It’s Not Just the Economy, Stupid

Is it rational to believe that we can embrace the Arab minority economically, but assault it in all other ways?

It’s become a bon ton in recent months: the importance of integrating Arabs into the Israeli economy. From the prime minister down through the cabinet, Knesset members, government officials and businessmen – all declare the need to reduce gaps, equalize services, absorb Arab university graduates and women into the job market, encourage entrepreneurship and develop industry. Without all these – they correctly proclaim – Israeli society will be unable to jump to the next level of economic development and growth. The Arab community, they say, must be transformed from a burden into an economic engine. It’s good for the economy, good for Israel’s image, good for the Arabs, good for the Jews.

Fair enough. In fact, serious efforts have recently been made in this spirit: Designated jobs and attractive terms are being offered to Arabs to join the civil service, so that the government can meet minority employment targets and ensure “fair representation,” as required by law.

Furthermore, the Economic Development Authority in the Minority Sector was created; a government investment fund for industrial development in the Arab sector has been launched; development budgets have been allocated to selected Arab local authorities; the Commission for Equal Employment Opportunities was established; and a program has been launched to introduce Arab women into the job market and find jobs for talented Arab university/college graduates in the field of high tech.

This broad acknowledgment of the economic benefits of integrating Arabs into the economy is very important and is to be applauded. Even more important are the tangible steps taken in this realm by the government and civic organizations. Nonetheless, these efforts come up short against the current stark reality.

Israel’s Arab-Palestinian minority is currently the target of a ruthless, multipronged attack by the Jewish establishment: from civic-loyalty laws to dozens of other bills being debated by the Knesset, through racist rabbinical rulings and street violence against Arabs, to a systematic attempt to intimidate and destroy the organizations that oppose this assault.

What is the message that is being sent to Israel’s Arab citizens? That the civil service wants them, but their loyalty is suspect; that the high-tech industry is open to them, but they are a security threat ‏(we demonstrate this to them well at Ben-Gurion airport‏); that it’s important that they attend university, but they should play down their identity there; that they may be “colleagues” of Jews, but they will never be just “friends”; that their money is welcome in the malls, but they shouldn’t even dream of living in the adjacent neighborhoods; that they can establish businesses in an industrial zone, but will never be accepted as members of the neighboring village; that they may be leaders in their professions, but their language and culture are alien and repulsive. An Arab citizen can be the top surgeon in a hospital, but if he needs to pray, he should excuse himself and go outside to do it.

Against this backdrop, the assumption that economics and politics can be separated has never sounded more naive and unrealistic. When the economic discourse embraces Arab citizens at the same moment that the general discourse bullies and excludes them, we should not expect the economy’s declarations and gestures to bear much fruit.

Has the government forgotten that the economy is meant to serve a social vision? Or perhaps someone still harbors the topsy-turvy fantasy that Arab society should serve the Jewish economy? Is it rational to believe that we can embrace the Arab minority economically, but assault it in all other ways? Economic and employment development and efforts to reduce inequality play a very significant role in transforming Arab citizens into a genuine part of a shared Israeli community, but these steps are insufficient. Economic interests give rise to tactical partnerships of convenience rather than a deep-rooted strategic embrace that expresses our shared destiny.

Amnon Be’eri Sulitzeanu is co-executive director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, an organization that promotes coexistence and equality between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens.