Strangers in Their Own Land

Material discrimination against Israel's Arab citizens is pervasive and well documented. It manifests itself in almost every sphere of life: welfare and development budgets, funding for education, land allocation and more.

Ron Gerlitz
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Ron Gerlitz

Material discrimination against Israel's Arab citizens is pervasive and well documented. It manifests itself in almost every sphere of life: welfare and development budgets, funding for education, land allocation and more. Recently, though, we have been witness to a growing and disturbing trend: the attempt to deprive Arabs of certain intangible, or symbolic, rights.

Take the way the state relates to Arabic. Signs on Israel's highways are trilingual - in Hebrew, Arabic and English. And yet, anyone who travels those roads will encounter an almost totally Jewish public space, even in areas with a predominantly Arab population. For example, at many major intersections, though the signs may be in three languages, they designate the routes to Jewish communities while ignoring the Arab ones. To add insult to injury, the minister of transportation now plans to replace the Arabic names of destinations with the Arabic transliteration of their Hebrew names.

Both of these practices seem to reflect a more general trend, whose clear message seems to be that intangible assets - such as names of cities, streets and mountains; the linguistic and cultural character of public spaces; and the historical narrative children learn at school - all belong to Jewish Israelis alone.

It is important to remember that Arabic is an official state language, which at a minimum means all government offices must publish all official documents in both Arabic and Hebrew. Yet, in practice Arabic is treated as inferior and the obligations inherent upon the state from its official status are routinely neglected. The text of the Web site of the Interior Ministry, for example - perhaps the most critical ministry in terms of its oversight of domestic concerns, including those related to citizenship, construction and local government - is in Hebrew only, with a small English translation of its main title. There is no Arabic. This is also true for the sites of most other ministries. And when one travels on Israel Railways, the conductor informs passengers of approaching stations in Hebrew, and sometimes English (which is not an official language), but never in Arabic. This happens even when the next station is in the Bedouin city of Rahat in the Negev.

Israel also has hundreds of publicly funded museums and cultural institutions celebrating Jewish and Zionist history and culture. Needless to say, their brochures and other explanatory texts are available only in Hebrew and, at times, English. But more significant is that there are no such publicly funded institutions commemorating Palestinian history or culture from a Palestinian perspective. The result is that Palestinian history is absent not only from school textbooks, but also from the general cultural-historical sphere: It becomes an unknown - not only to Israel's Jews, but even to Arab citizens, unless they learn it at home.

Such exclusion from the Israeli symbolic realm and discourse generates a sense of disorientation and alienation among the Arab public - a feeling of being a stranger in one's own land.

These feelings are ever-present in the daily life of Arab citizens, and also constitute a strong psychological barrier when they are looking for jobs. Therefore, the chances of an Arab citizen becoming integrated and moving up the ladder in an Israeli - in most cases, predominantly Jewish - workplace are severely limited.

Among some Israeli Jews, there has been a growing awareness of the need to correct the 60-year-long material discrimination vis-a-vis the Arab sector. During the governments of both Yitzhak Rabin (1992-1995) and Ehud Olmert (2006-2009), some meaningful actions were taken. True, they were limited in scope, but they were a step in the right direction. However, the recent and escalating exclusion of Arabs from the symbolic sphere could lay waste to those efforts.

Implicit in the rhetoric that justifies this exclusion "campaign" is the sense that there is a need to strengthen Israel as a state inclusive of all Jews, but totally exclusive of Arab citizens, who "should thank us for letting them stay here." This feeling may be fueled by fears that sharing the intangible symbolic spheres is potentially dangerous to the State of Israel. Exactly the opposite is true. The continued exclusion of Arabs is a most dangerous process, because it conveys a clear message to Palestinian citizen, one that says, "You are not authentic members of this state." Dissemination of such a message to a large national minority is a recipe for alienation and escalation of domestic conflict. And demanding new and outward expressions of "loyalty" to the state at the same time can only exacerbate such feelings.

Arab citizens make up almost one-fifth of Israel's citizens. A proper democracy should recognize their rights not only as individuals, but also as a major cultural-ethnic component of the state, with its own unique heritage and symbols. They deserve a share of the public space as a right, not as a favor. Israel must be a state based on justice and equality, not on various forms of discrimination toward Arabs. The idea of creating an inclusive state could be a new goal for Zionism to which we should aspire. Indeed, it would be a step toward stability and prosperity, and would be in the best interest of anyone who cares about Israel - both at home and around the world.

Ron Gerlitz is co-executive director of Sikkuy: The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality in Israel.

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