Over the past year, two revolutionary decisions were made concerning Israeli government policy towards two communities suffering from discrimination: Mizrahim and Arabs.
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After decades of severe budgetary discrimination toward Arab citizens, government ministries initiated staff work to examine the mechanisms of discrimination.
The results were impressive: A comprehensive and public document detailing how education, transportation, infrastructure, interior and other budgets discriminated against Israel’s Arab citizens.
On the basis of this document, the government has launched an unprecedented plan to reduce budgetary discrimination. Yet, as one arm of the government sought to correct economic inequality, the other has undermined Arab demands for recognition of their Palestinian narrative, culture and identity.
Moreover, some cabinet ministers are running a continuing battle against Arab citizens.
The government’s policies towards Mizrahim is a mirror image of its approach toward the Arabs; recognition of the demand for cultural justice, while at the same time perpetuating the patterns of budgetary discrimination.
In practice, the main achievement of the Biton Committee, established to improve how Sephardi and Mizrahi heritage is taught in the school system, even before the implementation of new curricula, is in the state’s first-time recognition of the historic claims of Mizrahim against the erasure and exclusion of their culture, which has been occurring for decades with the help of the establishment.
This recognition by the establishment of the demand for cultural justice is in fact the reason for the uproar that the report caused and the sensitive debate that has followed. It has shuffled the famous cards in the deck of denial of discrimination against Mizrahim, and demolished the common hegemonic claim concerning the ethnic demon.
If and when the Biton Report is ever implemented, it will make a breakthrough in awareness, contribute to the strengthening of multiculturalism in education, and to the fight against racism and group stereotypes.
But this justice of recognition has not been accompanied by any distributive justice. There are two important areas which are particularly relevant to economic inequality in this context: Education and land.
No real treatment has been given the demands for differential budgeting of educational resources among local governments, to provide a student in Ofakim an equal opportunity to that of a student in Givatayim, and to distribute property tax revenue more evenly between regional governments and development towns.
The same goes for demands by Mizrahim and residents of the periphery to change municipal borders.
In what should seemingly be a surprise, the government has analyzed the discrimination against Arab citizens first, and taken steps to reduce socioeconomic inequality.
We have even learned recently that the Central Bureau of Statistics will stop segmenting its data by the country where those surveyed were born; which will make it more difficult to study wage differentials within the Jewish population so as to make an effort to reduce the inequality.
It is worth noting:
1. The Mizrahi demand for proper cultural justice within the borders of the national ethos. 2. Communal, identity and cultural justice toward Arab citizens is viewed by many (in our opinion, mistakenly) as a concrete and immediate threat to the Jewish national ethos. 3. Economic leaders have declared time after time that the lack of integration of Arabs into the labor market will lead Israel to a serious economic deterioration.
This is why the correction of budgetary discrimination against Arabs is part of the country’s system of economic interests. In comparison, even though Mizrahim earn less than Ashkenazim, their employment situation is better than that of the Arabs, and therefore their situation does not overly worry the government.
This is in part because most parties whose members belong to the government identify with an economic outlook that accepts social stratification in the labor market. In addition, distributional justice in educational and land resources requires a brave stand against well-connected and powerful groups, which hold historic and economic privilege.
One can hope that the committee examining the municipal borders of the Haifa and northern region, announced by Interior Minister Arye Dery last week, will herald a nationwide process of seeking a solution to all the distortions in the distribution of local property taxes, and will not make do with only cosmetic fixes.
Despite all the problems that remain, let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. It is possible to take pride in the fruits of the determined struggle of both communities.
The present government may be deepening the alienation between Jewish and Arab citizens, and Jewish-Arab coexistence may be in deep crisis, but let’s not make light of steps taken to correct the injustice.
This is the right time to take the two steps: Seek distributional justice and budgetary equality for the periphery, and acknowledge the language, culture and identity of Arab citizens in the public sphere and education system.
We must consider, too, how these steps are linked.
For example, fixing the injustice in the distribution of land must include Arab communities that suffer from a serious land shortage. A correction of the injustice on both these planes would provide a basis for constructing an egalitarian and common society, and a new Jewish-Arab dialogue.
It would help heal the wounds of conflicted identity in Israeli society between Jews and Arabs, Mizrahim and Ashkenazim, center and periphery, and immigrants and old-timers.