U.S. Jews Treat Israeli Arab Leaders as Equals. Decent Israelis Should Try It

Within the space of days, I witnessed the dark, disturbing gap between U.S. Jews' egalitarian embrace of Israeli Arabs - and their invisibility in Israel's public square, and exclusion from government

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Benny Gantz, head of Blue and White party, speaks during a rally commemorating the 24th anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in Tel Aviv, Israel November 2, 2019
Kachol Lavan head Benny Gantz speaks at the rally commemorating 24 years since the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. No Arab political leaders spoke. Tel Aviv, Israel Nov 2, 2019Credit: \ CORINNA KERN/ REUTERS
anat saragusti
Anat Saragusti

No Arab leader was invited to speak.

Tens of thousands of Israelis rallied in the center of Tel Aviv that night. On the stage of the rally to commemorate 24 years since the assassination of Yizhak Rabin, they went up, one after the other, politicians, public figures and singers - all Jews, save one Arab woman who spoke briefly as part of a group from Women Wage Peace.  

An Arab political leader? That was one step too far.  

Just two days earlier, Kachol Lavan head Benny Gantz made what is considered in the Israeli political ecosystem a bravely "progressive" move: meeting with the heads of the Arab-majority Joint List slate as part of his attempts to create a governing coalition.

The negative backlash was led by no other but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who retweeted  a fan who'd posted a photo of the meeting, deliberately juxtaposed with a photo of the prime minister meeting IDF soldiers. 

Netanyahu retweeted a fan who'd posted a photo of Gantz's meeting with Join List head Ayman Odeh, deliberately juxtaposed with a photo of Netanyahu meeting IDF soldiersCredit: Twitter

Netanyahu didn’t have to add anything to the side-by-side photos. The message was clear: I am a patriotic Israeli, celebrating and supporting the country's defenders, while Gantz is meeting with representatives of our enemies.

Netanyahu set that tone a long time ago. His derisory attitude towards Israel's Arab citizens is now a tenet of faith for his base: his retweet is a perfect example of how his attitude towards Israel's Arabs is reflected back by that base and how eager Netanyahu is to re-amplify those views.

The high Arab turnout, and the decision of Arab political leaders to recommend Benny Gantz as prime minister, were the two most surprising, refreshing and significant moves in Israeli politics emerging from the last election campaign. But turning the Arabs into  legitimate governing partners – that's still too far. Gantz and other Kachol Lavan leaders aren't even considering it.

On the other side of the ocean, just a week earlier, the optics and the substance were diametrically different. A long list of Arab leaders - men and women - took center stage at the annual JStreet conference in Washington D.C.

It was not only that Arab public figures - Israelis, Palestinians and Americans - took part in the plenary, they could be found in almost every panel of the conference. And MK Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List, was a keynote speaker, alongside Bernie Sanders and other Democratic Party presidential candidates.

Israel's political discourse excludes Arab citizens from the governing equation and the public square; the progressive American Jewish scene not only included them, but invited them to take a central place. The gap between the two is both dark and disturbing.

It was disturbing because Odeh gave a highly nuanced speech to the audience. He spoke about his wish, as a representative of Israel's Arab minority, to be part of the decision-making process.

Ayman Odeh's speech at JStreet's 2019 National Conference

It was disturbing because while most of the Arab leaders speak about a shared society, and their wish to be part of the coalition, to share responsibilities, to work side-by-side with the Jewish Israelis towards a better Israel – most of Israel's Jewish leaders and politicians are afraid to express any true normalization towards Arabs.

On the contrary, the more the Arab leaders speak about a shared society the stronger the pushback from the right – portraying them as enemies of the people, supporters of terror, and fifth-columnists.

A shared society - Jews and Arabs as equals - is our only chance to strengthen the democratic values of Israel.

It is time that an Arab leader spoke at the podium at the Rabin commemoration. It is time to fully include Arab leaders in Israel's public discourse, to facilitate their visibility, to normalize Israeli Jews' relations with them,  to re-frame the relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel on the basis of equality, and to see Arabs as civilians, fellow citizens and not as a security threat and as enemy combatants. 

It is time to let go of the fear of establishing a coalition governing Israel that will be based on, responsive to and responsible for, Arab voters. That spur towards civic and political equality is a timely gift from the American Jewish community that we should embrace with both hands.

Anat Saragusti is a film-maker, book editor, freelance journalist and writer, on issues of state security, the participation of women in decision-making processes and current affairs. Twitter: @saragusti

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