Will Israel’s Arabs be a political punching bag — again?

Unprecedented state funding for the Arab community still hasn't translated to equal rights for the Arab community
An Arab girl stands outside her house at the Dahamshe neighborhood between Ramla and Lod, December 31, 2007. (Michal Fattal/Flash90)
An Arab girl stands outside her house at the Dahamshe neighborhood between Ramla and Lod, December 31, 2007. (Michal Fattal/Flash90)

The five-year plan for the economic development of Arab municipalities, approved by the current government as Resolution 922 at the end of 2015, is regarded as an important milestone in state policy on the Arab sector in Israel. It is based on government allocation of an unprecedented budget of NIS 15 billion (USD 4.1 billion) to promote significant progress in a range of social and economic fields.

In retrospect, it’s hard to believe this was the same government that pushed for the passage of the The Nation-State Law, whose text does not even refer to Arab citizens as part of the country, stubbornly refused to include the component of equality, and demoted Arabic from the status of an “official” language to a “special” language. It’s the government that sought to make it easier for small communities to reject Arab applicants, and some of whose members constantly slander Arabs.

Arab society’s struggle for equality is fought on three levels – the socioeconomic, the civic, and the national. The five-year plan for the development of the Arab community was a giant step towards the socioeconomic advancement of Israel’s Arabs and promises to narrow the gaps between Arab and Jewish society in education, housing, employment, and many other domains. We can hope that the program’s fruits will be seen in the coming years, recognizing that such changes cannot take place overnight, and not even within five years. One must not make light of the socioeconomic dimension. A society whose members do not enjoy equal conditions and whose economic situation is poor is likely to turn its back on the state and on its other citizens. Socio-economic development is essential in order to promote social solidarity and civic partnership.

But this is only one of the three tiers of the struggle for equality. Even when a group is doing well economically, it cannot feel part and parcel of the surrounding society when it does not enjoy equal rights and when its national rights as a minority are not recognized. Even the wealthiest individual will not feel a sense of solidarity with the broader society if he or she cannot purchase land in a well-off neighborhood because of “unsuitability to its social and cultural fabric,” a code phrase used to legitimize discrimination. Even a girl attending the best of Israel’s schools will not feel part of the state if it does not recognize her rights, as the daughter of an indigenous national minority, to study her people’s history in the classroom.

Three years after the passage of the resolution, we find ourselves in the throes of a new election campaign. The situation transports Arab citizens back to the last campaign, when the Prime Minister warned that Arabs were being bussed to the polls in droves, as if it’s outrageous for a minority to exercise its democratic right to vote. When this is the message conveyed by the country’s leadership, one should not be surprised that in the most recent Israel Democracy Index, as in past surveys, 59 percent of Jewish Israelis stated that decisions on critical issues of governance and the economy should require an exclusively Jewish majority for approval.

The current election campaign is going to be the acid test: is the Israeli government serious about integrating the country’s Arab citizens into the broader society, or merely in promoting the Arab economy in light of its importance for the country’s overall prosperity?

Will we be seeing a fair campaign, in which the Arab community does not serve as a punching bag? Will the major parties come out against expressions of racism and hostility, such as the call to send all Arab citizens to Jenin? Will they refrain from referring to the Arab citizens as enemies of the state who endanger its security? Will we see an end to the ritual of attempting to automatically disqualify Arab parties from participation in the management of national affairs and membership in the coalition?

Arab citizens, along with all others committed to the principle of equality will be scrutinizing the parties’ behavior from this perspective.

About the Author
Dr. Nasreen Haddad Haj-Yahya is the director of the Arab-Jewish Relations Program at the Israel Democracy Institute.
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