Arab Citizens In Israel Series: A Case Of Arab Democracy
The pursuit of equal rights by Israel’s Arabs is challenging the Jewish character of the state. Moment explores the tensions at the heart of the political relationship between Arabs and Jews.
Knesset member Ahmad Tibi’s office is stifling. The thermostat is broken, and the air-conditioning in the new wing of the Israeli parliament refuses to kick in. Tibi, a legislator in his fourth term in the house, is hot and impatient. His eyes wander from his computer screen to his smart-phone, then to the staffers who walk in and out, to the technician who comes in to fix the thermostat. He frowns and fidgets in his chair, giving the impression that he’d rather be anywhere but here.
Tibi is easily Israel’s most visible Arab MK, a status attributable to his sharp tongue, with which he regularly engages in high-pitched polemics, in fluent Hebrew, with his Jewish colleagues. Born in the central Israel city of Tayibe, the 53-year-old gynecologist with a medical degree from Hebrew University, is nothing if not provocative. An advisor to Palestine Liberation Organization head Yasir Arafat in the early 1990s, he served as the Palestinian representative at the 1998 Wye River negotiations. Not only has he called for an international boycott of Israeli companies in the pages of The New York Times, but in October, he accompanied Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority, on his trip to the United Nations to submit his request for statehood. He is well known for opposing a state that in any way favors its Jewish citizens, insisting, for example, that the Law of Return, which allows Jews from around the world to claim automatic Israeli citizenship, be abolished. “I couldn’t bring my [deceased] aunt from Jordan and Kuwait to be buried in Israel even though she was born in Jaffa,” he says with irritation. “But any Jewish immigrant from Latvia or Moldavia can come to Israel, even though he wasn’t born here.”
Tibi’s words and actions infuriate some Jewish politicians. Since he was elected in 1999, the Knesset Central Elections Committee has attempted several times to prevent him and other representatives of Israel’s Arab parties from running. And two years ago Foreign Minister and Yisrael Beitenu [Israel is Our Home] party founder Avigdor Lieberman—who has endorsed the idea of “transfer” of Israeli-Arab towns and their residents to any future Palestinian state—declared that the real threat to Israel is not the Palestinians in the territories, but “Ahmad Tibi and his ilk—they are more dangerous than Hamas and [Islamic] Jihad combined.”
As befits a politician, Tibi is also a master showman, who knows equally well how to ingratiate himself with his Jewish colleagues. Tibi’s Knesset webpage, for example, has a link to a YouTube video of a speech he made in 2010 on International Holocaust Day, in which he calls the Shoah the “most horrible crime committed against modern humanity,” and declares that “there is nothing more stupid or immoral” than denial of the Holocaust. Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin called it one of the best speeches he has ever heard in the plenum about the Holocaust. Another YouTube clip shows Tibi joking in Yiddish during a session dedicated to commemorating the language.
There are 13 other Arabs in the 120-member Knesset, comprising 11 percent of the assembly, in contrast to the Arabs’ 20 percent of the general population. Ten of the Arabs represent principally Arab parties. Tibi’s party, Ta’al (the Arab Movement for Change), which partnered in the last election with Ra’am (the United Arab List, itself a coalition of the Islamic Movement and the Bedouin-based Arab National Democratic party) would like to see Israel’s Arabs recognized as a national minority and nullify laws that give Jews preference in national life. Hadash (the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality), the former Communist party, favors a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and views conflicts in Israeli society as class-based rather than nationalist in nature. The Balad (the National Democratic Assembly) party’s goal is to turn Israel into a binational state. Its founder, Azmi Bishara, who coined the phrase “a state of all its citizens,” has been in exile in Qatar since 2007, when Israeli officials began to investigate him on the suspicion he aided and abetted Hezbollah during the Second Lebanon War.
Israel’s Arabs have had the right to vote and to run for office since 1948. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is fond of saying—including in his speech to the U.S. Congress last year—Israel’s 1.5 million Arab citizens are alone among the 300 million Arabs of the Middle East and North Africa enjoying “real democratic rights” with freedom of expression and of religion. But the political status of Israel’s Arabs is not straightforward. On one hand, recent Israeli governments, including Netanyahu’s, along with a range of NGOs, have begun making serious efforts to address longstanding socioeconomic disparities between Jews and Arabs. A pilot program announced last year, for example, allocated $225 million to select Arab municipalities to increase and improve employment opportunities, early-childhood education and affordable housing. On the other hand, members of that same government, with at least the tacit support of Netanyahu himself, have over the past two years consistently referred to the country’s Arabs as a potential fifth column, and initiated legislation that seems intended to remind them that they are citizens on probation.
Members of Netanyahu’s coalition say that the bills they have introduced in the Knesset are intended to strengthen the state’s Jewish identity, but many of them would limit—at least implicitly—the rights of the Arab community. These include a bill that would remove Arabic as one of the state’s official languages, and another that would require anyone undergoing naturalization to swear loyalty to Israel as a “Jewish and democratic” state. Among bills that have already become law is one prohibiting discussion of the Nakba—the “catastrophe” as Israel’s founding is described in the Palestinian national narrative—in publicly funded venues in Israel, and another that gives towns below a certain size the right to block the sale of homes to families that are “incompatible with the social-cultural fabric of the community”—which is widely understood to mean Arabs.
Tibi finds the barrage of new bills, some of which have been shelved after eliciting public outcry, exasperating. “You have to be a masochist to be an Arab in the Knesset,” he says.
The residents of Tayibe, where Tibi still lives today, were among the 150,000 Palestinian Arabs who found themselves living within the borders of the State of Israel after the 1948 war. Although Israel’s declaration of independence granted these Arabs full citizenship, in practice most were subject to military rule under the so-called Emergency Regulations, which had been drawn up during British rule.
These regulations permitted the government to expropriate any land abandoned during the war, even if the owners subsequently returned. Consequently, the majority of land held by Arabs before independence was transferred to state ownership and redistributed to Jews. Military rule also restricted Arabs from traveling around the country and took away their rights to organize politically. As it was, the Arab political and economic elite was largely in exile and those who stayed behind were mostly uneducated farmers. “What remained under Israeli control after the 1948 war was a remnant,” write Baruch Kimmerling and Joel Migdal, in their 2003 bookThe Palestinian People: A History, “a crumbling part of Palestinian Arab society.”
Arabs participated in national politics through the Israeli Communist Party—a group made up of Jews and Arabs with an anti-Zionist platform—and in Israeli Arab parties affiliated with early Israeli parties such as Mapai and Mapam. However, politics took a backseat to more pressing socio-economic issues until the rise of the pan-Arab movement stirred a new national consciousness in the late 1950s and 1960s. When military rule ended in 1966, followed by the 1967 Six-Day War, that political awakening accelerated. After nearly two decades, Israel’s Arabs were reunited with the 700,000 Palestinian who had fled during the 1948 war and had been living under Jordanian auspices in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, or under Egyptian control in Gaza. They were also exposed to the PLO, which had been founded in 1964.
The first organized public protests took place in 1976, in response to an Israeli government plan to expropriate more than 1,500 acres of Arab-owned land to create new Jewish communities near Sakhnin, in the Western Galilee. A general strike was called and sympathy strikes were held by Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and even in refugee camps in Lebanon. When the protest turned violent, Israeli police responded in kind, leading to the deaths of six protesters. Called “Land Day,” the anniversary of these deaths continues to be commemorated each year on March 30.
Until the 1990s, however, the needs and grievances of the country’s Arab citizens barely registered on most Israelis’ radar. Between the 1982 Lebanon War, in which Israel occupied southern Lebanon to halt Palestinian terror attacks originating there, and the start of the first intifada five years later, Israel was focused on the Palestinians beyond its borders. Their brethren living within as citizens were largely taken for granted.
When Yitzhak Rabin became prime minister for the second time in 1992, he too focused on the Palestinian issue, having become convinced during the intifada that a political compromise was the only way to achieve peace. In 1993, he and Yasir Arafat signed the Oslo Accords, which offered a framework for Palestinian autonomy and the eventual negotiation of peace. But Rabin also reached out to Israel’s Arab citizens, coming to an understanding with Hadash and the Arab National Democratic Party that in exchange for their support of his government, he would advance policies intended to promote Arab-Jewish equality. Money was appropriated for education and physical infrastructure in the Arab sector, and Rabin appointed two Arabs as deputy ministers—one from his own Labor party, the other from the left-wing Meretz. “This created a sense for Arabs that there was a strong level of commitment to them from the government,” says Batya Kallus, who works with the Moriah Fund and the Fohs Foundation, two of the groups that have been working to build non-governmental institutions for Israeli Arabs focusing on economics, education, women’s and legal issues.
Then came Rabin’s assassination in 1995. A caretaker government led by Shimon Peres lost the election the following year to Netanyahu, whose three-year tenure as prime minister saw growing tension between Israel and Arafat’s Palestinian Authority. In this brief period, Israelis cast separate ballots for Knesset and premier, and when Netanyahu ran for reelection in 1999, he was challenged by the new Labor chair and Rabin protégé Ehud Barak. Also contending for the top position was Azmi Bishara, then serving in the Knesset, the first Arab politician to campaign for premier. Shortly before election day, Bishara withdrew from the race and threw his support to Barak. The election turnout among Arabs that year was 75 percent (compared with a national rate of 78.7), and 94 percent of them voted for Barak.
Barak won but quickly disappointed his Arab supporters. After his victory, the new prime minister didn’t include Arab parties in coalition talks and made no real attempt to address the concerns of the Arab population, or to steer extra funds in their direction. It was the “Events of October 2000,” however, on the heels of that summer’s failed Camp David negotiations with the Palestinians, that set the stage for the current level of mutual mistrust between Israel’s Arabs and Jews. The series of violent demonstrations in Israel’s north—sparked by the confrontation between Israeli security forces and Palestinians after Likud leader Ariel Sharon’s provocative September 28th visit to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount—led to Israeli police killing 13 Arabs.
The start that fall of the second intifada, which raged for more than five excruciating years, marked a rupture between Israelis and Palestinians that still has not healed. But the violence in the north also became a watershed in Jewish-Arab relations within Israel. For Jews, the violence of the protesters fed long-held suspicions that the country’s Arab citizens would one day find common cause with the Palestinians, leading to civil war. From the Arab point of view, the murder of 13 people, some of whom just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the fact that no member of the police department was reprimanded or prosecuted for unnecessary use of force, deepened their sense of alienation from the state of which they were citizens.
Under intense public pressure, Barak appointed a three-person panel, headed by Supreme Court Justice Theodor Or, to investigate the October events. Three years later, the commission’s final report concluded that the state’s overall treatment of the country’s minority was “neglectful and discriminatory,” and offered a series of recommendations intended to improve the situation. At the same time, it criticized the political leadership of the Arab community, saying it had incited the public and contributed to the “ongoing ferment” that led to the violent demonstrations.
In the February 2001 elections that carried Sharon into the prime minister’s office, Arab voter turnout plummeted to 18 percent, and although that figure represented an organized protest, it also was the start of a steady decline of Arab participation in national elections. Seventy-seven percent and 75 percent of Arabs had voted in 1996 and 1999, respectively. In 2006, that percentage was down to 56 percent, and three years after that, it fell below 54 percent.
At the same time, the numbers of Arabs voting for an Arab party jumped. In 1999, the percentage of Arabs casting a ballot for one of the Arab parties was 68.7; a decade later it had risen to 81.9 percent. The Abraham Fund’s Mohammad Darawshe sees the trends as “part of a process of turning inwards” by the community, one he expects only to see grow. “Right now, there’s no reason to vote.” Ali Haider, co-executive director of Sikkuy, a Jewish-Arab NGO dedicated to advancing the cause of equality in society, adds that the Arabs have begun to feel they are little more than window dressing in the Knesset, “giving the world the impression that Israel is a democracy.” Instead, he says, they are focusing on ways to have a practical impact, “through litigation, international and domestic advocacy, economic development, and networking.”
The decline in participation in national politics, however, has not been mirrored by a parallel decline at the local level. On the municipal level, in fact, turnout remains very high, between 85 and 90 percent.
Three years ago, author and journalist Odeh Bisharat published a satirical novel in Arabic called The Streets of Zatunia. Bisharat centered the story around a campaign for local council in the fictional town of Zatunia. There, an unexceptional schoolteacher named Khaled is persuaded by his hamoula—the traditional extended regional family network that dates back to the Ottoman era—to run for the head of the local council. In the novel, Rashid, a town wheeler-dealer, tells him, “there are those in the village who think… it would be worthwhile for you to run on behalf of the family.” The clan hooks him up with a public relations firm that devises a campaign based, ironically, on an anti-hamoula platform.
Bisharat believes that hamoulas—which foster cronyism and corruption—are exerting increased influence because they can deliver entire blocs of votes and are viewed as a supplier of jobs. “I see this as a step backward,” says Bisharat, who lives in the Arab Galilee town of Yafia. For him as a writer, though, local elections provided an apt vehicle “for depicting all the conflicts within the community—conflicts between clans, between modernity and tradition, between the hegemony of the leader and the interests of the people, and the problems of women and of young people.”
Ghaida Rinawi Zoabi is a vivacious blond-haired 39-year-old woman with an infectious laugh. As the co-founder and director of the Injaz Center for Professional Arab Governance, she believes that the time has come for Arab society to take responsibility for itself—in this case, for the quality of its local municipal governments. The Injaz Center, which is headquartered in Nazareth, one of the urban centers of the Galilee, provides professional training for officials in development, budgeting and administration, and is assembling a database for them to share information.
Ultimately she hopes Injaz will raise the democratic awareness not only of public servants, but also of their constituencies. That’s not something that can be taken for granted, she says. Democracy, “is seen differently” in the Arab sector. “We have to work at it.” To illustrate, she relates a conversation she had not long ago with the newly elected mayor of a small Arab town. “He’s a young lawyer, and a dynamic guy,” she says. “I began talking about public democracy and the need to include the public. He said: ‘After I was elected, I invited the public to a meeting to discuss the future. I put up maps, and I talked about my plans.’” His intention was to give his constituents an opportunity to express opinions and take an active role in the decision-making process. “‘At the end of the evening, though,’” he told her, “‘I had the sense that they felt I was a weakling [for consulting them]—that they want me to make the decisions.’”
Further evidence of this tendency to look for someone else to assume responsibility can be seen in the fact, says Zoabi, that until the 1980s, Arabs in Israel would debate “who was our big brother: Was it the Palestinian refugees and diaspora, or was it the State of Israel?” There was a tacit assumption among many Israeli Arabs that, if and when the conflict with the Palestinians was resolved, their problems too would be dealt with. But in the years following the 1993 Oslo peace accords, it became clear that the Palestinian Authority had no intention of representing the interests of Palestinian citizens of Israel. Then, after October 2000 and the subsequent deterioration in Arab-Jewish relations within Israel, it became evident that Israel would not be the source of salvation, says Zoabi. She co-founded Injaz in 2008, she says, because “we have to look after ourselves.”
A plump man with a scruffy beard and a black Kangol cap saunters into a conference room at Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights. This disarmingly informal man is Adalah’s director, Hassan Jabareen, the mastermind behind the legal revolution this NGO is conducting in Israel. At 47, he is one of the most influential Arab voices in Israel’s civil and human rights discourse. Adalah’s offices are situated in Haifa, in a bright and beautifully renovated pre-state building with high vaulted ceilings. It was founded 15 years ago by Jabareen, a second-generation attorney from Umm al-Fahm, not long after Israel passed its “Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty” in 1992, providing principles of individual rights and freedoms that can—in the absence of a constitution be seen as an Israeli equivalent of a bill of rights. Its adoption made it possible to appeal to the Supreme Court to review the constitutionality of laws passed by the Knesset.
Jabareen echoes others who bemoan Arabs’ lack of influence in national politics: “No Arab is a member of the government, and in the Knesset, there’s no such thing as rational discussion,” he says. Instead, he has turned to the judicial sphere to make his mark, because, in the courts, especially the High Court, “the Arab has the right to be heard with respect,” he says. “It doesn’t mean the court will necessarily accept your case, or treat you equally—they face political pressure too. But at least we have access to it.”
Adalah jumps in wherever it sees violations of Arab’s civil, political or economic rights. The organization, for example, represented the families of the 13 Arabs killed by police in October 2000 before the Or Commission and defended Arab community leaders who were questioned and later warned that they might be indicted for incitement. In a landmark cased argued before the High Court in 2006, Adalah successfully challenged a government policy that designated a number of border towns on the country’s periphery as “national priority areas,” and thereby eligible for significant assistance and benefits, by arguing that it discriminated against Arab municipalities. And in early October, Adalah and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel also presented their case before the High Court to challenge the new “Nakba” law as unconstitutional. Similarly, the organization is appealing two potentially landmark cases to the High Court in which Arab citizens have been ordered to vacate their long-time homes in favor of Jewish residents. In the case of the Negev Bedouin town of Nahal Yatir, 500 individuals who were moved there by the military government in 1956 have now been told they must move again, as a new Jewish community is planned for the area.
Jabareen, who studied law at Tel Aviv University and American University in Washington, DC, where he met his wife, human rights lawyer Rina Rosenberg, says that the Oslo Accords played an important role in convincing him of the need for an organization devoted to Arab civil rights: “Oslo said to the Arabs in Israel: You will forever be a minority in Israel, which will have a Jewish majority. You will not be part of a single, Jewish-Arab state, and you will not be part of a Palestinian state. So we have to define ourselves. What does national minority mean? It means both group rights and individual rights, and this needs a legal framework.”
In 2006 the organization representing the heads of government of Arab municipalities published a document called the “Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel.” Together with a series of other papers drafted at the same time by such NGOs as Adalah and the Mada al-Carmel–Arab Center for Applied Social Research—papers that have collectively been referred to as the “Future Vision” documents—it provided a blueprint for how at least one segment of the Arab community envisions its future in Israel, and a list of demands of what would be needed to realize that future.
Though the Future Vision documents are focused as much on the internal challenges facing the country’s Arabs as on their relationship with the state, the big headlines in the Hebrew media were a variety of proposals challenging the Jewish character of the state. That and other provocative language alienated most Jews who might have otherwise have been sympathetic to the Future Vision papers’ goals.
The preamble of the initial document, for example, characterized Israel as emerging out of “a settlement project initiated by the Zionist-Jewish elite in Europe and implemented with the help of colonial powers.” Another paper, the “Haifa Declaration” prepared by Mada al-Carmel, exclusively blamed the Palestinian refugee problem on the “Zionist movement” which, “committed massacres against our people, turned most of us into refugees, totally erased our villages, and drove out most inhabitants…of our cities.”
For many, language casting doubt on Israel’s legitimacy was not the way to engage the Jewish majority in a discussion about a shared future. As it was, by going beyond a demand for an end to discrimination against Arabs as individual citizens, and demanding recognition as an “indigenous” national minority deserving of collective rights and autonomy in certain matters, the authors of the Vision documents took their political struggle to a whole new level.
The Jewish intelligentsia almost across the board, including those on the left, responded to the documents as a threat. Amnon Rubinstein, a law professor and former justice minister from the left-wing Meretz party, wrote inThe Jerusalem Post, that “this vision will … increase the antagonism between the two communities and enrage Jews like me who have worked for cooperation and equality between the two peoples.”
Ruth Gavison, a law professor and former president of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, and a frequently sympathetic commentator on Arab affairs, was also dismayed. In a 2009 article, she argued that “the demand for democracy and ‘rights’ is tantamount to a denial of the Jews’ right to a state which realizes their right to self-determination.” She wondered “whether it is possible or fruitful to discuss this issue, because it is not clear whether or how such a discussion could promote understanding and agreement.”
For Gavison, the best that can be attained—and hoped for—is “a state that affords Jews the self-determination they critically need, and offers Arabs a place of dignity and equality… This imposes a considerable burden on the Arabs: They will live in a country whose dominant ethnic and religious culture is not their own.” That burden, she adds, would be easier to bear if, beside Israel, there is a State of Palestine, “a political entity where Palestinian Arabs can enjoy political independence and liberty in part of their historical homeland.”
Looking back, Ghaida Zoabi, who served as the coordinator of the process that led to the main Future Vision document, acknowledges that “it may have been a tactical error not to think about how it would read to the outside public.” Reactions, however, from the country’s Muslim community were even harsher than from Jews, she says. Not only did the document present values “that were very liberal and very democratic—women’s rights, homosexual rights, and the like,” but also, “for the first time, we presented a representative document that said we see ourselves as citizens within Israel, and the Islamic Movement objected to that. It had a very different agenda, and still does: It sees all of the Land of Israel as an Islamic waqf and it can’t accept another sovereign.”
Indeed, the growth of Israel’s Islamic Movement is a matter of concern not only to politically progressive Arabs like Zoabi but to the Jewish majority. Like the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in other countries, it is a response to modernity and its moral relativism, but in the Israeli case, it is also a response to the indignity of a sovereign Jewish state existing on Muslim waqf—holy land. At the same time, it is a response to feelings of alienation from the state. Since its founding in the 1970s, it has been divided into two main branches, which differ in positions regarding the state and cooperation with it.
The Northern Branch, headed by the fiery Sheikh Ra’ad Salah, is the one that most Jews are familiar with, if only because of Salah’s frequent confrontations with legal authorities and his loud anti-Israel rhetoric. Both branches are involved in education and social services, but they have been split on the question of participation in national politics, including voting, though there are now signs that the Southern Branch is close to accepting the principle of non-participation. The Movement does participate in politics at the local level, most notably in the city of Umm al-Fahm, in the north, where successive mayors have been members of the Islamic Movement since 1989. Even those who oppose the Movement ideologically acknowledge that it has run that city efficiently and honestly.
Moshe Arens, who served as minister of defense under the governments of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, believes that integrating the Arabs, so that they feel that Israel is their home, is even more urgent than a peace agreement with the Palestinians. “When they are asked if they want to live in a Palestinian state, the vast majority say they want to live in Israel—there must be something we do that they like,” says Arens, referring to numerous surveys that have revealed that most of the country’s Arab would have no interest in giving up their Israeli citizenship if and when an independent Palestinian state comes into existence. “But on the other hand,” he continues, they feel “that they have equal voting rights but not equal opportunity. This is where Israel has its work cut out.”
Arens is unusual, especially among those on the Israeli right, in that he believes that all Arabs should serve in the military. At present, only members of the Druze community and some Bedouin are conscripted while other Arabs who try to volunteer for army service are rarely accepted. Among Arab political leaders, even the idea of mandatory civilian service for young Arabs is not something they are willing to consider.
Arens recalls that when he first became defense minister in the 1980s, “I asked if Druze soldiers could serve in the air force, or all other units. I was told no. I was told that a Druze pilot would take a plane and fly it to Damascus. Today, though, we do have Druze pilots. If there’s a risk, it’s a risk we have to take.”
Arens believes that military service is the ultimate way for Arabs to prove their loyalty to their country, and would make it possible for them to enter into a variety of security-related careers currently not open to them. “We’re a country at siege, with a lot of industry directly involved in military work, and even at the Electric Corporation and Bezeq [the phone company], if you haven’t served in the military, your chance of working in any of them is exactly zero. There won’t be equality of opportunity for Arabs if they don’t share the burden with the rest.”
At the same time, Arens blames Arab Knesset members like Ahmad Tibi for the fact that many Jews assume that all Arabs identify with Israel’s enemies. “Arab MKs compete with one another in terms of bellicosity and hostility to Israel,” he says. “Much of the [anti-Arab] ammunition [from people like Lieberman] comes from them.” He attributes their rhetoric to the failure of Zionist political parties to integrate them into their ranks.
Dan Schueftan also blames the Arab Knesset members for the increasing fear-mongering by Jewish politicians about Arab disloyalty. And he doesn’t buy the frequently heard argument that the Arab MKs are more radical than their constituents. Schueftan, director of the National Security Studies Center at the University of Haifa, is the author, most recently, of Palestinians in Israel: The Arab Minority and the Jewish State, published last year in Hebrew. “The Arabs speak about practically destroying the Jewish state and establishing an Arab state on its ruins,” he says. “Israeli goodie two-shoes types are coming up with public opinion polls that say that only 40 percent [of the Arab public] feel that Arab MKs represent their views, and they say, ‘You see it’s a minority.’” But in researching his book, Schueftan conducted his own polls, which he says show that 80 percent of Arabs believe that MKs such as Tibi or the provocative Haneen Zuabi, of Balad, who was on board the Mavi Marmarain 2010 to break the Gaza blockade, either represent their views or are too moderate.
Schueftan argues that the current wave of anti-Arab sentiment, reflected in Knesset bills and in municipal rabbis telling their followers they may not rent apartments to Arabs, is a reaction to the anti-Israel rhetoric of Arab leaders, and not the reverse. Israel has done well by its Arab citizens, he insists. “Israel immediately granted citizenship to all Arabs in Israel. And in a very systematic way, more and more elements of discrimination have been eliminated. The situation of Arabs economically and socially has improved in a dramatic way.” But, though one might expect “that Arabs would be less hostile to Israel … since the Jews are behaving much better today than they did 30, 40, 50 years ago, this hasn’t happened.”
Nonetheless, Schueftan advocates that Israel continue to increase and strengthen civic equality, “even if it doesn’t change Arab attitudes, because it is good for the Jewish majority and for those Arabs who want to live in a free society.” Simultaneously, he argues, “there is a need to increase and strengthen the Jewish nature of Israel,” if only for a simple tactical reason: “You can mobilize more support among Jews to strengthen civil equality when you strengthen at the same time the Jewish nature of the state.”
Becky Kook doesn’t share Schueftan’s take on how good the Arabs have it. Kook, a Jewish political scientist at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, is the author of a 2003 book that compared discrimination against Arabs in Israel with the historical exclusion of blacks in the U.S. “Arabs have protection of the law, and their civil liberties are more or less protected, but there is a great deal of discrimination,” says Kook. “Being an Arab in Israel is very difficult. It’s difficult to rent an apartment and to get a good job, and I think that’s the core of the problem.”
Unlike Schueftan, Kook attributes the growing xenophobia less to the provocations of Arab Knesset members than to a near-obsession among Jews with “the demography paradigm,” that is, the deeply rooted fear among many Jews that higher birth rates for Arabs may eventually threaten Jewish numerical superiority. “If your whole outlook on the question of minority-majority relations is defined by demography, then granting individual rights [to Arabs] is a threat,” she says. The Abraham Fund’s Mohammad Darawshe sighs. “The Jewish majority speaks,” he says, “with the mentality of a minority.”
The air conditioning technician says the thermostat is working now, but the temperature is still hot in Ahmad Tibi’s Knesset office, and he remains irritated. Tibi, who chairs a parliamentary committee that is tasked with improving Arabs’ integration in the public sector, is incredulous—not to mention furious—about a bill introduced a day earlier by MK David Rotem, of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, which would give veterans of the Israel Defense Forces preference when they apply for civil service jobs. Since army veterans already receive a wide array of financial benefits, and since with the exception of the Druze and Bedouin, most Arabs are neither required nor permitted to serve, the proposal seems like yet another measure directed against Israeli Arabs.
Tibi takes a call from a television producer who wants him to appear that evening to discuss the bill. To add some pizzazz to the conversation, the producer has also invited MK Hamad Amar, the lone Arab member of Yisrael Beiteinu and a co-sponsor of the bill, to appear and explain his support for the bill. The bill angers Tibi, but the sponsorship of Amar—and in general his affiliation with Lieberman’s party—pushes all of his buttons.
“What do you mean ‘he’s a Druze,’” Tibi shouts into the phone. “He’s an Arab!” (MK Amar is a Druze, from the town of Shfaram, and an army veteran.) “Hamad Amar is grotesque!” he admonishes the producer. “The state already offers benefits for released soldiers. We haven’t asked it to cancel them. From my point of view, the Defense Ministry can give a million shekels each to IDF veterans. But this bill goes against existing law; the Knesset’s own legal advisor has said it’s not legal.” So, he asks his caller rhetorically, “What’s the logic of a bill like this?”
A few days later the bill is shelved indefinitely because, if passed, it would violate a 2007 government decision to increase the number of Arabs working in the civil service, just as Tibi had predicted. That’s one bill down, with another dozen or so in the pipeline to battle against. Despite his anger and frustration, he is convinced it would be a mistake to stop playing the game. “This is the most racist Knesset ever,” he says. But withdrawing into themselves is not an option for the Arabs, who, he says, need to block Israel’s extreme right. “Whoever doesn’t vote is making a mistake.”