As Israeli Arabs Get Stronger, the Right Goes on the Offensive

The peak of this phenomenon was seen on Election Day, when Arabs won their greatest-ever electoral victory, and the prime minister incited against them.

Ron Gerlitz
Ron Gerlitz
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Ayman Odeh, head of Joint Arab List, casts his ballot with his children at a polling station in Haifa on March 17, 2015.
Ayman Odeh, head of Joint Arab List, casts his ballot with his children at a polling station in Haifa on March 17, 2015.Credit: AFP
Ron Gerlitz
Ron Gerlitz

Upon being appointed to the Judicial Appointments Committee, MK Robert Ilatov of Yisrael Beiteinu declared that “Whoever doesn’t sing ‘Hatikva’ will not be a judge in the State of Israel.” Another MK from the same party, Sharon Gal, is trying to advance a bill that would broaden the grounds for disqualifying parties from running for Knesset, to make it more difficult for some Arab MKs to do so. Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, meanwhile, is making funding for Arab theater conditional on political positions.

These are processes that at best are meant to make the rights of Arab citizens conditional on their acceptance of the national Zionist narrative, and in most cases to do them unconditional harm. This continues the trend we’ve seen in recent years, including a wave of anti-Arab legislation, anti-Arab incitement in the Knesset and the government, and the growing racism in the street and the workplace.

Ostensibly this is a series of moves that together are indicative of the gradually and consistently growing power of the anti-Arab radical right. But this mistaken analysis delays and weakens democratic forces in Israel that are trying to cope with this dangerous trend.

The many attempts to violate the rights of Arab citizens are, I believe, a reaction to the strengthening of Arab society in Israel. What is fascinating and counter-intuitive is that despite the discrimination, political persecution, racism and exclusion, the presence of Arab citizens in the social, economic and political arenas and the pace of their integration into decision-making positions have never been greater. And Arabs are not integrating submissively, but are assertively claiming their rights, both as individuals and as a national group.

This combination has generated a strong counter-reaction. Raising the electoral threshold was meant to be the first successful infringement on political rights of Arab citizens, but instead the Joint Arab List actually enhanced their political representation. The backlash wasn’t long in coming; from the relentless incitement of Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the election campaign, to the Central Election Commission’s attempt to disqualify the candidacy of MK Haneen Zoabi.

The peak was on Election Day, which demonstrated the Arabs’ strengthening on the one hand, and the harsh backlash by the right on the other. The Arab parties and Hadash ran together, with unprecedented success, and the chairman of the Central Election Committee, for the first time since the founding of the state, is an Arab, Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran. Meanwhile, the prime minister incited against Arab citizens and managed to persuade Jewish voters to go to the polls to prevent the strengthening of the Arabs.

The one who forbade the media to broadcast Netanyahu’s inflammatory statements in real time was actually Joubran, whose ouster had been demanded in 2012 by the coalition’s extreme rightists after he was caught on camera remaining silent during the singing of the national anthem at a ceremony. The Jewish voters’ response to the strengthening of Arab representation was probably one of the reasons for the right’s victory in the election.

But just as the right has failed to stop the process of Arab economic advancement, it cannot stop their political advancement. The Arabs have unprecedented representation in the current Knesset, a large list headed by a courageous, trailblazing leader and committee chairman, Ayman Odeh. A few Arab Knesset members scattered among several warring parties would not be so upsetting. If MK Aida Touma-Suliman was the director of a social organization, Deputy Interior Minister Yaron Mazuz would not care. But she’s not just an MK, but a Palestinian who heads a Knesset committee, one who is not a Zionist and even dares to attack him directly. That’s why the deputy interior minister lost his cool and suggested that she return her identity card.

This is also the reason for the attack on the Arab cultural institutions. How dare Israeli Arabs present an alternative narrative? How dare they take money from the state and refuse to toe the line? Off with their heads! The extreme right and its collaborators in the government want to make the Arabs in cultural institutions, the judicial system, the civil service and the Knesset sing the anthem, give up their national demands and go back to being weak and submissive.

What is happening in Israel joins the relatively long list of historical instances in which an increase in racism against minorities occurred just as they gained strength and the official discrimination against them lessened. In many places, elements that supported coexistence and equality did not understand this, and turned from a major political force into a collection of desperate citizens.

So it is in Israel. The increase in attacks shows that the extreme right cannot stop the process of Arab empowerment and integration. This is no reason for complacency, however, because the more focal points of equality and cooperation that develop, the stronger the backlash will be, and the more dangerous and explosive it will become, but there can be no despair. The victory of the forces of incitement and a fatal blow to Arab political representation would severely escalate Israel’s internal civil conflict. We cannot let that happen.

The writer is co-CEO of Sikkuy, the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality.

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