'The Formation of an Educated Class Must Be Averted': How Israel Marginalized Arabs From the Start

Documents from Israel’s first decades reveal the leadership’s efforts to divide and alienate the Arab citizenry

An Arab school in Haifa, October 1948. As late as 1965, government policy on Arabs was that “formation of a broad educated class must be averted as far as possible.”
AP

“There’s no place for illusions that this combination [of tactics] could turn the Arabs into loyal citizens, but over time it will reduce to some extent the open hostility and prevent its active expression.” – From a document containing recommendations for dealing with the Arab minority in Israel, September 1959, Labor Party Archives

As early as 60 years ago, Israel’s political leadership gave up on the attempt to integrate the country’s Arabs and grant them equal citizenship. A document drawn up for an internal discussion in Mapai, the ruling party and forerunner of Labor, in September 1959, proposed the implementation of policy based on the following approach: “We should continue to exhaust all the possibilities [inherent in] the policy of communal divisiveness that bore fruit in the past and has succeeded in creating a barrier – even if at times artificial – between certain segments of the Arab population.”

The assessment that the Arab public would never be loyal to the Jewish state remained entrenched in the following decade as well. For example, it underlay a lengthy document written by Shmuel Toledano, the Prime Minister’s Advisor on Arab affairs. In July 1965, the document served as the point of departure for a top-secret discussion between Toledano and the heads of the Shin Bet security service, the Mossad, the Israel Police, the Foreign Ministry and the Education Ministry (representatives of the Arab public weren’t invited).

According to the document, “We must not demand from the Arab minority loyalty in the full sense of the word, to the point of identifying with the goals of a Jewish state (ingathering of the exiles and other values related to the national and religious way of life of the Jewish people). Such a demand is neither practical nor legitimate.” Instead, “We should strive for the Arabs’ passive acceptance of the state’s existence and for them to become law-abiding citizens.”

These two documents address diverse issues having to do with the life of Israel’s Arab citizens. They help illuminate the state leadership’s official efforts to prevent the politicization of Arab society as well as its resistance to the emergence of a modern leadership among the country’s Arabs. These discussions were held, it bears noting, at a time when the majority of the Arab community in Israel (the exception being residents of Haifa and Jaffa) lived under a military regime – which was not lifted until 1966 – that included a permanent night curfew and a need for permits for traveling in the country.

One item on the agenda of the 1965 discussion was the “Arab intelligentsia” in Israel. The document drawn up in that connection stated emphatically, “The formation of a broad educated class must be averted as far as possible.” Reason: An educated class tends to adopt “positions of radical leadership.” Accordingly, the document recommended “gradual solutions.” For example, “The entry of Arab students into institutions of higher learning should not be encouraged, but into professions and industries that hold the promise of appropriate employment.” The document elaborates: natural sciences and medicine – yes; humanities and law – no.

The core of the Toledano document is its recommendation to block creation of political associations among the Arabs “in order to prevent the establishment of separate political entities on a national basis.” From the state’s point of view, the Arab electorate should manifest itself in the form of support for the Zionist parties. The latter, for their part, should open “their gates” to the Arabs and integrate them into their ranks “gradually and experimentally.”

The grounds for this approach can be found in the 1959 document. It states that the policy of divisiveness pursued so far regarding the Arab population “has allowed the state, during the period of its existence, to prevent the consolidation of the Arab minority into a united bloc, and in large measure has given the leaders of each community an outlet to deal with their communal affairs instead of with general Arab affairs.”

A perusal of the documents generates a feeling of sad irony. In the 1950s and ‘60s, the Israeli leadership acted vigorously to prevent the establishment of independent Arab political parties. The aim was to have slates of Arab candidates appended to the Zionist slates via “satellite parties,” and for Arab representatives to be guaranteed places in the parent parties. In other words, independent Arab parties conflicted with the establishment’s interests.

Today, in contrast to the establishment’s position at the time, the Arab parties are independent entities, while the Zionist parties have hardly any Arab representatives. But this is an illusory reversal: Substantively, little has changed. Whereas the goal of integrating Arabs into the Zionist parties in the country’s first decades was intended to depoliticize the Arab community, their displacement from the big parties today only preserves the separation between the peoples and distances the Arab community from the centers of decision-making. If at the outset the Arabs were a fig leaf, today they have become a scapegoat.

In opposition 70 years

Even today, separation remains the underlying rationale of the near-absence of Arab MKs in the center-left parties. Not only does the current situation reflect the will of the parties’ leaders (which include parties that don’t even have a primary), at times they seem to be competing among themselves over who is most hostile to “the Arabs.” The Labor Party, for example, has shown in recent years that it has no interest in true activity by Arabs within it, and its slate of Knesset candidates doesn’t guarantee a realistic slot for an Arab representative. Similarly, among the first 40 places on the Kahol Lavan ticket, there is only one Druze woman, in 25th place.

The Mapai document states that “stable rule in the country is inconceivable with most of the Arab minority in the opposition.” That evaluation has been refuted. The Arab public has been in the opposition for 70 years, lacking any real strength, even though this is not what most Arab citizens want. A survey commissioned by Haaretz before the 2015 election campaign found that 60 percent of the Arab community would like to join the government, and only half the respondents made this conditional on its being a left-wing government.

The Arabs would like to play a concrete role in the decision- and policy-making processes. Electorally, this poses a threat to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rule. At the same time, it’s clear that his opponents are toeing the same line, explaining to the public that “the Arabs” are beyond the pale, and even factoring them into an equation of “neither Kahane nor Balad” – referring an unwillingness to contemplate either a coalition or even a blocking majorith with either the far-right Otzmat Yisrael party or the nationalist Arab party Balad.

In this sense, keeping the peoples apart no longer necessitates segregation that’s maintained by ordinances and regulations. The military government may have been abolished, but its spirit still rules, on the right, in the center, on the left – everywhere.