Opinion

Israel Shoots Itself in the Foot With anti-Arab Racism

Resurgent anti-Arab sentiment, whether by vandals or ministers, is a good way for Israel to undermine itself.

Demolishing illegally built structures in the Bedouin town of Hiran, in the Negev, Jan. 18, 2017. Photo shows rubble of a house and an elderly woman standing in front of the rubble, wearing a black embroidered dress and white headscarf,
Gil Cohen-Magen

With the spray-painted graffiti and slashed tires in East Jerusalem and the Arab village of Na’ura in the Galilee, the raw side of Israeli anti-Arab racism was again on display this week.

The acts were cheap and disgusting and immediately drew condemnations from the “good” Israel.

But subtler, and far more damaging racism was also on display this week: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon in February agreed to suspend demolitions of illegally built homes, so long as they were built on private land.

Although the decision to suspend demolitions applies to all Israelis, it was an important gesture to Israeli Arabs, who are forced to build illegally, i.e., without permits, because they can't get them. For one thing, there are no master plans for their towns.

Under the circumstances, suspending demolitions is reasonable, and showed that the government isn’t as hostile to country’s Arab minority as it is seems.

The thing is that Netanyahu and Kahlon kept their decision under wraps. The only notice about it was in a letter sent by a Knesset lawmaker from Kahlon’s party Kulanu to local governments.

Netanyahu and Kahlon feared rightist cabinet ministers and their supporters would attack them for the move. With Bibi in perpetual campaign mode, and ever-fearful of losing the contest for Israel’s right, showing a modicum of concern for Israeli Arabs could be a costly business.

The great majority of Israelis aren’t fanatical racists who fantasize about vandalizing Arab property. But they seem quite content with the idea of the invisible Arab -- living apart in his or her own towns and neighborhoods and working at jobs that don’t threaten the employment of Jewish Israelis.

That is the context in which they don’t want their children in the same schools or intermarrying. Polls show that 37% of Israeli Jews actively oppose the idea to the degree that they expressed support for fringe organizations fighting it.

Close to 46% express the same feelings about having an Arab neighbor (to be fair, a larger proportion of Israeli Arabs polled expressed the same views on intermarriage and 30% said they wouldn’t want a Jewish neighbor). 

Another survey found that close to 30% Israeli Jews would prefer not to see more Arabs in their place of work, by far the highest rate among the discriminated groups.

Protest against home demolitions, February 14, 2017, outside the home of Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.
Emil Salman

The reason for this is quite obvious. Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular are our enemy. Themselves emphasizing the community’s separateness, its identification as Palestinians living in a hostile Jewish state, Israeli Arab leaders have done little to discourage that perception.

The wars over public commemorations of the Nakba serves as one flashpoint  and Israeli Arabs volunteering for civilian national service is another. Both are tests for both sides of how far Israel Arabs are prepared to be a part of Israel.

A part of Israel, after all

The fact is, however, Israeli Arabs are quietly passing the test. They’re not going to be flag-waving Zionists, which is understandable: Israeliness to too closely tied up with Jewishness, and the government is determined to strengthen that with vacuous legislation like the Jewish nation-state bill.

Israel isn’t exactly laying out the welcome mat, but Israeli Arabs have their foot in the door anyhow. Their share of students in college and university was 13% in 2014-15, nearly double the rate it was 20 years earlier, and many more study in Jordan and the West Bank. Close to 85% of Israeli Arabs in a survey expressed a strong desire for their children to learn Hebrew at a young age – because that is the route to a career and a middle class lifestyle.

Similarly, the number of Israeli Arab volunteers in national service has doubled, mostly among middle class families, who see it as a way for the next generation to enter Israeli society.

Israelis on the fringes of the right aren’t paying attention because they are imprisoned in the idea of Jews and Arabs in perpetual war. That’s just as well, as the creeping integration would arouse their deepest fears of Israel sleeping with its mortal enemy.

However, for the majority of sane Israelis, all these developments should be welcome -- and not just because as a society proclaiming ourselves democratic and egalitarian, our treatment of Israeli Arabs is a black mark that needs to be erased.

Much attention has been devoted to bringing the ultra-Orthodox, who share much those same socio-economic characteristics of Israeli-Arabs, into the labor market. But Israeli Arabs deserve even more attention.

While Haredim account for at most 10% of the population, Israeli Arabs are double that and their percentage is projected to keep growing over the next decades. Unlike most of the Haredim, Israeli Arabs are ready and willing to obtain the best education and pursue careers – all we have to do it give them the chance.

Israel can’t afford to have so much of its population consigned to second-class status – impoverished; working at menial, low-productivity jobs; and cut off from the rest of society. Vandals and ministers alike need to accept that.