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Despite the Rioting: Israeli Arabs Want to Live the Israeli Dream

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Unrest in Lod
Unrest in Lod, May 2021Credit: Moti Milrod

It’s difficult to understand why the rage and violence in the Israeli Arab community suddenly erupted.

The worst of the arson and mob violence appears to be over, but the embers are still alive. The trauma on both sides remains too fresh for most people to want a dispassionate analysis of what happened.

Nor would it be easy to conduct one. Not counting East Jerusalem, where events seem to have been to one degree or another directed by Hamas, the violence in Israel’s mixed Jewish-Arab cities seems to have been a spontaneous outburst. The Arab rioters, who by most accounts started it, probably had no clear idea why they acted – they didn’t belong to an organized group with an agenda; it was simply an explosion of inchoate rage.

That isn’t to say that Israeli Arabs have no reason to be angry. They are still treated as second-class citizens by the state in the allocation of resources and have to cope with the casual racism of Jewish Israelis.

I say "casual" because Jewish Israeli attitudes towards Arabs tend to be a mélange of contradictory feelings that don’t add up to the kind of hatred of the kind we saw in Lod and Ramle. Take, for instance, a 2019 poll taken by the Israel Democracy Institute found that the great majority of Israeli Jews would never marry an Arab but that 81% said they were willing to have an Arab as a colleague at work, 64% as a friend and 58% as a neighbor.

But almost half said the two populations should live separately. Attitudes are complicated, but if there’s a discernible pattern to all this, it is that Israeli Jews want co-existence but at a safe distance.

Even in places where Jews and Arabs live cheek by jowl these contradictory attitudes are alive and well. A survey of the residents of mixed cities, conducted two years ago by the Abraham Initiatives, revealed that only 31% of Jewish and 41% of Arab respondents said they would let their child play with a child of the other. Yet no less than 89% of Arabs and 81% of Jews termed their relations with the other as “good” or “very good.”

It’s a shaky foundation for equality and acceptance, but Israeli Arabs have made the best of it, taking the opportunities in education and work on offer without achieving social equality.

There’s a ceiling to how far they can go without the latter, but so far they have made considerable progress. The evidence is right before our eyes. When I first arrived in Jerusalem in the 1980s, the Arabs that a Jewish Israeli encountered in the course of an average day were janitors and gardeners; they were all male, since women almost never worked outside the home. Today, Arabs are working in medical clinics and hospitals as doctors and nurses; others are pharmacists and shop attendants, college students and government clerks. A lot of them are women.

Meet the NEET

Israeli Arabs still suffer poverty rates three-and-half times that of Jews, but the rate has been falling relatively fast. More importantly, the Arab middle class is growing, and they are the people best equipped to pursue equality.

The Bank of Israel estimates that 22.6% of Arab Israelis had incomes between 75% and 125% of median disposable income per capita nationwide in the years 2016-2018, up from 15.9% in 2007-2009. Another 6% belong to the upper-middle class (125%-200% of the median), up from 5.4%. To help attain a middle class standard of living, Israeli Arab women are having fewer children while more and more men (and especially women) are getting a higher education.

They are hardly fervent Zionists, but these middle class Arabs want a piece of the Israeli dream. And, as Mansour Abbas of the United Arab List Party understands, they also want to be part of the system so their communities have access to the same government resources Israeli Jews enjoy. In spite of repeated slaps in the face, in the form of the Nation State Law and Netanyahu’s periodic bouts of anti-Arab hysteria, that survey found that nearly two thirds of Israeli Arabs say they are proud to be Israeli.

So who was out in the streets attacking Jewish Israelis and torching their cars?

So who was out in the streets attacking Jewish Israelis and torching their cars?

So soon after the events, we can only speculate; indeed, given the anarchic nature of the rioting we may never know. But one factor that almost certainly played into the combustible mix of religion, nationality and politics is economics: There may be an Arab middle class, but there is also a large class of mostly young Arabs who have been left behind in a very serious way.

Economists classify them as NEET, meaning Not in Education, Employment, or Training. That is a nice way to say that they are doing nothing or, worse still, leading a life of crime. Among Jewish Israelis aged 18-34, the NEET rate is an estimated 13%, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. For Arabs, it’s about 30%, two thirds of them male. That’s a lot of young men who are bored, directionless and angry, and don’t need much convincing to go out in the streets.

This should be just the time for someone like Abbas to be joining the government, but instead the rioting has had the exact opposite effect. Not only has Naftali Bennett scuttled the formation of a “change” coalition, he ostensibly did so on the grounds that Israel will need to deploy troops and conduct arrests in the wake of the rioting, which would be impossible for a government reliant on Abbas.

If he really believes that’s the solution and wasn’t just pandering the right-wing anger, then Bennett got it all wrong. Israel needs to be addressing the NEET problem not by arrests but by investing money and manpower in Israel’s long-neglected Arab communities. It’s time for carrots, not sticks.

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