Can There Be Equality for Palestinian-Israelis in the Jewish State?

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Dr. Yousef Jabareen, now a member of the Knesset, in his office in Nazareth. October 2014.Credit: Gil Eliahu

With the current wave of violence emanating from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, it’s easy to lose sight of the other political actor in Israeli-Palestinian relations: the 20 percent of Israeli citizens who are Palestinian. The kinds of political attitudes and demands espoused by their leadership will certainly play a role in Israel’s political future.

I recently spoke by phone to Yousef Jabareen, a newly-elected Member of Knesset for the Joint List, the slate of Arab parties that banded together for the 2015 elections in a bid to consolidate their electoral returns. Jabareen is from the party known as Hadash — Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, a Jewish-Arab socialist party that pushes for workers’ rights, environmental protection, minority and gender rights, and a two-state solution.

Whereas Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said recently that Palestinians are attacking Israelis because “they don’t want us here,” Jabareen, not surprisingly, sees the current violence as stemming from the occupation. “Israel cannot expect to control the life of millions of Palestinians, depriving them of their basic rights and freedoms, and expect them to be quiet and peaceful,” Jabareen says. It’s a point that’s been made time and again by Israel’s own security establishment, often by retired chiefs but most recently by active IDF top brass who point to the violence as an outgrowth of Palestinian frustration and despair.

And while he favors a two-state solution along 1967 lines because it’s “more practical” than a single, binational state, Jabareen thinks Israelis need to understand that a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza is itself a fundamental Palestinian concession. Such a state, after all, would represent only 22 percent of historic Palestine. Still, in supporting a two-state solution, he’s more optimistic than most Arab Israelis, with 57 percent believing the two-state solution is dead.

And what of that two-state solution: does Jabareen think Palestinians are ready to forego the right of return? “Why should they?” he said. Israelis “should recognize Palestinian full return. They should negotiate the implementation of that right. And refugees should be left to decide what is their preference.” In this, Jabareen’s line tacks even harder than that of Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, who has, over the years, made statements indicating he is willing to put the demand for return behind him — most recently last week in a speech in Holland where he is reported to have said: “I am not asking for a right of return for six million Palestinians; I want a solution for them.”

Israeli Arab MK Yousef Jabareen in the Knesset. May 5 2015.Credit: Knesset

But where Jabareen is perhaps most preoccupied these days, is around Arab-Jewish equality within Israel. As a member of the Knesset’s Education Committee, Jabareen is pushing for more Arab representation in shaping the curriculum in their own school system. What Arab students currently learn is decided by Israel’s Ministry of Education with limited input from the Arab community itself. This stands in stark opposition to the Haredi school system which runs independently.

Jabareen would also like to see state symbols that are more neutral, rather than being “affiliated only with the majority.” Jabareen deliberately left the hall during the singing of the Israeli national anthem Hatikvah at his Knesset swearing-in ceremony.

Doing away with these symbols would be a tough sell, no doubt, to Israeli Jews; their country was founded, after all, as a Jewish state. But voices with heavily Jewish credentials — outside of Israel at least — have at times floated the idea of altering the words to Hatikvah. Instead of singing about the “Jewish soul,” for example, one might sing about an “Israeli soul.” And while 73 percent of Israeli Jews see no contradiction between being a Jewish state and a democracy, the reverse is true among the Arab-Israeli community, with 83 percent seeing the two as a contradiction.

Symbols are powerful as both a tool for exclusion and as an identity marker, and in this, Arab and Israeli citizens have much negotiation to do. But there are other things Israelis might want to do away with now, things that in modern parlance are called “microaggressions,” small instances of gratuitous exclusion that pepper Israeli conversation. When attempting to promote coexistence between Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel, for example, elected officials should think twice about saying, “we must find a way to live together with them,” (emphasis mine); a chilling turn of phrase that Yair Lapid recently penned in an op-ed. If democratic coexistence among citizens is the goal, then parliamentarians must remember that they represent all the country’s citizens, not just Jewish ones.

For inspiration, Jabareen looks to the French identity struggle in Canada. Like the “two solitudes” that Canadians speak of when thinking about the French and the English, Jabareen is well aware of the Arab-Jewish cultural separation in Israel, where most Arabs and Jews have no contact with one another until university. Small moves provide glimmers of hope. A bill mandating that Arabic be taught in all Israeli schools recently passed its first reading in the Knesset.

As a scholar himself — Jabareen teaches public law and minority rights at University of Haifa and Tel Hai College — he believes that higher education can help bridge the gap. To this end, Jabareen wrote to Israel’s university presidents at the beginning of the school year, urging them to initiate dialogue meetings and conferences between Arabs and Jews. Unfortunately, he says, academic institutions have so far “not been taking this role very seriously.”

Democratic state-building, shoring up the national and cultural identity of both Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis, pushing for a two-state solution and urging refugee return to include inside Israel: to the liberal Zionist ear, one of these goals — refugee return — doesn’t fit with the others. There is clearly work to be done in creating an Israeli vision that all its citizens can get behind. It won’t be easy, but talking to one another across ideological divides is a necessary start. And if they can’t agree on refugee return, at least Israel’s government can knock on the door of the Palestinian Authority — led by a president who for now, at least, seems more willing to compromise on that issue.

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