Could Netanyahu Actually Be Good for Israel's Arabs?

In recent years, Israel's Arab community has been benefiting from higher budgets and making great strides in academia and high-tech, says Ron Gerlitz, the country’s most optimistic leftist

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Israeli Arab students at Hebrew University. In five years, the numbers of these students who enrolled in computer sciences and master’s programs have jumped 50 percent.
Israeli Arab students at Hebrew University. In five years, the numbers of these students who enrolled in computer sciences and master’s programs have jumped 50 percent.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Netta Ahituv
Netta Ahituv
Netta Ahituv
Netta Ahituv

Ron Gerlitz says he will never forget that dramatic week at the end of 2015. A few months earlier, as codirector of the Jewish-Arab nonprofit organization Sikkuy – The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality, he had been called to the Finance Ministry. He was informed that the ministry had conducted a comprehensive, secret study of budgetary discrimination between Israel’s Jewish and Arab communities, which it wanted to address. The solution would be a plan aimed at equalizing the government budgets in an unprecedented way. This would involve not a one-time payment to the country’s Arab communities, as had been made in the past, rather it would change the budgeting mechanisms fundamentally, so that the population would receive its fair, proportionate share of support in some areas, like public transportation, but a favorably disproportionate amount in other areas, as part of a process of affirmative action.

Amir Levy, then-director of the treasury’s budgets department, and Ayman Saif, who headed the Economic Development Authority in the Minority Sector at the time, worked furiously to advance the plan together, along with then-Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel. Sikkuy and Gerlitz worked intensely to assemble detailed recommendations about such areas as transportation, employment, housing, planning and day care. They also were involved in lobbying the relevant ministries, pressing to improve the plan and increase funding for it.

“After we received the draft of the plan,” Gerlitz recalls, “we submitted a comprehensive document to the treasury with proposals for improvements and changes – some of which made it into the final version. We also worked with the Arab political leadership and offered intensive professional assistance to Arab lawmakers and the heads of the Arab local authorities during their negotiations with the treasury.”

The cabinet met on December 27, 2015, to vote on the scheme, known formally as Resolution No. 922: a five-year Economic Development Plan for the Arab Sector. The ground had been prepared. But that morning, the Hebrew edition of TheMarker published an article titled “Right-wing government involved in largest plan for Arab community ever – 15 billion shekels.” The Likud ministers withdrew their support for the move, worried about what their voters would say.

Gerlitz believes it’s possible to help effect an egalitarian society even under a government that is anti-Arab.

The sponsors of the resolution persisted and an amended version of it was voted on three days later, on December 30. It also failed to pass, this time because of a demand by some ministers to condition any affirmative action involving Israeli Arabs on their doing national service. Levy, Saif, Gerlitz and Benjamin Netanyahu himself almost gave up, yet the prime minister managed to convene the cabinet again, that same afternoon. It was the third such meeting within a week on the same topic – something that usually only happens in wartime.

Today, the 46-year-old Gerlitz, who left his post at Sikkuy last month, says that he is certain Netanyahu really wanted the resolution to be approved because he made the cabinet meet the two additional times until they finally passed it – without the national-service clause.

“That was exceptional,” he says. “Netanyahu could have caved in to the ministers’ opposition and not passed the plan, postponed further discussion until 2016, made massive changes to it or conditioned its passage on all kinds of demands of the Arabs. And yet he insisted that it be pushed through with barely any conditions, as the budget division had delivered it. People at the cabinet meetings say the opponents of the plan did a lot of shouting. ‘I haven’t been in a nursery school like this for some 60-odd years,’ Netanyahu said, rebuking the ministers who were loudly arguing against it.’”

There are differing opinions as to why Netanyahu backed the plan, Gerlitz continues: “Maybe he was simply pursuing Israel’s economic interests. Maybe it was important for him to go along with Kahlon, Gamliel and the budgets department people who were all pushing for the plan. Another theory that got some backing is that he wanted to offset the negative impact of his anti-Arab incitement to keep things from getting out of hand.”

While the cabinet was convening that third time, Gerlitz was interviewed on the “London and Kirschenbaum” TV news program. He entered the studio while a message from an insider source was flashing on his cellphone: “It looks like a lost cause.” As he left the studio, he found the message “It passed” on his phone.

Thus ended months of intensive work to assemble detailed recommendations in fields like transportation, employment, housing, planning and day care, as well as lobbying ministries, in order to upgrade the plan and increase funding for it.

Ron Gerlitz. “I reject the prevailing left-wing claim that we’ve lost the fight."Credit: Emil Salman

“After we received the draft of the plan,” Gerlitz recalls, “we submitted a comprehensive document to the treasury with proposals for improvements and changes – some of which made it into the final version. We also worked with the Arab political leadership and offered intensive professional assistance to Arab lawmakers and the heads of the Arab local authorities during their negotiations with the treasury.”

Not only did the resolution finally pass, but it did so unanimously. Gerlitz was so thrilled he couldn’t remember where he had parked his car, and he ended up leaving it at the television studio. That evening, Sikkuy staff raised a toast to their victory – but the drama didn’t end there. Two days after its approval, on January 1, 2016, a terrorist murdered two people at a bar in Tel Aviv, and in his escape also killed a taxi driver. The killer was an Israeli Arab, and the attacks caused a public uproar.

Netanyahu spoke at the site of the attack, alluding to Resolution No. 922 during his speech. “I put together a plan with a lot of money, a lot of resources,” he said. “Anyone who wants to be Israeli should be Israeli all the way – both in terms of rights and obligations.” Following his speech, opponents of the plan moved from a pledge of, “No way the decision will pass” to one of, “No way the decision will be implemented.”

“Pessimistic people always have ideas about how their predictions will come true, while optimists don’t have enough practical plans to lead to a better future,” says Gerlitz today, some four years later. “The plan may have its flaws but it is being implemented in general. Arab communities are receiving funding and significant changes are happening on the ground.”

But here’s the surprising thing: Externally, during the past few years, we see a government that keeps raising the level of incitement toward Israeli Arab citizens, including the passage of the nation-state law – while under the surface, there are opposing, tectonic changes that are transforming the landscape.

'We always demanded funding for Arab housing, but then when it came, it was meant to reduce the number of Arab citizens moving to Jewish communities.'

How powerful are these changes? Extremely powerful. Dubious? Perhaps the following statistics will be convincing.

Over the past seven years, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, the number of Arab students enrolled in universities and colleges in Israel has risen by 80 percent. Over five years the number of Arabs studying computer sciences, and the number of Arab students pursuing master’s degrees (in all fields) have both jumped 50 percent, while the number studying for a Ph.D. has soared 60 percent.

In the last decade, the number of Arabs working in high-tech has increased 18-fold, and one-quarter of them are women. By 2020, it is estimated that Arabs will make up 10 percent of the country’s high-tech work force, according to Tsofen, an organization that serves to connect members of that community with Israel’s high-tech employers. The proportion of Arab doctors in Israel has climbed from 10 percent in 2008 to 15 percent in 2018, and 21 percent of all male doctors are Arab, according to the Health Ministry. Educational institutions in Arab locales are receiving unprecedented levels of funding – including 130 million shekels ($37 million) for informal-education programs. Moreover, public transportation is finally making inroads into the smaller Arab towns, to the point where the Bank of Israel recently declared that the gap in access to such transport between Jewish and Arab locales with fewer than 20,000 residents has shrunk considerably. By contrast, the disparity between the public-transportation available to residents of larger Arab and Jewish cities, respectively, remains tremendous.

Still, while Gerlitz stresses that the government headed by Netanyahu may have helped channel significant funding to Israeli Arabs and spurred the closure of some gaps and improvement of socioeconomic conditions – in every other regard, he insists, it has been “a horrible, evil, hurtful and dangerous government for Arab citizens – a government in which ministers and the prime minister as well have exhibited fatal and unprecedented political attacks against them. This is unforgivable. These are the matches that spark ethnic conflict and lead to civil violence, as has happened elsewhere in the world.”

Sikkuy, founded in 1991, is considered one of the most influential civil-society organizations on questions of government budget policies vis-a-vis Israeli Arab citizens and Jewish-Arab discourse in general. One-quarter of its budget comes from Israeli philanthropists – a fact that members of the NGO are proud of. The remainder comes from American and British Jews.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting with representatives from the Joint List, in 2015. Credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO

The organization not only talks the talk about equality, but walks the walk. Half of its 30 paid staff are Arabs. Every leadership position is shared by an Arab and a Jew. Ofer Dagan, a longtime veteran of Sikkuy, who is replacing Gerlitz, will continue to work with his codirector, Amjad Shbita.

Gerlitz grew up in Hod Hasharon, and served for six years as an officer in the navy. He moved to Jerusalem in 1998, to pursue a B.A. in mathematics.

“I joined anti-occupation groups at the university, and signed a letter of people refusing to serve in the territories,” he says. “It was a new movement of conscientious objectors called Ometz Lesarev [Courage to Refuse], who were nicknamed the Zionist conscientious objectors. On the second day of Operation Defensive Shield [in 2002], 100 officers sat in jail for refusing to serve in the territories. It was significant, but regretfully didn’t undo the occupation.” (Gerlitz says that his unit released him from reserve duty so that he could avoid being jailed.)

In 2006, after working in high-tech for a time, Gerlitz switched gears to work on behalf of civic society. He completed a master’s degree in public policy, and was appointed codirector of Sikkuy in January 2009, two months before Netanyahu became prime minister.

We met this summer as he was preparing to take the reins as director of the aChord Center – Social Psychology for Social Change, an organization founded by Prof. Eran Halperin, a social psychologist and lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The goal of the organization is to advance relations between members of different social and ethnic groups in Israeli society, as well as to promote awareness of and activities aimed at ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and reaching a peace deal.

'A Jewish boy who hears Arab children laughing at the beach no longer thinks they are necessarily terrorists.'

“I felt I had to make way for a new generation at Sikkuy, and the time had come for me to work in the broader Israeli-Palestinian channel,” he says. “It’s clearly more complicated, but I hope that as I succeeded in the Jewish-Arab field within Israel, I will succeed here, too.”

Jekyll and Hyde

There is still a long way to go to equalize the budgets allocated to Arab and Jewish communities in Israel, Gerlitz declares, but he still believes it’s possible to strive for and help effect an egalitarian, shared society even under a government that is many senses anti-Arab. Sometimes the reasons are not the right ones, but the results are good, he notes. Such is the case with Resolution No. 922, which included extensive directives for advancing planning, housing, expansion of Arab towns and improvement of their infrastructures. Yoav Galant, who was serving as construction and housing minister in 2015 when the plan was passed, supported it, but then the cat got out of the bag: At the annual meeting of the planners association in 2018, Galant said: “The Arab population sought housing solutions in Jewish communities, the result of which was one big mess. So, we expanded the municipal boundaries of Arab towns.” In other words, the government would invest in Arab towns so their residents won’t move into Jewish ones.

Gerlitz: “We knew from inside sources that his motivation to invest in Arab communities was racist. And then he said it officially, which made the story more complicated for us. We always demanded funding for Arab housing, but then when it came, it was meant to reduce the number of Arab citizens moving to Jewish communities, the sort of rationale we oppose. We decided in the end that we shouldn’t be too picky about the underlying motivation but to work with whomever possible on positive steps.”

As such, right-wing governments over the past decade are a kind of Jekyll and Hyde, inciting against Arabs yet providing them with unprecedented funding.

Students at the Technion.Credit: Doron Golan / Jini

“I call that phenomenon ‘conflicting trends.’ I’m in touch with many ministries and see substantial funding being allocated to the Arab population, not just a little here and there. The Interior Ministry, headed by Arye Deri, for example, is spearheading a significant process of bolstering their local governments – a move being led methodically and consistently by the ministry’s director general, Mordechai Cohen. He is pushing a policy that takes into account the Arab towns and their economic distress, and tries to find solutions. The Transportation Ministry has initiated a comprehensive program to improve public transportation in the Arab towns, including an affirmative action budgeting scheme that has improved service in them. The road to equality in public transportation is still a long one, but what has happened so far is almost revolutionary. Civil servants have led the process there, but the minister over all this period has been Yisrael Katz.”

Gerlitz also sees major changes in the labor market. “Government investment, on the one hand, and a new spirit in Israeli Arab society, on the other, has led to Arabs enrolling in higher education and working in the both the public and private sectors, in the latter of which the proportion of Arab civil servants rose from 5.7 percent in 2007 to 11.3 percent in 2017,” he says.

“One-third of all first-year students at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology this year are Arab. In contrast to some of the ultra-Orthodox leadership, Arab leadership across the board – from secular and moderate to the most Islamist or nationalist – are calling for additional integration of their community into the work force, including women. A majority of Arab students [of higher education] nowadays are female. Improvements in public transportation have also contributed to this.”

Some of these trends originated, Gerlitz observes, during Ehud Olmert’s government, which set a goal in 2007 to raise the proportion of Arab civil servants to at least 10 percent by 2012. “That goal was achieved, but four years late. Netanyahu’s governments didn’t hinder this process, but nor did they set a new target, despite widespread pressure by Arab leaders,” he says. “However, there are three problems associated with the uptick in the number of Arab civil servants. Very few of them are women, very few serve in senior positions and representation in certain ministries is still very low. Only 2.6 percent of Finance Ministry professional employees, for example, are Arab. There are 3.9 percent at the Economy Ministry and 1.8 percent at the Negev and Galilee Development Ministry.”

Looking at the big picture, Gerlitz says he does not believe Israelis are as racist as some think: “Racism in Israel toward Arabs and other groups pains me very much, but I don’t think Israelis are more racist than people elsewhere in the world. When minorities grow more powerful and integrate into the economy and society, defenders of the old hegemony come out of the woodwork and ignite a counter-reaction whose goal is to stop the strengthening and integration of those minorities. The problem here is that it’s the government itself that is igniting the counter-reaction – and fiercely.

“But there is also movement against racism. After the nation-state law [which included a demotion of the legal status of Arabic from an ‘official’ language of the state], the penny dropped for many Israeli Jews. They realized that something was not right, and today there is a flourishing of Arabic studies and a rise in the presence of the Arabic language in the public space. Two years ago, you didn’t see Arabic signs on the train or bus, today you do.”

Of course, “some people still think that the ‘natural’ order is that Jews are above and Arabs below,” admits Gerlitz, and they have a hard time with an Arab justice putting the country’s president in jail or dealing with a senior civil servant who is an Arab. So, they want to restore the status quo ante.

“That is what the mayor of Afula, Avi Elkabetz, believes. In his election campaign [in 2018] he called on people to come out against Arabs living in the city. His suggestion to ban them from a municipal park and restrict it to residents only, Jews only, is one of the most shameful things someone in his position in Israel has ever done. ‘Keep the city clean of Arabs’ – everyone should think what association that raises. But he is losing the battle. Separation between Arabs and Jews is cracking.”

Gerlitz sees those fissures mainly in the job market and higher education, as noted. “This process is breaking down the separation on the campus, and it’s also leading to Arab graduate students serving as teaching assistants for Jewish undergrads,” he says. “It’s a fracturing the paradigm of ‘Jews above and Arabs below.’”

At the Technion, for example, several factors have contributed to the surprisingly high enrollment of Arabs: “Arab society is speaking in an unequivocal voice, that of parents and leaders, calling on young people to enter academia. The Council for Higher Education is implementing government policies to encourage them to do so while they are still in high school, arranging scholarships, helping struggling students and so on. Fair-minded decision makers in institutions of higher education have grasped that low representation of Arabs among the student population attests to discrimination that requires fixing.” Moreover, he adds, the universities “and especially the colleges, have an economic interest in increasing the number of students.”

Gerlitz says he knows of no evidence that Arabs are taking away jobs or university positions from Jews. But there is a labor shortage in Israel – “which is actually lucky for us. If we didn’t lack workers in high-tech, we wouldn’t have seen an 18-fold rise in Arab workers in that industry.”

In that context, he mentions the Tsofen High Technology Centers, whose cofounders Smadar Nehab and Sami Saadi have helped foment the Arab revolution in high-tech, by actively connecting companies looking to hire workers with Arab engineers or recent university graduates. “Government policy that has supported the work of such NGOs and also funded activities intended advance the integration of Arabs in high-tech, has also helped. Industry executives have also publicly and emphatically supported these moves and sent out a message that Arabs are wanted in high-tech companies.”

As to advances in the realm of academia, Gerlitz says accusations of affirmative action in admissions are incorrect. “The state perhaps helps them with support and scholarships, but admissions standards are identical for everyone, at each institution,” he says. “That leads us to another area: housing. Nof Hagalil [formerly Upper Nazareth], Carmiel and Be’er Sheva are joining the traditional list of mixed cities like Acre, Lod and Haifa, a development that stems from a housing shortage in Arab communities, but also from a desire by Arabs entering the labor market to improve their living situation.”

Gerlitz concedes that many Arab and Jewish parents want their children to study at separate schools and indeed 99 percent of all pupils attend ethnically segregated schools. Yet, he prefers to recall how he went this past summer with his family to Tze’elon beach [at Lake Kinneret], where Arabs, religious Jews and secular Jews all shared the same space.

“I looked at this and thought to myself: There’s segregation in schools and the prime minister incites in Jerusalem, and yet here we are getting along on the beach,” he says. “A Jewish boy who goes to the shower there and hears Arab children laughing no longer thinks they are necessarily terrorists. When a Jewish kid in Be’er Sheva takes the bus to basketball practice and hears the name of his bus stop in Arabic, he’s no longer frightened it’s the language of terrorists. That is also the reality in Israel.”

Could you be the most optimistic person on the Israeli left?

“I reject the prevailing left-wing claim that we’ve lost the fight. Jewish-Arab relations can descend into extremism and violence, but there is another possibility. If you look at trends in recent years, you see that despite the incitement and political attacks by the government – the direction is toward fewer gaps and less segregation. If such trends prevail, we’ll achieve a more equal and more shared society. I personally think it’s possible. The leadership in Jewish-Arab groups that want to change the reality in Israel needs to recognize that there are many opportunities to engender significant, positive changes, even under complex political circumstances, and to lead the way to exploiting these opportunities. When we succeed, the feeling of satisfaction is immense.”

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