To whom does the public space belong?
Everyone knows the phenomena of racism and exclusion aimed at Israel’s Arab population are on the rise. It should be the responsibility of the mayor and other politicians to combat them.
The Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality recently defeated a motion by councilor Ahmed Mashharawi of the Meretz faction to add Arabic lettering to the city’s official seal. Mayor Ron Huldai stated as his reason for objecting that lettering in the Arabic language might add to “national polarization.” The new emblem contains text in Hebrew and English, but no Arabic at all − even though Arabic is an official language of the state, and despite the fact that about half of Jaffa’s residents are Arab citizens.
Mashharawi has been for some time actively promoting memorialization of Arab personalities in the public space, but to date only 14 Arabs have been commemorated in the names of streets (and a single square) out of 400 streets in Jaffa.
While the mayor is correct in saying there is “national polarization,” three key questions must be asked in this context: Who is creating this polarization and what form does it take? Will the use of Arabic in the public space increase polarization or reduce it? And to whom does the public space belong?
With regard to the first question, everyone knows that the phenomena of racism and exclusion aimed at Israel’s Arab population are on the rise. This takes various forms, including Knesset legislation and statements by politicians and public figures that incite against Arabs. But lately we have witnessed an escalation in this trend, marked by rising violence and racist outbursts against the Arab public, its symbols and soccer players, increasing amounts of anti-Arab slogans on walls and public signs, and the blotting out of Arabic words on these signs.
It should be the responsibility of the mayor and other politicians to combat these tendencies, not to encourage them. Anybody who is well versed in the fundamentals of democratic rule and presumes to have moral values must acknowledge the rights of the Arab population, internalize the fact that there is a right to differences and diversity, and be sensitive to other narratives.
I am sad to say that the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality’s decision reflects and represents the mind-set of that part of Jewish society in Israel that works to exclude Arab citizens − and their language, culture, tradition and identity − from the public space. All this while imposing on them symbols that they do not feel represent them, and trying to “reengineer” the Arab population culturally and nationally to suit the values of the Jewish majority.
Certainly the reality in which the Arab populace in Israel lives is complex and this demands that both sides consider their moves wisely and carefully to avoid violence. But there is a lack of symmetry between the majority and the minority when it comes to sorting out the relations between them: The main responsibility for this belongs to the government and the decision makers in the Jewish public, among them Mayor Huldai, who must protect the Arab minority and free the public space from the dominance and hegemony of a single national group. Each of the two main population groups is entitled to preserve its uniqueness, in its own space, but the general public space should reflect the diversity of national groups.
Regarding the second question − will using Arabic increase or decrease national polarization − the mayor and whoever voted against the motion are greatly mistaken. Using Arabic will give Arab citizens a good feeling because language is identity, and using that language will make it possible for them to bring their culture into the public space. The Jewish public too may learn new things as a result, get to know another culture, open up to new horizons and with this new awareness begin to be liberated from its fears.
As for the third question, regarding to whom the public space belongs, it is clear that the Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel do not have a lot of things in common: They have different languages, cultures, histories, leaders, national identities, religious affiliations and so forth. Add to this the fact that historically, all of the country’s governments have discriminated against the Arab citizens systematically and deliberately.
If we are to correct these injustices and ensure the fulfillment of the principles of justice, equality and freedom, the government and the Jewish public must work toward forging an egalitarian and unconditional citizenship, which will create a shared public space and the just and fair division of material resources and symbols.
A truly shared public space requires joint ownership of the state by its citizens, and this can be achieved in part by giving official Arab names to streets, squares and towns (especially since, in any case, a large share of them have historic Arab names). Such a shared public space can also be created in hospitals, on public transportation, at universities, museums and elsewhere.
The prime minister and municipal leaders, and first and foremost the mayor of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, must work toward the establishment of a shared public space − for the sake of the future of all of us in this country. In any case we, citizens and civil society organizations, have a duty to act without delay to achieve a shared public space because the public space belongs to all of us.
Ali Haider is co-executive director of Sikkuy: The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality in Israel.