The Eerie Similarities Between Ferguson and Kafr Kana

The two towns may be thousands of miles apart, but they are both home to second-class citizens with an unfinished history.

David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg
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Left: A rally in St. Louis, Missouri, Oct. 11, 2014 (Reuters) Right: Arab Israeli protesters at Tira Junction, Nov. 9 2014 (Moti Milrod)
Left: A rally in St. Louis, Missouri, Oct. 11, 2014 (Reuters) Right: Arab Israeli protesters at Tira Junction, Nov. 9 2014 (Moti Milrod)
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

It's quite a distance between the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, with its strip malls and housing tracts, and the Galilee town of Kafr Kana and its boxy white homes, winding roads and minarets. But in many ways the two are sister cities, homes to minorities who suffer the burden of an unfinished history as second class citizens.

So it's not coincidence that in both towns, the killing of a local resident by police – who most forcefully represent the power of the state – triggered violent demonstrations.

In Ferguson, an 18-year-old black man was killed on August 9 by a police officer, sparking days of protests and looting, and finally a U.S. Department of Justice investigation.

Two-thirds of Ferguson's residents are black while the local police force is nearly entirely white.

Three months later, in Kafr Kana, a 22-year-old was shot and killed by police, also setting off unrest and an Israeli Justice Ministry investigation.

Kafr Kana is an Israeli Arab town, mostly Muslim, and the police force is national – but according to a Knesset report, only 1.8% of Israel's 21,000 police officers are Muslims.

The two incidents resemble in their messy aspects too. Were the police too ready to shoot and kill because they had little regard for their victims? Or were they really defending themselves from attack?

The only evidence in the Ferguson case is eyewitness accounts that contradict each other. In the case of Kafr Kana, a video of uncertain provenance, uploaded to Youtube, seems quite damning of the police, although videos can be misleading. Armed with a knife or not, the assailant was shot while running away.

It's risky business to try to compare racism in two countries and decide which of them has more work ahead to create a fair and just society. But using some very rough data, Israel comes out looking worse than America in how it treats its biggest minority.

Inequality by the numbers

For instance, Israeli Arab men earn on average just 50.2% of what their Jewish counterparts earn. American black males earn 74.5% of white men earn.

Arab students comprise only 11% of undergraduate students in Israel, far below their 20% share of the population. Oddly enough, a higher proportion of African Americans start college than their share of their population, although far fewer earn a degree.

Among the biggest 100 companies listed on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, not one has an Arab CEO. Among Fortune 500 companies in America, six count black CEOs.

In Israel, 9.2% of Knesset members are Arab, a smaller proportion than America's relative to their share of the population. In politics, the U.S. can boast an African-American president; but only 8.5% of all senators and congress people are black,, far less than their 13% share of the population.

Not all of these gaps are a function of racism. Poverty in the Arab sector is also a function of their relatively large families and the failure of women to join the workforce. Poverty among Jews is also much higher for big, single-income families. Since the median age of Israeli Arabs is far younger than for Jews, all other things being equal – the community has less earning power.

More equality would mean less solidarity

Ironically, much of the reason than Israeli Arabs are so disconnected from Jewish Israel is that they live and learn apart. It would be nice to have more integration, but that would mean doing away with Arabic-language schools; separate, self-governing towns; and their exemption from army service.

Arabic schools help enforce community solidarity, and exempting from Israeli Arabs draft relieves them of the burden of fighting their fellow Palestinians. But it also puts them at a disadvantage when the time comes not just to find work but to find their way into a Hebrew-speaking society, where social networks are a critical part of making it professionally and socially.

Add to that the fact after centuries consigned to the role of tiny and beleaguered minority, the Jews are still struggling to see themselves as themselves as a majority.
Yes, the Israeli national anthem says we're a free people in our land. But Israelis still lack the self-confidence of white Americans, who a half century ago could begin the load trek towards acknowledging their country's history of racism and begin to change.

Point of fact: Africa and America aren't at war

Furthermore, the relationship between Jews and Arabs is inextricably linked to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Africa and America aren't at war; Israel and the Palestinians are not only engaged in a long conflict but a very gruesome one that rears itself up all too frequently, as this week's synagogue attack is only the latest instance.

To pretend that an Israeli Jews and an Israeli Arab can simply put that issue aside when they enter a classroom or office is unrealistic.

Many of the leaders on both sides don't help because they give the impression that the Israeli Arab community is little less than a fifth column. They seem more motivated by headline-grabbing and keeping the wheels of the ethnic-grievance industry turning, than by actually solving problems or speaking as true representative of popular opinion.

But if you ask ordinary Israeli Arabs, not their leaders, they seem a lot more peaceable than their leaders would have it. The Israel Democracy Institute and Haifa University conduct an annual survey on attitudes in the communications and the most recent, for 2013, found that 53% recognize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. Almost two thirds of Israeli Arabs think Israel is a good place to live and just over half favor their Israeli Arab identity over their Palestinian one.

In other words, when Bibi or the other lights of the Israeli right threaten Israeli Arabs with the loss of citizenship or the gratuitous law declaring Israel the nation-state of the Jewish people, they are attacking an internal enemy that doesn't exist.

You would think, given the Jews' long history as the victims of prejudice, that the right in Israel would be a little more thoughtful. But it's in the DNA of rightist politics all over the world to decry enemies at home -- even if there aren't any -- to arouse the masses. Attacking Tel Avivians for their hedonism doesn't quite do it.

I referred earlier to the "unfinished history" of African Americans and Israeli Arabs as second-class citizens - because both Israel and the United States are trying to correct the historical injustices.

They haven't by any means succeeded, but Israel has a longer way to go. Nor can we delay. A small and crowded country reliant on its intellectual power to ensure its security and prosperity cannot afford to allow a fifth of its population to to be undereducated and underemployed. As much as Israeli Jews owe Israeli Arabs equality, we owe it to ourselves.

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