Israelis are experiencing a challenging period. Its citizens are united mainly by fear and anxiety and this had led to kneejerk reactions: the ubiquitous social media networks are being flooded with messages of separation, hatred and exclusion. Too often the targets of this flood have been Arabs. Over the past couple of weeks there have been prominent and vocal demands to remove or fire Arab employees from educational institutions in Jewish communities throughout the country on the unfounded suspicion that they present a potential danger to the students in those institutions.
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Almost every Israeli parent of a child in kindergarten or elementary school is familiar with the pervasive ritual of WhatsApp groups. These instant messaging groups have become a focal point – as well as a mobilizing and escalating force - for belligerence and fearmongering. In the line of fire are Arab maintenance and sanitation workers, who all year long clean up after the children in schools, but now are automatically seen by many as a real danger. Parents are demanding that they be removed – and it turns out that there are people listening to them.
For example, Rehovot Mayor Rahamim Malul. He decided to act in accordance with the wishes of some of the parents. In a scandalous move, a department director in the municipality sent a letter recently indicating that "minority employees will not be allowed to enter" educational sites in Rehovot, plain and simple. And he is not alone. Also involved in this disgraceful behavior are heads of local councils and those holding senior positions in Hod Hasharon, Nes Tziona and many other places. Not all of them have decided to send the workers away entirely – some only "exile" them to the hours when there are no pupils or parents in the surroundings, early in the morning or late in the evening.
But there is no significant difference between dismissing, distancing or shifting Arab workers to the end of the work day, just because they are Arabs. The message conveyed to the children is loud and clear – when the situation becomes tense and fear prevails, Arab workers should be sent away, starting with the weakest ones, the janitorial workers. Of all places educational institutions, which are supposed to prepare the children for a shared life in a country with a Jewish and Arab citizens, and to teach them about tolerance and accepting the other, are now teaching them that any Arab – regardless of his deeds or his opinions – is a genuine threat who must be removed.
And what about those same Arab workers? How will they support their families? How do they feel when they are dismissed or "only" moved like puppets from their usual work hours and their regular routine to unreasonable hours, only because they are Arabs? How will they feel when the escalation ends, sooner or later, and they are asked to return and to work at normal hours?
The fear and panic among parents and communities throughout the country is certainly understandable. It should also be noted that Arab citizens are experiencing the same fear and panic, because even if they aren't being attacked with knives, Arabs are being attacked in many places, both physically and verbally, and in many instances are refraining from speaking their language in public places.
We too are afraid to walk the streets and we too are concerned about the welfare of our children these days. But the fear and panic must not be allowed to guide the decision makers and the local authority heads, causing them to adopt a discriminatory and illegal policy. Because in addition to the clear ethical and educational aspects, downgrading work conditions or removing workers only because they are Arabs is also a serious violation of the law.
And it's not only a legal, ethical and educational issue. Because who exactly will replace the pharmacists, the doctors and the other Arabs employed in the various branches of commerce and services? Removing the Arab workers from the job market would seriously damage the Israeli economy. Even if the horrific step of sending Arab workers away from their places of work succeeds, fortunately the Arab citizens will not disappear from this state, and the Palestinians will not disappear from this country, which is also their country and homeland, in which we all have to find the way to live together in a situation characterized by cooperation and equality.
Unfortunately, to date we have not heard any public statement on the subject from a serving government minister, most relevantly the economy or education ministers. We expect them to go public and defend those workers whose rights have been harmed and whose dignity has been violated. And until the government defends those Arab workers, the matter is in our hands. In some places, local authority heads and mayors have acted responsibly and rejected parental requests to fire or remove Arab employees from schools. In other places parents themselves are objecting to the decision of the local authorities to remove Arab workers. We hope that this display of moral courage as well as parental and communal responsibility will persuade and trigger a more general response by parents, towards a mobilization calling for a strike against the schools until the mayors’ decision is reversed, using the same social media tools that have spread so much distrust. That would be the best lesson we can teach our children.
Ron Gerlitz and Rawnak Natour are the co-executive directors of Sikkuy - The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality.