Time to Turn a Page

Israeli-Arab leaders, no less than Jewish leaders, need to become more pro-active in improving the lot of the country's minority.

Ron Gerlitz
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Ron Gerlitz

The recent wave of racist attacks against Israel's Arab citizens has brought relations between Arabs and Jews in this land to a new and disturbing low point. These attacks join repeated threats by Yisrael Beiteinu and its coalition partners to revoke the citizenship of Israeli Arabs, threats that invoke blatant racist rhetoric, and government policies that have continuously discriminated against Arabs and excluded them from positions of powers, from decision-making circles and from public life in general.

This is a bleak depiction of affairs, but fortunately, not the whole picture. Over the past decade, there have been public officials who have taken it upon themselves to adopt measures that reduce discrimination. These include constructing new residential neighborhoods in Nazareth and Umm al-Fahm, establishing the Authority for the Economic Development of the Arab Sector in the Prime Minister's Office, and upgrading services offered by the Social Affairs Ministry to the Arab sector.

Social Affairs Minister Isaac HerzogCredit: Michal Fattal

Indeed, there are officials - not a large group, but not a negligible one either - working in the government bureaucracy who do try to make a positive impact on the lives of Arabs living in this country. And they happen to have the support of some ministers.

These are good, important tidings, but they are not sufficient. In order to stop the degeneration of relations between Jews and Arabs, both sides now need to take some bold steps. The government of Israel needs to confront, assertively and directly, racist tendencies in the political and public spheres. In addition, it needs to embrace a policy of equal distribution. Such a policy will be difficult to implement since it entails, in the short term at least, diverting resources from Jews to Arabs and cutting into privileges enjoyed by Jews. But if no effort is made to reduce existing gaps in infrastructure (industrial zones, transportation and more ), in budgets (education, social welfare services and more ), and in land allocation, there is no hope for change.

All this needs to be done with the full cooperation and participation of Israel's Arab minority. Public spaces need to be created which provide visibility to Arab culture, language and symbol. Otherwise, if Israel's Arab citizens continue receiving only the leftovers and crumbs of the state's resource pie, they will, justifiably, continue to feel like strangers in their own land.

Israel's Arab citizens also need to take some dramatic steps. In the past, government initiatives aimed at helping them were often met by with suspicion and cynicism by Arab municipal leaders. A local and national Arab leadership needs to emerge that believes in the possibility of forging a different type of relationship with the state.

This new leadership need to strive for dramatic change in Arab municipal affairs. This is a prerequisite for any improvement in the quality of life of Israel's Arab minority, because in this country, municipalities tend to run the show.

Even under today's trying circumstances, Israeli-Arab leaders need to put more effort into cooperating with the state. They must overcome their justified anger at the government, which has deliberately weakened them and proven time and again that is not serious about promoting equality for them. Clearly, the state bears responsibility for the situation that has emerged, but change can only happen Israel's Arab citizens decide to cooperate.

The author is co-executive director of Sikkuy, the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality in Israel.

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