the unemployment rate among Arabs is disproportionately high. Arab schools receive less funding and Arab students find University admission (and attendance) extremely challenging. Some hospitals admit segregating maternity wards. In July, the Knesset passed the Nation State Law which fundamentally establishes that Israel is the Nation State of the Jewish People, and effectively relegates Arab Israelis to second class status. PM Netanyahu relied shamelessly on anti-Arab tropes throughout the latest election cycle. Israeli and American Jews who support coexistence and shared society with Arabs have been considered “security threats” when travelling to (and from) Israel.
While liberal American Jews are disillusioned by her politics and government policies, we still believe in the soul of Israel. Those of us who support shared society work are not against Israel, we simply have a different vision than the current right wing government about what it means to be a strong and secure Jewish democracy. Our vision includes the embrace of all of Israel’s citizens as partners in her democracy and her economy.
Surely, an Arab population that is enabled to fully participate in the educational and economic systems on an equal basis will strengthen the Israeli economy and benefit the whole. Surely, an Arab population that is encouraged to do National Service will be more directly invested in Israel’s success as a Nation. Surely, an Arab population that is treated with respect and equality will be more likely to see their personal success linked to Israel’s. Surely, when Arabs and Jews develop relationships by working and learning together they can move from a model of coexistence to a one of shared society.
I may sound naive about trusting and partnering with Arab citizens. I probably am. But I strongly believe that in order to survive as a Jewish Democracy, Israel has no other choice. In the words of my friend, Phyllis Bernstein (philanthropist and shared society activist), “Over time, the Jewish-Arab relationship has matured, and we moved on to a discourse about partnership and common interests, and a dialogue on socio-economic equality in the unequal political realm. Building a society of inclusion, equality and justice for all of Israel’s citizens is a moral imperative.”
So our work continues. And we will not be deterred by fear.