Opinion

Israelis Who Like Arabs, but Not as Neighbors

The frictions in the northern Israeli town of Kfar Vradim over Arabs moving in are going to become more frequent, and Israel is going to have to come up with better answers than 'No.'

Kfar Vradim, Israel, 2011.
\ Yaron Kaminsky

All was going well with the plan to expand the Galilee town of Kfar Vradim, until it was revealed last week that 58 of the 125 lots being put up for auction in a new housing tract a were bid on by Israeli-Arabs.

What followed isn’t pretty, as much as the people involved tried to dress up their racism in the guise of community values and Zionism.

According to the Haaretz report, a local real estate broker, Nati Sheinfeld, got wind of the results and called for residents to “wake up” to what was happening around them. “Are we growing an Arab village inside Kfar Vradim?” he asked.

Sheifeld’s posting won a lot of plaudits. Bezalel Smotrich, the Habayit Hayehudi member of Knesset and an agent provocateur in Israel’s culture wars, picked up on the controversy and warned that Israel will lose its Jewish majority in the Galilee if something isn’t done. Kfar Vradim Mayor Sivan Yechieli then suspended the auction, saying he was responsible for preserving the “the secular-Jewish-Zionist” character of the town and was asking the government to find a solution to ensure “demographic balances.”

Kfar Vradim is a nice town of bricked roads, people with good jobs, who pay their taxes, fly to Europe on their holidays and serve in the army. It’s not even the exclusively Jewish enclave the whole controversy might suggest. Kfar Vradim melds into the neighboring Arab town of Tarshisha, and Sheinfeld acknowledges that about 50 Arab families live in the town itself (of about 1,700 households).

'Good' Israel

In other words, Kfar Vradim is “good” Israel, the kind that isn’t blatantly racist, doesn’t think Israeli Arabs should be expelled from the country or should have fewer rights than Jewish Israelis. But, as the controversy over the housing auction shows, there are limits to how far even the “good” Israel is prepared to go in the name of equality. In other words, "good" Israelis have nothing against Arabs but don’t want too many as neighbors.

There was a time when these contradictory attitudes could live more comfortably with each other. By and large, Israeli Arabs were poor and uneducated, and lived in their own towns and neighborhoods. A Jewish Israeli might go shopping in the nearby Arab village or eat at a local café, but he never expected the Arab storeowner to be his next-door neighbor or send his son to his kids’ school. There might be Arabs at his workplace, but they weren’t colleagues and certainly not the boss.

The demographics are starting to change, but not surprisingly, the attitudes are not moving in tandem.

More Israeli Arabs, and especially Israeli Arab women, are staying in school and going on to university. More are signing up for civilian national service and gaining proficiency in Hebrew. They are having fewer children with the aim of giving them the same accoutrements of middle class life Jewish Israelis aspire to. The Arab poverty rate is still extraordinarily high, but it is falling rapidly.

In short, Israeli Arabs are starting to become Israeli. I’d go as far as to argue that the rising level of Palestinian consciousness among them is a sign that as Arabs join the Israeli mainstream, they are grasping at an identity that is concurrently giving way to the temptations to live in an economically prosperous and politically stable society.

Israel has every interest in making sure this integration occurs.

Arabs account for about a fifth of the total population, a share that will rise somewhat in the next few decades. Just like with the ultra-Orthodox Jews, we can’t have a prosperous and growing economy, much less a democratic state, if such a large part of the country is wallowing away, or mired, in a life of poverty and underemployment.

Whether they’re going to succeed depends as much as Jews as on the Arabs themselves. It’s not easy for Israeli Arab to find a good job if 30% of Jewish Israelis say they don’t want more Arabs in their workplace. An Arab doctor will have a tough time if nearly a quarter of Jewish Israelis say as a matter of principle that they are unwilling to be treated by one. And they’re not going to integrate into Israeli society if close to half of Jewish Israelis say they wouldn’t want an Arab as a neighbor.

These figure all come from recent surveys, and one can assume that the numbers are even larger because some respondents were too embarrassed to tell the pollster what they really think.

As times goes on we’re going to see a lot more of the frictions that Kfar Vradim is experiencing now. They’ll occur in other towns and neighborhoods and almost certainly emerge in schools, on campus and at the workplace, too. It’s not that it’s a zero-sum game where every Israeli Arab who wins a place in an engineering program, or buys a new home, or gets the promotion at work does it at the expense of the Israeli Jew, but it will look that way to many.

Sheinfeld and many others of the “good” Israel fantasize that there is some way of squaring the circle: The Arabs will somehow stay in their towns and neighborhoods, and everything will stay the same it has been. But it’s not going to be like that, and sooner or later, they are going to have to take sides. Let’s hope they have the sense to take the right one.