Boycotts Aren't the Answer

Diaspora Jewry has abetted, perhaps unwittingly, discrimination against Arab citizens by the Israeli government.

Shalom Dichter
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Shalom Dichter

Last week the Umm al-Fahm municipality did its best to host the study group of overseas Jews organized by the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli-Arab Issues. However, as a result of an Arab organization's call for a boycott, the visitors had to skip the planned visit to a health clinic, which is located on the ground floor of the town's central mosque and belongs to the Islamic Movement ("Israeli Arab Leaders Slam Community's Boycott of Visiting Jewish Donors," Haaretz English Edition, January 8, 2008). This change did not really hurt the visit, as the guests toured the city and, as planned, visited its contemporary art gallery. The rest of the tour also went as planned, with no significant changes. It would be ill-advised, however, to ignore the attempt to impose a boycott on the entire visit, even if it failed.

In recent years, fascinating lines of communication have been developing between both sides of the ocean. Leaders of Jewish organizations in the United States have realized that they are being called upon, at a historic moment, to evince special interest in the inherent conflict that exists between Israel's Jewish majority and its native Arab minority - the two tectonic plates that constitute the country's citizenry. Diaspora Jews are attempting to learn about the issue in depth, and Arab leaders in Israel, for their part, are frankly setting forth the difficulties they face as a minority in a state defined as Jewish.

Not to be taken lightly is the fact that one of the nodes of controversy in Arab society in Israel is its attitude toward the Jewish establishment overseas. Does Diaspora Jewry have a legitimate say in Israel's internal matters? Is their involvement in a domestic issue expressive of world Jewry's "ownership" of the state? If that were to be accepted by the leaders of the Arabs in Israel, they would have to acknowledge that Diaspora Jewry has a stake in Israel, and that, because it is a Jewish state, they have even more rights than Arab citizens who were born here, and this would be intolerable. Over the years, Diaspora Jewry has abetted, perhaps unwittingly, discrimination against Arab citizens by the government of Israel, by means of the Jewish Agency, the Jewish National Fund, and other institutions. These facts do not make matters easy for the Arab partner in the internal Jewish-Arab dialogue going on here. In this context, it is possible to understand their reluctance, and even objections by some of them, to the interest international Jewish organizations demonstrate in domestic Israeli issues.

However, precisely because of its special understanding of the concepts of democracy and equal citizenship, world Jewry can help influence Israel to develop democratic and inclusive citizenship. Therefore, in the internal Israeli campaign to eliminate discrimination against its Arab citizens, it would not be wise to dispense with this powerful tool. This may be the reason why the heads of the Supreme Monitoring Council, the most broadly representative umbrella organization of the Arabs of Israel, directors of Arab non-profit organizations and the joint associations of Arabs and Jews did not accede to the boycott calls, despite the pressure they were under to do just that.

At the very least, it is possible to say that constructive communication is developing here, and legitimization of the interlocutor is a basic condition for this. It is true that on both sides, there are elements that are opposed to this and that use their attempts to delegitimize the other side as a weapon. Thus, for example, even Sikkuy, the joint Jewish and Arab organization I help co-direct, was dis-invited two years ago from a scheduled appearance in one of the large Jewish communities in the United States, as the result of heavy pressure from elements in that community who did not want to hear what we had to say. Conversely, two weeks ago, it was an element among the Arabs of Israel that tried to dictate a boycott of the American Jewish group that had come to listen.

Boycotts and de-legitimization will not help make Israel more democratic, inclusive or stable. The country's Jewish and Arab citizens must enter the circle of dialogue and action in order to resolve the inherent conflict between them, and the action that enjoys widespread agreement on both sides is the elimination of discrimination against Arabs and the adoption of full and total equality for all of Israel's citizens. In order to advance this joint interest, it is essential to meet and to talk with any individual and institution that is interested, whether from Israel or from abroad.

Shalom (Shuli) Dichter is co-director of Sikkuy, the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality.

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