Opinion

Arab Citizens Seek ‘Israeliness’

An Israeli Arab woman standing next to children waving the Israeli flag in a school in the Arab town of Tamra, Israel.
Gil Eliahu

“In contrast to the assertions of the Arab lawmakers, a deep process of Israelification is underway in Arab society,” says Salman Masalha (Haaretz, July 28), citing, among other material, the findings of a recent study in which Arab respondents were asked to give their primary self-definition. Forty-six percent said “Israeli Arab,” 22 percent said “Arab,” 14 percent said “Palestinian” and 19 percent said “Israeli Palestinian.” Masalha notes that 65 percent of the respondents included the term “Israeli” in their self-definition.

The April survey, done by Dahlia Scheindlin, David Reis and the Local Call website, had some other interesting findings – 76 percent of Arabs say relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel in everyday life are “mostly positive” and only 18 percent described them as negative (compared to 53 percent and 33 percent, respectively, among the Jewish respondents). And 94 percent of the Arabs surveyed agree there is a Jewish people as well as a Palestinian people (while 52 percent of the Jews surveyed said there is a Palestinian people and not just a Jewish people).

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The difficulties of interpreting surveys are well-known, and a single survey is never enough to support firm conclusions. But in the 20 years that I have been tracking surveys of the Arab public, I have seen dozens of surveys, many conducted by the leading experts in the field, and have read hundreds of responses to questions that were formulated with the aim of examining from different angles, directly and indirectly, the Arab public’s attitude toward the state, its institutions and the Jewish majority.

The picture that arises from these surveys is complex. There are ups and downs, and when the question is formulated differently, the Palestinian identity is expressed more strongly. It is clear that the attitude of many of the respondents to these sensitive subjects is ambivalent. But all in all, the picture indicated by the survey Masalha cites matches the picture given by dozens of surveys over a period of many years. This cannot be chalked up to an attempt to please the pollsters, the government or the majority society – for alongside responses that sound surprisingly positive to the Jewish majority’s ears, there are also plenty of answers that are very jarring to those same ears.

So how to explain the fact that a large majority of the Arab public votes for political parties whose declared stance is so different? One can’t simply say, as some do, that the Arab MKs do not represent the Arab public – after all, they received their votes in a free election. My conjecture is that the Arab public votes as it does, first and foremost, because most of them accept the Palestinian national narrative that the Arab parties represent. However, in its attitude toward the state, most of this public does not draw the natural emotional conclusions from this narrative.

The gap between ideology and pragmatic behavior is a common and well-known phenomenon, but here this is clearly not just a matter of pragmatic considerations. In many cases, the responses in regard to the state obviously go beyond the pragmatic. Everyone understands that there are good pragmatic reasons to prefer living under an Israeli government than under a Palestinian government, but there is no pragmatic need to adopt “Israeliness” as an important element of one’s identity, or to aver that one is “proud to be an Israeli,” as did 51 percent of Arab respondents in the 2018 Israeli Democracy Index, including 49 percent of Joint List voters.

These statements are impossible within the framework of the ideology accepted by most of the Arab public – impossible, but they’re still there and are pretty prevalent. Human beings are complex creatures.

What this means is that the Arab leadership can apparently continue to sleep well: There is no widespread electoral rebellion in sight anytime soon. It can continue to present the Palestinian narrative in its current version as it has been doing, and thereby go on causing grave harm to relations between Jews and Arabs in this country. The Arab public will probably go on voting for those who represent this narrative, to which it sees no legitimate alternative, and which no doubt has a strong basis as far as feelings of solidarity with the Palestinian people are concerned. This is so even though from an emotional and not just a pragmatic perspective, much of this public, in its attitude toward the state, is far from what this narrative requires.

The leadership of the Israeli right can also breathe easy: When 76 percent of Arabs say relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel are “usually” good, the right can go on making political hay of the Jewish-Arab tension as reflected in the Arab leadership’s rhetoric, and also do its bit to exacerbate this tension without fear of a major outburst of violence, which no one wants.

The current situation is convenient for everyone – except for the Arabs, the Jews and the State of Israel. A courageous Arab leadership would try to put forward a different version of the Palestinian narrative more in keeping with what the Arab public actually wants; but that would inevitably evoke accusations of betrayal. Who needs that kind of trouble?

A courageous Jewish leadership would work to make it easier for the majority of Arab citizens to realize their desire to integrate more fully into Israeliness without forgoing their distinct identity – i.e., to do just the opposite of what it did with the nation-state law, when it refused to have that law include the principle of civil equality and also symbolically demoted the status of the Arabic language.

But political courage of this type is a rare commodity.