Arab-Jewish relations in Israel are deteriorating. Since the start of the war in the Gaza Strip, there has been a dramatic rise in the number and the seriousness of attacks against Israeli Arabs. Some have reported being afraid to walk around outside. I would like to offer an uncommon explanation for this outburst of anti-Arab bigotry.
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Despite the systematic state discrimination and the bigotry, Israel’s Arab community has succeeded, in partnership with individuals and organizations from the Jewish community, including a few government ministries, in closing the socioeconomic gap and maintaining its authentic political representation in the Knesset. In recent years, we have seen the Arab community beginning to integrate into the wider Israeli economy and society, including its centers of power.
In the past, if Israeli Jews did not go to Arab communities, they never saw Arabs, except for laborers. But now, if they go to a pharmacy they are likely to be served by an Arab pharmacist. (About half of all pharmacists in Israel are Arab.) If they go to the emergency room, they are likely to be treated by an Arab doctor. And the number of Arabs working in high-tech has grown from about 250 in 2008 to 2,000 today. Jewish college students in Israel often have Arab lecturers. There are Arab department heads and even one Arab college president. Former President Moshe Katsav was convicted of sex crimes and sent to prison by a panel of judges headed by an Arab.
This is not integration of the submissive, groveling kind; rather, it strengthens the Palestinian national identity of Israeli Arabs and their assertive demand for civil rights, individually and collectively. This growing trend is open and visible, leading to increasing daily contact between Jews and Arabs that exceeds the comfort level of those who seek to maintain complete Jewish hegemony. It has challenged the world order of the extreme right. Fearing the disintegration of Jewish supremacy, the extreme right hopes to make the Arabs disappear again, at least from public view.
The political backlash, led by Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman and his collaborators from coalition parties, was a wave of unprecedented anti-Arab legislation and incitement. In the past month, these politicians have exploited Israeli Arabs’ identification with the Palestinians in Gaza to incite against them and portray them as supporting terrorism.
In Operation Protective Edge, as in previous the Israel Defense Forces operations, most Israeli Arabs naturally identified with the Palestinians, not the IDF. But this time, social media played a new role. Israel’s right views the Facebook sharing by Arab Israelis of images of the hundreds of children killed in Gaza, together with denunciations of the IDF and its soldiers, as a public display of a lack of allegiance to the state.
It was precisely at that point that the patience of the extreme anti-Arab right gave out. The hooligan Kahanist “street” was unwilling to accept a situation in which Arabs were not only getting stronger socioeconomically but also opposing the IDF and the national narrative. Through its silence and/or the encouragement of its political leadership, the right embarked on an offensive against the Arabs, aimed at pushing them out of the place they have assumed in Israel, in the workforce and in public in general. This was not a coordinated and planned effort, but it did constitute a combined backlash by the extreme right on the street and at the political level.
Arab society in Israel is also responsible for the deterioration in relations, even if to a much smaller extent. Worth noting are the stones thrown during the past month at Jewish motorists and the fact that some Arab leaders a portion of the Arab leadership has been expressing itself about the state in a way that, although perhaps legitimate, does critical damage to the readiness of Jewish society to promote equality and partnership. The firing of Arab workers in the course of the war (for the views they expressed) is serious, but demonstrations by Arab Israelis — who work alongside Jews — expressing their joy at the deaths of Israeli soldiers is dreadful behavior.
The summer of 2014 has demonstrated the fragility of the status quo in Israel in relations between Jews and Arabs. Israel launched a military campaign, the IDF bombed the brethren of the country’s Arab citizens and in many cases also their actual relatives, ignoring their familial, emotional, personal and national connection with the Palestinians in Gaza. The constellation of relations within Israel between Jews and Arabs has not managed to contain this, and it nearly collapsed.
The sorry tidings for all those working at creating a common equal society is that the successes that we have reaped have been precisely those that encouraged the backlash. That does have to cause us despair, but we must be better prepared to address this reaction and promote a bright future for all of the residents of this country.
The author is co-executive director of Sikkuy: The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality.