Opinion |

Israel’s So-called Liberals Are Shamefully Spurning the Outstretched Hand of Israeli Arabs

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Members of the Joint List ahead of submitting the party roster to the Central Election Committee on January 15, 2020.
Members of the Joint List ahead of submitting the party roster to the Central Election Committee on January 15, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

A famous Israeli folk tale from pre-state days recounts the plight of one Mordoch, who was called spineless by his friends for refusing to throw his oil lamp from their boat into the Sea of Galilee. When Mordoch finally relented and chucked the lamp into the lake, his friends chortled that he was indeed spineless.

Israeli Arabs face a similar situation. Jewish politicians have habitually upbraided their Arab counterparts for supposedly focusing on the Palestinian national struggle rather than the wellbeing of the Israeli Arab minority – but when the change finally comes, the critics either ignore it or depict it as a ruse meant to conceal sinister intentions.

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The history of the current era will record, however, that at a time when Israeli Arabs – even those who identify first and foremost as Palestinians – are integrating into the general workplace as never before; when the party of their choice, the Joint List, is headed by Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi, possibly the two most moderate and Israel-literate leaders in their history; and when Odeh and Tibi limit their statements on the Palestinian struggle to a bare minimum while placing the Arab minority’s desire for integration and for a concerted struggle against rampant crime at the top of their public agenda; and even when they repeatedly express their unprecedented wish to work with Zionist parties and to participate in government – Jewish politicians turned their backs and pretended nothing had changed.

It’s not just Likud, its right-wing satellites or their cultish leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, who regularly whips up Jewish fear and loathing towards Israeli Arabs, describing them as a fifth column even though history shows they’ve been anything but. With the exception of a few brave souls who dare refute Netanyahu’s blood libel, the leadership of the center-left prefers to dance to Netanyahu’s malevolent tune, keeping their distance from the Joint List and nixing any possibility of political collaboration with its leaders.

The new motion to disqualify the Joint List’s Heba Yazbak from participating in the March 2 election shows how the system works. Yazbak’s past expression of sympathy for Palestinian “martyrs” that Israel views as bloody terrorists is not only being used to justify her banishment from politics, but it is also then brandished as a brush with which to tar and delegitimize the Joint List as a whole.

The hypocrisy is undeniable, even when one disregards the problematic historic differentiation between Palestinian terrorists and the idolized Jewish heroes of the pre-state underground Irgun, which today’s Likud views as its progenitor, and which deliberately killed hundreds of innocent Arabs – and whose actions and members are commemorated in scores of Israeli streets today. Many of those raising the loudest ruckus about Yazbak’s outrageous statements just happen to be the most boisterous supporters of Netanyahu’s ongoing courtship of the Kahanist Itamar Ben-Gvir – which reportedly included an offer to serve as cabinet minister. Unlike Yazbak, Ben-Gvir was actually convicted in a court of law of dangerous incitement and support for a terror organization.

At least the right wing is consistent.  Not only is incitement against Arabs one of its standard tools to whip up the base, but the right’s ethnocentric and nationalist ideology also mandates a callous disregard for the Arab minority, its history and its demands for full integration and equality. On the left, it’s the other way around: Its leaders’ refusal to engage with Arabs not only contradicts its supposedly liberal worldview, but also lends credence to right-wing efforts to trash the left.

Despite 72 years of experience since Israel’s independence, in which Israeli Arabs haven’t taken up arms against Israel and haven’t come close to forming a so-called fifth column, despite their historical grudges, years of military rule and current inequality, far too many Jewish politicians continue to see them as extensions of the Palestinian armed struggle, as if nothing has changed since 1948. They turn a blind eye to the fact that the formative experience of today’s Israeli Arabs isn’t the Nakba of their parents and grandparents, but rather their own lives as a minority deprived of equal rights.

As the American experience shows, minorities fearful for their safety and status – Jews, Muslims, Hispanics, Asians, and African Americans alike – are all drawn to alliances with liberal Democrats, even though, in many cases, their overall viewpoints are far more conservative or hawkish. In Israel, the intensity of the Jewish-Arab divide overshadows what might otherwise be natural alliance between the Arab minority and the Jewish left.

Arab voters will have a chance to protest against their continued sidelining by the Jewish majority by coming out in droves in the March 2 ballot to vote for the Joint List. Revenge will be sweeter, however, if the party also picks up an extra Knesset seat or two from leftist-minded Jews for whom the new Meretz-Labor union is too right-wing and who decide to jump the fence towards the non-Zionist Joint List, in an effort to dismantle the union altogether.

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