Israel’s Arab problem hits home

Tensions are rising between Israel's Jewish and Arab citizens -- and could affect the chances for peace, or wider war, in the Middle East.

Topics: Religion, Middle East, Islam

Israel's Arab problem hits home

One evening in Jerusalem last February, after working late in the prime minister’s office, I went outside and hailed a taxi. When I got in, I noticed that the driver, an Arab, was gripping the wheel tightly and his movements seemed labored. As we pulled into traffic, he slumped back in his seat, sighing.

“Hard day?” I asked clumsily in Hebrew, with a thick American accent.

He began to answer, but then — apparently registering my poor excuse for the language — asked, “Are you Jewish?”

“No,” I lied, curious about what he had been about to say.

He was an Arab citizen of Israel from the town of Lod, in the country’s center. He was not Jewish — but of the two of us he was the one who spoke Hebrew fluently, his Arabic inflections only barely discernible. A few minutes earlier, he told me, he had picked up a group of religious American Jewish tourists. When they had realized that he was an Arab, they had promptly reopened the door and gotten out. Israeli Jews often did the same thing, he said. It happened frequently, but still always upset him.

We were driving through the area of Jerusalem where the government buildings are located, and he gestured at them as we passed. “I pay my taxes,” he said. “I’m a citizen of the country — even if it is the Jewish state.”

I didn’t tell him that I worked in one of those buildings.

“You know,” he added, “we have a saying: ‘My country is at war with my people.’”

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Existential friction between Israel’s Arab and Jewish citizens has existed since the founding of the state, though it has always been overshadowed by Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians and neighboring Arab states. In 1948, during Israel’s War of Independence, hundreds of thousands of Arabs living in what was to become the state of Israel either fled or were expelled (this depends on whose narrative you buy, but in all likelihood was a combination of the two), and became the Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza and elsewhere in the Arab world. Those who were left behind became citizens of the new Jewish state.



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There are now over 1 million of them — just under 20 percent of the total population — though they are conspicuously absent from discussions about the Middle East in the Western media. They vote, serve in the Israeli parliament, and — formally at least — have the same legal rights as Jews. Israel’s Declaration of Independence promised them “complete equality of social and political rights.”

The problem is that Israel defines itself as a “Jewish and democratic state” — but has not reconciled the apparent contradiction in being both “Jewish” and “democratic.” In reality, Israeli Arabs are in many ways seen and treated as second-class citizens. And now, there are signs that a long-simmering tension between Israeli Arabs and Jews may be rising to a boiling point. In December, a broad coalition of Israeli Arab leaders and intellectuals published a document titled “The Future Vision of Palestinian Arabs in Israel,” which called for cultural autonomy and the right to veto government decisions concerning Israeli Arabs. It also declared a vision of Israel not as a Jewish state granting them full civil rights, but as a “state of all its citizens.” Unsurprisingly, the document was denounced as dangerous and treacherous by many Israeli Jews.

Increasing hostility between the two sides could have serious consequences for Israel’s future. Israel’s growing Arab population — with its much higher birth rate than that of the Jewish population — will become increasingly important to the economy and internal politics of the country. Jewish-Arab relations within Israel can also be seen as a bellwether for the chances of peace across the greater region. If Israel’s Arab citizens can become more visibly assimilated into Israeli society, that could potentially diminish the Muslim world’s antagonism toward the Jewish state, and boost faith in the prospect of a peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians. But if the mutual hostility flourishes and becomes more apparent, it will likely have the exact opposite effect.

Although there is some harmonious coexistence — most notably in the Jewish-Arab city of Haifa and in some joint Jewish-Arab cultural institutions — there have never been warm feelings between the two populations. This past summer’s war between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon pushed things to a new low. Israel found itself involved in the sort of violence that it had not seen in a generation, and the existential fears that seem to always hover just below the surface of Israeli society — and help to define the country’s policies — burst forward, bringing with them the malignant tribalism that plagues the Middle East.

Many in the Israeli right wing immediately branded Israeli Arabs as part of the enemy. At the same time, a disturbing number of Israeli Arabs actually backed Hezbollah, even demonstrating in Israeli cities to voice their support for the Lebanese terrorist group. Meanwhile, a disproportionate number of Israeli citizens killed during the war were actually Arabs — partly, it has been widely alleged, because the security infrastructure (alarms, bomb shelters and the like) was in a state of disrepair in areas where Arabs predominantly live.

During the war, Taleb Al-Sana, the head of the United Arab List, one of the key Arab parties in the Israeli parliament, received repeated anonymous phone calls describing him as the leader of a “fifth column” and threatening to kill him. He is a highly controversial figure, having, for example, recently visited Syria and met with Syrian officials — in defiance of Israeli regulations. In a recent conversation, Al-Sana told me that the war had significant repercussions for Israeli Arabs, and had clearly worsened tensions.

“When the Jews are in danger,” he said, “they enclose themselves and don’t accept others. They were the minority for many years, in many countries, in ghettoes.” He paused for a moment before adding, “They got out of the ghetto, but the ghetto did not get out of them.”

Indeed, Israeli Jewish public opinion turned sharply anti-Arab during the war and in its aftermath. And since it ended, the head of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party, Avigdor Lieberman — who has repeatedly questioned Israeli Arabs’ loyalty and called for the possible revocation of their citizenships — has been brought into the Olmert government and given an important security position in the cabinet.

The sad fact is that Lieberman might not be entirely wrong about their loyalty. It is not unreasonable to believe that, despite their citizenship, many Israeli Arabs don’t feel much of an allegiance to Israel these days. Many of them have relatives among the Palestinians in the occupied territories, or at least identify with their plight, and although they themselves do in theory have full rights in Israel, they still face a great deal of discrimination from their Israeli Jewish neighbors, and frequently unofficial bias from various arms of the government.

They are expected to be loyal citizens of a country whose flag and national anthem, steeped in Jewish imagery, explicitly exclude them. A country in which a recent poll found that 68 percent of Jews would refuse to live in the same building as an Arab. A country in which Israeli-Arab villages are often refused official permits by the government — and then sometimes even demolished because they are deemed “unrecognized.” In December, for example, a small riot ensued in the Bedouin Arab village of Al-Twayil in Israel’s south, when Israeli Arabs protested a government decision to demolish some of the buildings in their village — buildings they had just repaired after a demolition a few weeks earlier.

Perhaps as a result of the disenfranchisement that inevitably results from all this, there has been an increasing number of Israeli Arabs linked to Palestinian terrorism in Israel over the past few years. Israeli intelligence recently reported that 14 percent of all suicide bombings perpetrated in Israel have been the work of terrorists who gained citizenship through marriage with Israeli Arabs, or “family reunification.” As a result, the Shin Bet — Israel’s internal intelligence service — has repeatedly petitioned for an extension on a law that bans such “reunification.”

In November, Jaris Jaris, a 59-year-old Israeli Arab, was convicted of spying for Iran. His mission, reportedly, was to infiltrate the left-wing Israeli political party Meretz and get elected to the Israeli parliament on its ticket. This followed an incident during the Hezbollah-Israel war, in which an Israeli Arab was arrested for spying on Israeli military targets on behalf of Hezbollah.

Yet, the renewed fears and accusations from the Israeli political right are way overblown. The vast majority of Israeli Arabs simply want to go about their lives, free from discrimination. It is hard to believe that given a choice they would want to live in any nearby Arab country. In Israel, they enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the Middle East. They have high levels of education and literacy, and they enjoy far more freedom of religion and speech than those in the rest of the region.

Their representatives are a growing force in the Israeli parliament, and have occasionally served in important roles in government. In early January, for example, Raleb Majadele, an Arab member of the Labor Party, was appointed science and technology minister — the first Arab cabinet minister in Israeli history.

In fact, partially because of the relatively good situation that Israeli Arabs are in compared with the Palestinians, the latter are not always particularly fond of them. Although Al-Sana, the Arab parliamentarian, told me that he sees the two groups as one people — “some have citizenship, some don’t,” as he put it — the peculiar relationship between Israeli Arabs and Palestinians has never been entirely affable, either. Many Palestinians resent Israeli Arabs for their far superior standard of living and see them as traitors, while many Israeli Arabs feel abandoned or forgotten by the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world.

But the schism between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews will be of far greater consequence in terms of Israel’s future. Particularly telling was a recent turn of events that exposed the starkly different way each group views the military. Every Jew is required by law to serve in the military, while only an exceedingly tiny fraction of Arabs (who aren’t required to serve) choose to do so. For Israeli Jews, the army is the quintessential and universal Israeli experience. It is what makes one Israeli, even what fundamentally separates one from one’s Jewish relatives overseas. For Israeli Arabs, by contrast, it is part of what makes one not feel fully accepted into society — and for some, it is also the vehicle by which the lives of one’s Palestinian relatives are made hellish.

One of the small number of Israeli Arabs who chose to serve last year was an 18-year-old who volunteered not just to serve in the army, but to go through the highly elite pilot’s training course. The youth, whose name has not been released, passed all of the extremely rigorous tests for entry to the course, and already had a pilot’s license. He also submitted a reference letter from his flight instructor, himself a pilot in the Israeli Air Force, who vouched not only for his student’s ability but also for his loyalty to the state.

“There is no other way but to include all the State’s citizens in running the State and protecting it,” the instructor told the Israeli press. “We don’t see them as part of the State today, but a large majority of them do see themselves as part of this country.”

The 18-year-old himself added, “Of course I am aware of the fact that Israel is still in a state of war with some of the Arab countries, but I see myself as an Israeli in the full sense of the word. My loyalty is to the State of Israel and my duty is to protect it. I will execute any order I receive during my service.”

In the end, he was rejected for the pilot’s course. The army said that the course was “closed to the Arab sector,” and instead drafted him to the paratroopers unit, itself an elite and respected part of the military.

Right or wrong, the idea of an Arab — even one who is an Israeli citizen — flying a fighter plane over Israeli airspace would understandably make many Israelis nervous. Still, I was bothered by the story of the teenager’s unrequited love for what is, after all, his country.

And I was even more disturbed when I brought it to the attention of some of my colleagues in the prime minister’s office. One of my superiors simply shrugged it off, while another colleague had this to say: “Look, this is a Jewish state. And at least we let him into the paratroopers — that’s pretty good for an Arab!”

But if the Israeli government hopes to secure internal stability and the country’s future, it will have to do better than that. It will have to make its Arab citizens feel truly at home.

Salon contributor Gregory Levey is the author of the memoir, "Shut Up, I'm Talking: And Other Diplomacy Lessons I Learned in the Israeli Government." He is on faculty at Ryerson University, and blogs at Gregory Levey.com.

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