Welcome to Ben-Gurion? Israel's Airport Is No Place for Arabs

Sheren Falah Saab
Sheren Falah Saab
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A woman wearing a hijab waits at Ben Gurion Airport
Sheren Falah Saab
Sheren Falah Saab

As of today, you, too, can be amazed by the change in Ben-Gurion International Airport’s welcome sign, which now includes Arabic. Sikkuy, an organization that promotes equality and partnership between Jews and Arabs, and the driving force behind the change, fought to secure it for years, because before now the sign was only in Hebrew and English.

So after repeated demands to add an Arabic welcome to it, we can rejoice, be moved and breathe a sigh of relief – the longed-for change has arrived. Finally, they recognize Arabs’ existence and language at one of Israel’s main sites.

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But even though I’d like to believe Ben-Gurion’s PR people, as well as those of other places that appeal to the Arab community in Arabic, the reality is different. We aren’t equal to Jews, and everyone knows it.

It’s not just the nation-state law, which makes no mention of the principle of equality. The recent unrest in mixed Jewish-Arab cities underscored the real problem that nobody dares to talk about: There is no equality between Jews and Arabs – not in the education system, not in infrastructure development, not in construction. If anything, the socioeconomic gaps are only widening.

But the PR and public diplomacy worlds keep talking about “coexistence” and get excited about adding the Arabic phrase “Ahlan wa Sahlan” (“hello and welcome”) to Ben-Gurion’s sign. This is a mere cosmetic change, one related to Israel’s desire to improve its image overseas and to the efforts of all the national explainers who seek to convey their own version of Arabs’ situation in Israel to the public in Arab states.

Yet such public diplomacy doesn’t get to the heart of the matter and doesn’t reflect the actual reality. Not every Arab is acceptable as a true partner, and certainly not those who voice different opinions that don’t suit the mainstream.

The partnership that Israeli Jews seek is only with people like themselves – privileged people who can recite poems by Zelda and read books written in beautiful Hebrew. This is the partnership they want, and it requires no PR effort. Just like the new sign at Ben-Gurion, which declares, “Look, our relations are perfect; we even have Arabic on our sign.”

So you can certainly hang signs at the entrance to Ben-Gurion and speak in our names about the romance of Jewish-Arab relations in public diplomacy videos aimed at the world. But entre nous, when the non-Jews aren’t listening, it won’t work. The sign doesn’t impress us. Nor does any of the other cosmetic public diplomacy.

Because most of us know the bitter truth: We aren’t wanted here. If it depended only on you, our situation would be even worse. And every effort to obscure this fact is doomed to failure.

Instead of putting your efforts into PR and public diplomacy and signs at the airport, you would do better to enact fairer, more egalitarian laws. You want a truly refreshing change? Start treating us decently.

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