Protesters demonstrate against the so-called 'Prawer plan' in Be'er Sheva. June 15th, 2013.
Protesters demonstrate against the so-called 'Prawer plan' in Be'er Sheva. June 15th, 2013. Photo by Ilan Assayag
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The most important social challenge facing Israel today is integrating its minority, non-Zionist communities – the Arabs and ultra-Orthodox. This is mandated by the principle of equality between citizens, irrespective of their origin, language, religious beliefs or political positions, and is vital for economic reasons – to encourage growth and reduce disparities.

The natural growth of these minority communities, whose children account for about half of today’s first graders, requires the majority to reexamine its attitude toward them. The current government wanted to deal with them through oppression and coercion. There seemed to be a convenient political opportunity to do this, because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formed a coalition without the Haredim. And while Arab parties have never been part of the government, Arab citizens sometimes had some influence expressed in party primaries – indirect influence to be sure, but even that doesn’t exist in the current government, which is comprised of right-wing parties or those run by a single person.

Netanyahu and his partners, Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, rushed to press the most painful buttons of these two minority communities; the Haredim seek to maintain their unique way of life, while Arabs are particularly sensitive about land expropriations. Lapid and Bennett declared a need to “share the burden” by recruiting young Haredim and Arabs into the IDF or civilian service. Netanyahu promoted the “law regulating Bedouin settlement in the Negev” (the Prawer bill), a sanitized name for the forced evacuation of tens of thousands of people from their “unrecognized” villages. The government has approved the evacuation of the Bedouin village of al-Hiran so that its land can be handed to a national-religious settlement group. They just forgot to discuss all this with the Bedouin, as former minister Benny Begin has revealed.

But the minority communities were not deterred, and fought these decrees with demonstrations and parliamentary action. These struggles were successful; the Haredim are not going to be drafted, and the Prawer bill has been shelved. The Haredim exploited Netanyahu’s desire to keep them as possible alternative coalition partners, and the Arab MKs formed a momentary alliance with their bitter rivals from the extreme right.

The achievements of the Haredim and the Arabs are a credit to Israeli democracy and proof that repressive policies are not effective. Now is the time to take heed: Instead of looking for new decrees to impose, the government should work to integrate minority communities in ways that respect their needs and contribute to the advancement of national goals.

Since Netanyahu returned to power five years ago he has rarely visited an Arab community and hasn’t visited a Haredi one even once. Netanyahu must change his attitude, open the door to representatives of minority communities, and strive to forge with them a shared national vision.