Encouraging News on Jewish-Arab Ties

The results of a survey on relations between Jewish and Arab citizens within Israel provide a rare opportunity for optimism.

With all the attention last week on the drama playing out around the Palestinian bid for recognition of a state at the UN, it was inevitable that the announcement of the results of a survey on relations between Jewish and Arab citizens within Israel would be drowned out.

Yet the responses to questions posed by Sikkuy: The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality in Israel, and released last week at its annual conference, not only addressed an internal problem no less threatening to the state’s future than the Israel-Palestinian conflict, but also provided a rare opportunity for optimism.

Co-written by Nohad Ali and Shai Inbar, the 62-page study, entitled “Who’s in Favor of Equality? Equality between Arabs and Jews in Israel,” reported on the opinions of members of both groups about Jewish-Arab relations and the nature of the state. In light of the increasingly harsh public rhetoric heard in recent months, and in particular the efforts by a number of Jewish politicians to cast suspicion on the loyalty of the country’s Arab population and to push through legislation intended to limit their freedoms − the study’s findings were encouraging.

The study found, for example, that most Israeli Jews acknowledge the fact that Arab citizens suffer discrimination, and believe it is in the country’s interest to promote equality. Nearly 40 percent of Jewish respondents even expressed a willingness to pay a personal price if it will lessen the gaps between them and Israel’s Arabs. Both Arabs and Jews support integration in economic, political and social life, although both prefer to continue to live separately.

When it comes to the nature of the state and its symbols, however, the study showed that the Arab-Jewish divide is significantly deeper. For most Jews, the Jewish identity of the state is “axiomatic,” whereas a large majority of Arabs believe that without a change in this basic principle, true equality will not be possible. This “duality” ought to be taken into account in devising future policies.

The questions facing Israel in terms of majority-minority relations are indeed serious, particularly in terms of the long-term future of the country. But they are not beyond improvement, if not resolution.

Practical solutions, in fact, were the subject of my recent book, co-written with Dov Waxman, “Israel’s Palestinians: The Conflict Within.” We believe that majority-minority relations in Israel should be better “managed,” by maintaining the country’s Jewishness while, at the same time, strengthening its democracy and enhancing its stability. Those goals, while enormously challenging, could be achieved through a comprehensive, purposeful set of policies initiated by the government and the leadership of the Arab community, but with the intense involvement of both communities.

Here are some examples of the type of initiatives that could and should be promoted in pursuit of better majority-minority relations in Israel:

• Improving significantly the socioeconomic conditions of the minority. The persistent and even increasing gaps between Jews and Arabs in terms of income and education, employment and housing, are unhealthy for Israeli society at large.

• Nominating Palestinian Arabs to positions of responsibility in all branches of the Israeli society, including the government’s bureaucracy ‏(where they are now greatly underrepresented‏), the business community and academia.

• Adopting an aggressive, anti-discriminatory policy against individuals ‏(including public officials‏) and organizations that engage in discrimination, be it by calling on others to refuse to rent or sell apartments to Arabs, using ethnic intimidation at soccer matches, etc. Unfortunately, the trend has been in the opposite direction in recent years, with unscrupulous politicians whipping up anti-Arab sentiment − a very dangerous development.

• Enhancing the political representation of Palestinian Arabs through an active dialogue with a variety of organizations, particularly moderate ones; treating the Arabs not merely as a cultural and religious minority but as a political minority.

• Introducing symbolic changes to bolster shared Israeli citizenship. While some Jews might view such changes as endangering the state’s Jewish character, in fact they will strengthen Israel’s democratic, integrative credentials. Thus, a stanza in “Hatikva” celebrating Jerusalem as the meeting place for all three monotheistic religions, or the marking of an all-Israeli Citizenship Day would emphasize the country’s commitment to equal citizenship.

• Establishing functional autonomy for Palestinian Arabs in some areas of public life such as education. A system that is now tightly controlled by the majority, both in its administration and curricula, ought to be liberalized, allowing the minority a decisive voice in managing its own affairs.

After 63 years of bad relations with occasional outburst of violence, changes would not be easy. Detractors would present them as “radical.” In fact, the recognition of minority rights has been a long-term trend in such diverse countries as Spain and Northern Ireland, Canada and the Baltics. The future is with those who believe in genuine inter-communal dialogue within deeply divided societies. Such dialogue could reverse the long-term trajectory of majority-minority confrontation and divert it toward possible, if uneasy, accommodation. In the final analysis, it could strengthen both Israel’s democratic order and its commitment to long-held Jewish values of equality and tolerance. Could we ask for anything more on this Rosh Hashanah?

Ilan Peleg is a scholar in the Middle East Institute, in Washington, D.C., and the Charles A. Dana Professor of Government and Law at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. He is co-author, most recently, of “Israel’s Palestinians: the Conflict Within” ‏(Cambridge University Press‏).