It’s about time to make the Arab citizens of Israel visible.
I’m talking about the 20% of Israel’s citizens who remain mostly invisible to Israel’s Jewish citizens. Yes, we, the Jews, pass by them in shopping malls, pharmacies, universities, hospitals and other public places. And sometimes we talk to them when we call customer service at the cable or cell phone companies. But by and large we don’t really see them. We don’t visit their communities, our children learn in totally separate (and unequal) schools and they are largely excluded from the public space that we continue to own and operate almost exclusively.
I write as someone who works for Sikkuy, a shared, Jewish-Arab civil rights organization and continues to believe in the importance of implementing the equality guaranteed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence:
“(Israel) will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and cultureon the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions...”
Recently I have noticed the almost total absence of Arab speakers at the myriad academic and professional conferences held in Israel on topics of public interest. These events are often used by public figures and politicians as occasions for issuing important pronouncements.
It should be a given that the conference organizers would seek out professionally knowledgeable voices from the Arab minority to participate in these events, just as they make sure (or should) to balance relevant representation from other important groups (women, immigrants, religious representatives and so on).
Unfortunately, the opposite is the case. Arab citizens are almost totally left out of this vital form of public discourse in Israel. This is the result of a general attitude in Israel that the public arena is a Jewish space and Arabs either don’t fit in or belong in it, and a lack of awareness of the exclusion that this reinforces, more than a conscious pro-active decision to exclude.
Let me give you a few examples from recent weeks. The Van Leer Institute's program for a colloquium on “The Jewish obligation to the minority in a national state” featured eight speakers – but no Arabs. The 2050 Environment – Economy/Environment/Society conference sponsored by Tel Aviv University and sponsored by a host of environmental organizations and businesses showcased 27 speakers, but no Arabs. Finally, last week, the Middle East Forum at the Menachem Begin Center, Jerusalem, held a discussion on “’Jerusalem’: How Important is it to Muslims?” at which there were seven speakers, and no Arabs.
The last item is particularly noteworthy because the Begin Center is not a political organization but a state-sponsored institution that has the advancement of “democracy” as one of its goals. So do you think they could find an Arab or a Muslim to speak on this subject? It's not as if there would be a lack of speakers on this subject: what's lacking is the will to hear them.
It's possible to balance this snapshot, and to encourage positive change in the future, by highlighting certain conferences that offer a more balanced speaker line-up. The Interfaith Climate and Energy Conference, held a couple of days ago and organized by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, featured 19 speakers in their program of which 4 were Christian, 11 Jews and 4 Arabs, as well as simultaneous translation between English, Arabic and Hebrew.
Shutafut-Sharakah – Organizations for Shared, Democratic and Equal Society (of which Sikkuy is a member) works to monitor the issue of representation and to advance the inclusion of Arab citizens in public discourse.
There is no shortage of Arab citizens in Israel with the academic and professional background to participate as experts in their fields both on topics specifically concerning the Arab citizens and on general issues relevant to Israel and the world. There are Arab citizens serving in senior position in the academic community, in the civil service, in the health and justice systems and as heads of major NGOs.
Inclusion of Arabs in public forums will have a positive impact on all aspects of the integration of Arab citizens into the public, economic, social, policy-making spheres. When the doors open to Arabs in Israel, they choose to walk through. But if the doors remain closed, the very few Arab voices calling for 'separation' from the majority Jewish population are strengthened.
For the sake of fairness, Arab voices should be sought out. But more importantly every time we, the Jews in Israel, close off the public space to Arabs, every time we marginalize them, every time we exclude them, every time we make sure not to see or hear them, we do damage to the essence of the democratic civil society we urgently need to strengthen in Israel. This is a vital interest for all of us, Jews and Arabs alike.
Carl Perkal is a film producer, media consultant and fundraiser for non-profits in Israel