“Arab society is divided,” screamed the headline on a popular Israeli news website, accompanied by a photo of Nazareth Mayor Ali Salam. On the same page we see the smiling face of the Israeli mainstream’s pet broadcaster, Lucy Aharish, an Arab who isn’t afraid to express an opinion that is inconsistent with the voice of the Arab street, particularly that of the political leadership. (Aharish recently blasted that leadership, whom she accused of fanning the flames of violence, instead of trying to restore calm.)
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Salam and Aharish have become the jokers that the media pull out of the deck to attack the Arab MKs and other voices the media deem to be extremist. Hey, we have the mayor of the largest Arab city who doesn’t hesitate to humiliate Joint Arab List leader Ayman Odeh, head of a list of 13 Members of Knesset. (The mayor was filmed castigating Odeh for ‘destroying Nazareth’ by driving away its mainly Jewish customers.)
We have a popular senior broadcaster who can represent a different, sane, and pleasing position, and show the face of Israeli democracy. Not MKs Ahmed Tibi or Haneen Zoabi, not the Communists and not the Islamic State. The Nazareth mayor and Lucy Aharish are loyal citizens who are not ungrateful. And we are all citizens of the State of Israel, loyal to its citizens, Jews and Arabs alike. An island of sanity and democracy in the Middle East. A villa in the jungle.
The Israeli media’s game is transparent, familiar, and has served successive Israeli governments well. Its essence is to embrace agreeable and comfortable figures in order to divide and foment dissent, and portray the defiant leadership as irrelevant and unrepresentative. This makes it easier to deflect the fundamental claims of Arab society about discrimination, racism, dispossession and occupation.
Within Arab society there is plenty of criticism of the conduct of the Arab Knesset members and the leadership that sits on the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, but it’s completely different from what Israel wants to hear. The central demand is to improve ways of doing things and to work cooperatively. The criticism is not about nationalist positions or identification with the Palestinian national cause.
The media and the government must understand that despite this criticism, the Arab parties win much larger majorities than any Zionist party – 90 percent of the Arabs who went to the polls voted for the Joint Arab List – and their struggle in recent years is primarily against those who call to boycott elections, not against the vote contractors of Likud, Labor or Shas.
The Committee of Arab Local Council Heads, chaired by Sakhnin Mayor Mazen Ghnaim, is a committee that represent most Arab towns, and it’s with them that the prime minister and his ministers meet – not with Salam or Aharish. No one even knows when she last broadcast from an Arab community and studied its problems.
By focusing on these agreeable figures, these pet Arabs, over the years, the media and the government have been celebrating at a masquerade ball, ignoring the real distress of Arab society, and thus intensifying the ignorance and misunderstanding of 20 percent of the population. Some 20,000 people came to Sakhnin last week for a quiet protest against what’s been happening in recent days, and the media either ignored it or portrayed it as an Islamic Movement gathering, which was totally untrue.
In October 2000 Israeli society cried out at the site of demonstrations in the Arab street. Today, 15 years later, it doesn’t look as if much has improved, and some of the responsibility for that lies with the media, which ignores reality and instead seeks out the “good Arab” who toes the policy line.
That’s not how we’ll achieve peace and coexistence.