Analysis |

Why Israeli Arabs Are Staying on the Sidelines of Country's Protest Movement

One former Joint List leader says that in order for the Arab community to join in, the protest must call for justice for all, and not be held under 'the umbrella of Zionism'

Jack Khoury
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Protesters wave Israeli flags at a demonstration in Jerusalem, July 21, 2020.
Protesters wave Israeli flags at a demonstration in Jerusalem, July 21, 2020. Credit: Emil Salman
Jack Khoury

Social protests have been gaining momentum over the past few days, but Israel's Arab community has been hesitant to join in. Although many Arab towns are suffering from the worsening economic crisis caused by the country's coronavirus response, prominent figures are not calling on the public to participate in the demonstrations taking place throughout Israel.

On Tuesday, protesters, many of them Arabs, gathered in Haifa for a small demonstration initiated by people working in the dining and tourism sector in the city. A few dozen people participated in a rally and march held in the German Colony, but it was a far cry from the masses gathered at Jerusalem's Balfour Street.

The key institutions representing the Arab community – the Arab Higher Monitoring Committee, the Arab Mayors Committee, the Joint List and social nonprofits – which have long been main forces calling for protests, have avoided joining the demonstrations. Most of the calls to do so have been coming not from political parties or official organizations, but from individuals, among them Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh.

The questions of whether to join in the protests and what part should Arab parties play in them have risen over the past few days in the Arab community. Activists from Hadash, a far-left party that predominantly appeals to Arab voters and that is part of the Joint List, joined in Tuesday's Haifa protest. But some of the restaurateurs had reservations with the attempt to politicize the demonstration, as they said. Chef Husam Abbas, one of the owners of the al-Barbur restaurant, who attended the demonstration, said participation is essential, but added that the struggle must be a social one alone in order to bring out the public from all facets of society.

Restaurant owners and workers demonstrate against the Israeli government's coronavirus response, Haifa, July 21, 2020.
Restaurant owners and workers demonstrate against the Israeli government's coronavirus response, Haifa, July 21, 2020.Credit: Rami Shllush

Fida Tabony, a member of the Hadash secretariat who participated in the demonstration, disagreed, saying that the political connection should not be removed from the protest. "The attempt to erase this aspect means that its influence on the dialogue and messaging is still unclear," she said.

There is a consensus in Arab society about the destructive effect of the economic crisis and the need to express their stance and participate in the protest, but Prof. Amal Jamal from Tel Aviv University's school of political science points out that there are hurdles that keep Arabs from joining in. “The Israeli protests wave the Israeli flag, something that blocks effective Arab participation," he said. "We need to remember that Arab citizens are protesting discrimination on a national and not just civil basis. This emphasis completely contradicts the desire of most of the Jewish protesters to reduce the centrality of political issues,” said Jamal.

At the same time, Mohammad Khalaila, who researches the Arab community, has called on the public not to wait for requests from organizers or Arab organizations to join the protests, despite the symbols there that may give them pause. He said the presence of the Arab public at these protests is a promise to create a shared political situation in contradiction to the ideology of the right: “We must learn from what happened in the social protest in 2011. The Arab public’s ambivalent attitude to the protest was reflected in its results.”

Khalaila added that he is not relying on Arab parties, most of which he said do not believe that they must participate in leading a political change in Israel and are afraid of blurring their national agenda.

Economist Dr. Sami Miari raises another explanation: The parties are avoiding calling on the public to protest out of political motivations, in order not to sabotage the chances of advancing a financial plan for the Arab community. “The strategy of the Arab parties is wrong," he said. "It is their duty to participate in the struggle and to have the voice be heard of a substantial part of the country's citizens, who are economically disadvantaged by a piggish capitalist policy.”

Former Joint List Chairman Jamal Zahalka says that Israeli Jews are not ready to call for real equality as part of the protest. "We will only participate if they don’t force offensive slogans and flags on us, and unfortunately it doesn’t seem like that now,” he said. "Joining in the protest needs to be under the umbrella of justice for everyone without any difference of religion, race or gender and not under the Zionist umbrella.” If the protests do not include this messaging, "The situation at this stage is protests in Arab towns and nearby junctions," he added.

A man protesting Israel's coronavirus response, Jerusalem, July 21, 2020. The slogan on the sign, which rhymes in Hebrew, says: 'Not right, not left, just an Israeli who wants to eat.'
A man protesting Israel's coronavirus response, Jerusalem, July 21, 2020. The slogan on the sign, which rhymes in Hebrew, says: 'Not right, not left, just an Israeli who wants to eat.'Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The Arab public's relationship with apolitical struggles has been limited and hesitant, especially in recent years. Sociologist Dr. Maha Karkabi Sabah said that "Looking over time, it is possible to see that the Arabs, despite their socioeconomic distress, are hesitant to be partners in every apolitical protest and remain behind."

She added, "It is impossible to separate the political from the social, so it is no surprise that there is no call from the Jews for Arab participation in the social demonstrations. It seems that the other side is also uninterested in blurring the national lines. Even when the struggle can cross every possible social border, it seems that the exclusion of the Arab minority by the Jewish majority does not pass over protests of this sort as well."

Between the supporters and cynics, it is already clear that the voices of the protests are rising toward the Arab public. This is the same public that took to the streets en masse last October to protest the lack of public safety in their communities, and caught their leadership up in it as well. This is a test for that same leadership, who will prove how much they are willing to initiate a struggle, as well as for the Israeli public and the protest leaders, who will clarify if they are prepared to include Arab citizens and their demands in the fight for justice.

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