Are Israeli Arabs the New African Americans?

What Martin Luther King, Jr. said about unfulfilled promises, in his 'I have a dream' speech, remains true today with respect to the Arabs of Israel.

On August 28, 1963, hundreds of thousands of people gathered at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. They came to demonstrate against discrimination against black people in the United States. The main speaker was the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

"I have a dream," thundered King, time after time. Among other things he saw in his dream, "... the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood."

Nearly 47 years after that speech, and 42 years after King was assassinated, there are no longer any laws discriminating against blacks in America. Though most of them still do not enjoy equal opportunity, President Barack Obama is in the White House.

King always stressed that his dream was anchored deeply in the American dream. Replacing the word "Negro," which King and Americans in general still used then, with the words "Israeli Arab," could also anchor this dream in the Israeli dream.

The first Zionists believed in equality "the son of the Arab, the son of Nazareth and my son" (as Ze'ev Jabotinsky wrote), and promoted the thesis that the settlement and development of the land would be to the benefit of all its inhabitants, Jews and Arabs.

The Zionist movement made a commitment to equality and tolerance. One of its founders, the writer Ahad Ha'am, condemned the oppression of Arab workers by the first Jewish farmers who settled the land at the end of the 19th century. In "Altneuland," Theodor Herzl's dream novel, there is a fanatical rabbi called Dr. Geier ("Geier" means "vulture" in German), who claims the land of Israel belongs only to the Jews. He founds a party that demands the denial of the right to vote to Arabs. Geier speaks in the language of the anti-Semitic leader Karl Lueger, the mayor of Vienna and a contemporary of Herzl, who became one of Hitler's sources of inspiration. In Herzl's dream, Geier is defeated in the elections and European liberalism is victorious.

However, the ideological and political effort the Zionists invested in defining the Jews as a nation did not lead them to recognize the national identity of the Palestinians as well. Some of them saw the Arabs as biblical figures: That is how they were envisioned in the dreams of the fathers of the Jewish nation. Most of them believed Arab culture was barbaric and inferior, as well as the Arabs' national identity. They expected the Arabs to acknowledge the Jewish ownership of the land, and to trust in their liberal and religious fairness.

Boris Schatz, the artist who founded the Bezalel School of Art in Jerusalem, envisioned the Jews transferring the golden Dome of the Rock from the Temple Mount to some other hill, as "a memento of gratitude to the Arabs, our good neighbors, for having preserved our holy places with great care."

The dream of establishing an outpost of European culture in the Land of Israel and the declared intention of instituting equal rights in the state helped the Zionist movement win international support, such as in the form of the Balfour Declaration, in which the British government committed itself to the establishment of a national home for the Jews in Palestine. Israel's Declaration of Independence, in 1948, also promised that the state would be based on foundations of liberty, justice and peace, "as envisioned by the prophets of Israel," and that there would be "complete equality of social and political rights to all ... inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex."

The general principles of the Declaration of Independence resemble those of the American Declaration, from 1776, the foundation document of the American dream, which Martin Luther King also quoted.

A re-reading of the dreams King set forth in his speech reflects a speaker who was living in a society that nurtured discrimination and especially segregation between the races. It is easy to forget he was speaking in the second half of the 20th century.

"There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, 'When will you be satisfied?' We can never be satisfied," said King, "as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied, as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities." His dream that one day his four little children, and other "little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls" also sounds like it comes from a far earlier era.

Military government

The situation of the Arabs in Israel in 1963 was also very difficult. Nearly all of them lived under the rule of military government, which imposed restrictions on mobility and other draconian regulations that were arbitrarily, insensitively and sometimes maliciously enforced.

One of the main purposes of the military government imposed on the Arabs was to make it easier to expropriate their lands. Most of them were allowed to vote and to stand for election, but the various government authorities, including the Prime Minister's Office, the Shin Bet security service, the Israel Defense Forces, the Histadrut labor federation and the political parties effectively denied them the right to free political organization. And they suffered discrimination in many other areas, too.

King's speech advanced the values of the 1960s, echoes of which were also heard in Israel, where the military government was abolished in stages in the period before and after the Six-Day War. The mechanisms of oppression concentrated thereafter on the Arabs in the territories. However, what King said about unfulfilled promises remains true today with respect to the Arabs of Israel.

From the perspective of the blacks, said King, the declarations of freedom and equality at the basis of the American dream are like a check that has been returned from the bank due to insufficient funds. "But we refuse to believe," he declared, "that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check."

The State of Israel has also deposited quite a lot of promissory notes among its Arab citizens, and many of them have not yet been cashed.

King was a man whom the enlightened world loved to love. His "I have a dream speech" became a constitutive document in the struggle for equality among people everywhere. In Jerusalem there is a street named for him, and Yehiel Mohar wrote a poem entitled "I have a dream." In Hebrew it rhymes, but the words are rather thin:

"I have a dream / and it is more real than any reality / and it is very ancient and also new / The day will come / brighter than the sun and sweeter than honey / I have a dream."

The poem goes on like this for two more stanzas and at the end it becomes clear that in contrast to King's very daring speech, Mohar's most political line only promises "a song of peace" that will arise from here. There isn't a single word about oppression and equality.

The similarity between the struggle of America's blacks and that of Israel's Arabs is expressed in the contents of their respective dreams: a state of all its citizens. The blacks in America had, and still have, a basis for being optimistic. That is the main difference between them and the Arabs of Israel.

There was an abundance of hope and faith in a better future in King's speech, as expressed in the old Negro spiritual from which he quoted: "Free at last! Free at Last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last."

King made a point of warning his people not to act violently but rather to keep the faith in "a symphony of brotherhood," as he said. We are all "God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics," and someday, all will be able "to join hands and sing." Today no doubt he would have added "Muslims" as well.

Over the years, America has knocked down many walls of separation, discrimination and racism. According to a survey published in Haaretz last month, one out of every two Jewish young people in Israel believes Arabs should not have rights equal to those of Jews. About 56 percent of them believe it is not necessary for Arabs to be allowed to be elected to the Knesset.

At the opening of the first session of the First Knesset, in 1949, there were three Arabs among the 120 members. Tawfik Toubi, an Arab communist born in Haifa and the last surviving member of that Knesset, warned: "Denying democracy and freedom to a national minority leads to the denial of democracy and freedom to all the country's inhabitants. It is impossible to portion out democracy and freedom."

For many years it seemed as though such discrimination was indeed possible: Jews enjoyed basic democratic rights that were denied to Arabs. The abundance of manifestations of racism against Jews, such as Sephardim, immigrants from Ethiopia and others, has deepened the sense that Toubi was right, as was Martin Luther King, Jr.