It's a well-known secret that Israel's Arab citizens get a much smaller piece of the public-funding pie than Jews, proportional to their numbers. When recently pressed on the subject, certain high-ranking officials in Jerusalem explained that the state would actually be happy to give its Arab citizens their due portion of various budgets. It's the Arabs, they say, who somehow fail to claim the resources just waiting for them in Jerusalem.
"They should make more of an effort to get it," is the kind of comment I have heard; or, "they can't be spoon-fed" - an attitude, I've discovered, that is currently reserved for Arabs only.
Fortunately, there are also those officials who understand that getting an equitable share of government resources into the hands of the Arab sector is in the state's best interests, and they are committing to this as though it were among the most important projects on Israel's agenda today. And indeed, it is Israel's most important project for the 21st century, if the state aspires to flourish and find stability and sustainability. In the meantime, unfortunately, the discrepancy between the two main components of Israel's population - the Jewish majority (80 percent) and the Arab minority (20 percent) - is growing.
The Equality Index published last month by Sikkuy: The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality in Israel revealed that in 2007 Arabs received only 71 percent of the education resources due to them, based on their relative share in the population; 64 percent of what they are eligible for with regard to job-creation and training; and only 49 percent of their share of welfare funding.
So what is going on here? How are state resources made accessible to Jewish citizens who live in the same areas as most of the Arab population? Why do the Arabs get less? Do they really fail to ask for their due - or are the resources exclusively inaccessible to them?
Here's how the system works. For generations, semi- governmental institutions have simplified the work of Israel's governments by conveying state resources to their constituents around the country. These organizations include kibbutzim and moshavim; the Development Towns' Forum; representatives of West Bank settlers; ultra-Orthodox groups; you name it. They and others apply a strategy of effective and friendly, if not familial, lobbying to make sure the services and budgets of government ministries are accessible to their constituents, with the key word being "Jewish," not "citizen."
Clearly, though, the Arab citizenry does not have the same access to these government resources. They are not members of the movements and associations mentioned above, their Knesset representatives lack the requisite messianic zeal, and they do not speak the right dialect of Yiddish. And under the current dominant philosophy, there is every reason to expect Arabs to continue suffering discrimination, and to feel alienated from the state.
It needn't be this way. Historically, when the state takes on a project deemed to be of national importance, it is fully capable of getting the job done. When a million immigrants arrived in the late 1980s and '90s, for example, the Immigrant Absorption Ministry ensured that state resources found their way to new immigrants with no need for special lobbying.
The Or Commission, which investigated the clashes between the state and its Arab citizens in October 2000, concluded that, "A main goal of the state's actions must be to obtain genuine equality for the state's Arab citizens." Then prime minister Ariel Sharon embraced these findings in 2003, because he understood that the state's stability and even its very existence depended on equality between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority. Unfortunately, they were never really implemented.
What we need is a new concept for thinking about the way state benefits are made available to Israel's Arab citizens - what I call "access creation." Simply, this means a policy that not only guarantees equal distribution of the state's resources to all its citizens, but that also pursues that distribution actively.
Practically, the key lies in direct cooperation between the central government and Arab local authorities. A systematic organizational structure can build sustainable links between Arab local government and Israel's central government, and this can facilitate Arab citizens' access to state's resources. But organizational structure alone is insufficient: As in the case of immigration, it is the intention and spirit motivating these actions that will ensure the active inclusion of the country's Arab citizens. It is predominantly the duty of the state, as the more powerful side of the equation, to pursue this objective in a resolute way.
In the last two years, there has been some improvement in the government's perception of its Arab citizens, both as individuals and as a group. A philosophy that stresses the need to make state resources available specifically to Arab citizens, however, remains foreign to most decision-makers. Only when government officials take responsibility for effecting this change in a structural and comprehensive way will we know that a genuine process of rectification has begun, and the Arab local authorities will be able to join the effort.
Shalom (Shuli) Dichter is the co-director of Sikkuy: The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality in Israel.