Opinion |

Israel: Celebrate, Don't Fear, Your Arabness

Israel's Arab citizens, now courted even by right-wingers better known for demonizing them, will still face mistrust and alienation as long as Israeli society fears, rather than embraces, their identity, history, culture and language

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A brother and sister, the only two Jewish children in a new Arab school in Haifa established in October 1948, led by well-known Palestinian educator Hasan Farahat. All studies were in Arabic, with English and Hebrew also taught
The only two Jewish children in a new Arab school in Haifa founded in 1948, led by Palestinian educator Hasan Farahat. All studies were in Arabic; English and Hebrew were also taughtCredit: AP

Perhaps you’ve heard about Israel's fourth consecutive election cycle in under two years, and how the vote of Arab citizens, formerly vilified by the right and largely ignored by the left, was suddenly courted by all sides of the political map.

You may already know that some of the Arab Members of Knesset are considering supporting right wing-parties known for their vitriolic rhetoric and their demonization of the identity, culture and history of Arab citizens, in exchange for increased budgets for the Arab citizens of Israel.

A bird flies in front of a Likud party election campaign banner depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the Arabic slogan: 'We are with you Abu (father of) Yair' earlier this yearCredit: AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

How did we get here?

For many years, political parties, civil society organizations and the Arab citizens of Israel - who form nearly a fifth of all Israeli citizens - have worked to achieve greater equality between Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel.

And they’ve registered success: In recent years, even right-wing Israeli governments understood that they must take significant steps toward rectifying the material discrimination Arab citizens face, and started to increase budget allocations for Arab citizens in certain areas.

But material equality is only part of the equation, and can never be sufficient, as long as the Israeli government continues to ignore a basic and essential element of a truly democratic, equal and shared Israeli society: The recognition of Arab citizens’ identity, history, culture and language.

The Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel are those who remained within the country's borders after Israel was established during the 1948 War.

For these citizens the establishment of the state meant the heartbreaking loss of their homes and heritage - what Palestinians refer to as the Nakba. Although full Israeli citizens by law, the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel have faced crippling discrimination since the founding of the state.

In recent years, despite the progress on the economic front, the government has passed laws that continue to harm the rights of Arab citizens. Perhaps the most profound example is the Jewish Nation-State Law, passed in 2018, which removed the Arabic language as one of Israel’s official languages.

Arab Israelis and their supporters demonstrate during a rally to protest against the 'Jewish Nation-State Law' in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv on August 11, 2018. Credit: AFP

These painful official messages and the reality they define not only destroy the ability of Arab citizens of Israel to feel truly at home in their land, it also creates a sense of alienation between Jewish and Arab citizens, and in turn feeds into the mistrust, fear, and hatred between the two communities.

In the last few years, the Arab community has grown stronger: More Arab students are enrolling in Israeli universities, and Arab and Jewish citizens meet more - on the job market, in mixed cities, on public transportation.

But in all these spaces, the language, culture, heritage and history of the Arab-Palestinian citizens are largely absent, reinforcing the otherness of Arab citizens, reinforcing fear and hatred.

A man riding his bicycle is reflected on an old picture of Jaffa displayed in a window this monthCredit: Sebastian Scheiner,AP

The creation of a shared society will change these encounters to positive ones and will allow Israel to take another step toward becoming a truly democratic, equal, and shared society for all its citizens.

This is why Israel’s great challenge now is to fully recognize Arab society and their identity, culture and history, and to take concrete measures to ensure this recognition becomes part of the daily life of all Israeli citizens. Without this change, neither a shared society based on mutual respect nor full equality will be possible.

And a shared society is crucial for a democracy. Today, Arab citizens of Israel are forced to assimilate into Hebrew-speaking places of work, higher education or even leisure centers. This means they are automatically exposed to Jewish culture and language, while the opposite is not true.

The separation between the two communities, against the backdrop of the conflict and the occupation, reinforces the fear among many Jewish Israelis of Arabic language and culture.

Protest in Haifa's German Colony neighborhood against violence against women in Israel's Arab communityCredit: Rami Shllush

In a shared society, the identity, language and heritage of all members would be recognized, represented and celebrated. This is a reality the Israeli government can create.

To do so, it must ensure the presence of Arabic language and culture is present in the public arena, that the Arab-Palestinian community is equally and fairly represented in the national media, and that the educational teaching curriculum will represent Arab culture and society, and teach the values of a shared society as well as the Arabic language.

The COVID-19 pandemic has, ironically, offered a glimpse at a positively different future. Arab citizens - who are disproportionately represented in the public health system - have been increasingly represented in the media and public discourse. The pandemic has clearly shown how Jewish-Arab solidarity and partnership can be an important building block for progress and a source of great strength for Israeli society.

Expanding this partnership into the rest of society should now be a shared mission for all of us.

Amjad Shbita and Ofer Dagan are the Co-Executive Directors of Sikkuy, a shared NGO that works to advance equality and a shared society between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel

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