‘There Are Tensions Every Day’: Jewish-Arab Relations, Five Months After Riots Rocked Israel

A new survey shows Israeli Jews more anxious about Arabs than the other way around, but the long-term trend toward greater integration continues, experts say

David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg
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A police officer amid the violent clashes in Lod two weeks ago.
A police officer amid the violent clashes in Lod two weeks ago.Credit: Moti Milrod
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

Five months after riots exploded in Israeli cities, most of them with mixed Jewish and Arab populations, emotions have cooled and calls for boycotts have faded. But the violence, which took three lives and damaged hundreds of homes, businesses and places of worship, has left a residue of anger and fear, much more so among Jewish Israelis than Arab ones.

A survey taken over the summer by the aChord Center, a nonprofit organization that specializes in the social psychology of intergroup relations, found that 60 percent of Jews continued to feel a high degree of anger and/or fear toward Arabs.

More than half said they felt fear boarding a bus with Arabs, while large minorities expressed the same about hearing Arabic spoken in public or encountering an Arab salesperson while shopping.

Among Arab Israelis, similar feelings remain widespread but not nearly to the same degree – only 45 percent said they felt anger toward Jews and just 39 percent said they felt fear. But anxiety about contact with Israelis on a day-to-day basis was similarly high, with 37 percent saying they felt fear about working with Jews.

It was the first such survey by aChord – which is affiliated with Hebrew University – so there is no way of comparing attitudes before and after the rioting, which took place during the latest flare-up between Israel and Hamas. But a survey by the Israel Democracy Institute released in September 2019 showed 81 percent of Jews and 96 percent of Arabs saying they would accept the other as a work colleague, while 64 percent and 85 percent would accept the other as a friend.

Taken together, the two polls point to heightened anxieties on both sides since the May riots.

A rally calling for Jewish-Arab partnership.

Ironically, Arabs living in mixed cities such as Lod, Ramle and Haifa that were the epicenter in May had more positive attitudes about coexistence than other Arabs. Arabs in general expressed more interest in closer ties with Jews – 66 percent, versus 32 percent for Jews. But among Arabs living in mixed cities, the desire was 74 percent.

Helpful daily interactions

Yara Nassir, who led the team conducting the survey, said she wasn’t surprised that Arab Israelis in mixed cities were able to put the rioting behind them. She ascribes that to the demographics: Arabs in mixed cities will have more day-to-day dealings with Jews than Arabs do in Arab cities and towns. And, given the Jewish-Arab population ratio nationwide – roughly 7.5 to 2 – Arabs have more daily contact with Jews than the other way around.

“For Arabs in mixed cities, the daily encounter with Jews is much stronger. More Arabs in mixed cities reported having more Jewish friends than Jews reported having Arab friends,” she told Haaretz. “Those daily interactions and encounters help to restore and improve relations between the two sides, especially after the escalation.”

A 2019 poll by nonprofit group the Abraham Initiatives confirmed this. It found that nearly 80 percent of Arabs in mixed cities had regular contact with Jews, compared with 61 percent of Jews saying they had the same with Arabs. The rate varied a lot between cities and often the gap was wide.

Lod, which probably suffered the worst violence and destruction of all the mixed cities during the rioting, has settled into an uneasy quiet. “There’s no violence in the streets, but there are tensions, struggles and encounters every day,” said Samah Salaime, a social worker and activist in the city and founder of the Na’am center for women.

Disputes continue over issues like the city’s plan for an urban renewal project involving Arab homes near the market. Activists are calling on residents not to participate, Salaime said, while protests have been staged over police violence.

Dr. Ilham Shahbari, a research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies who studies Jewish-Arab relations, said only a tiny minority on either side – maybe 3 percent – were involved in the violent events in May.

Police in Jaffa during Arab-Jewish distrubances this month.Credit: Hadas Parush

“They’re dangerous – they dragged the entire country into an emergency situation,” she said. But the broader trend among Arabs is toward greater integration into Israeli society.

Talk of boycotts

Although tensions have been rising in Jerusalem this month – and on Tuesday 22 Palestinians were arrested after clashes with police near the Old City’s Damascus Gate – the cities have been quiet since the May riots ended abruptly in the middle of that month.

After the intercommunal violence, many Jews expressed their anger toward Arabs through calls on social media to boycott Arab businesses. In the first weeks after the riots, some Arab business owners reported that they were still being shunned by their Jewish customers, while Jewish-owned businesses such as restaurants said they were having trouble convincing fearful Arab staff to return to work.

The aChord survey didn’t ask respondents whether they were boycotting the other’s businesses, but it did ask whether they supported the idea of a boycott. The results showed surprising support: among Jews, 23 percent said they favored a boycott, compared with 17 percent for Arabs.

Salaime said she didn’t see any evidence of boycotts in Lod. Families belonging to Garin Torani – a religious Zionist movement that establishes communities in poor cities and towns – never shopped in Arab stores, but other Jewish residents have returned and the central market is busy again, she said.

Whether the May riots will have a long-term impact on Arab-Jewish relations remains to be seen, Shahbari said. While the events of May heightened Arab Israelis’ sense of distrust toward the state, the longer-term trend has been toward more integration and a greater role in Israeli politics.

She pointed to Mansour Abbas’ joining Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s governing coalition just a month after the violence as more reflective of Arab attitudes than the rioting. A big obstacle to integration remains Jewish suspicions about Arabs, which were exacerbated because the disturbances occurred as Israel was fighting Hamas in Gaza. That led many Israeli Jews to see the two events as two sides of the same security threat.

“We’ve been through a difficult period of Jewish-Arab relations,” Shahbari said. “I can’t say the situation has returned to what it was – even before it was far from perfect, but it was more or less OK. The two sides have learned to live together in the shadow of domestic and external disputes.”

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