Bigger Budgets Won’t Buy Israel’s Arabs Equality

Startup Nation is doomed unless Israeli Arabs become better integrated, which isn't a function of government spending, but of Jewish Israelis changing their attitude.

David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg
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Joint Arab List leader Ayman Odeh, center with megaphone, and MK Dov Khenin, left with glasses, during a left-wing protest after Palestinian-Israeli violence in Tel Aviv, Israel October 9, 2015. The signs read: 'Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies'.
A left-wing protest after Palestinian-Israeli violence in Tel Aviv, Israel October 9, 2015. The signs read: 'Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies'.Credit: Reuters
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

The one thing we know for certain about last Friday’s Tel Aviv shooting attack is that three people were killed, two of them Jews at a bar and one of them an Israeli Arab taxi driver. The presumed killer is Nashat Melhem, an Israeli Arab, but the police haven’t caught him and don’t know what motivated him to kill.

But it was enough for the media to routinely refer to him as a “terrorist” – and therefore an an enemy of the state – because he was an Arab who had killed Jews , ignoring the fact that one of his victims was a fellow Arab). The prime minister used the tragedy of the shooting to make it an issue of Jewish-Arab relations, with a stern warning about Arab lawlessness and religious extremism. Days later, panicked Israeli passengers refused to let an airplane take off from Greece until two Israeli Arabs were taken off.

Apparently all it takes is one incident to arouse latent fears in many Jewish Israelis (including, it seems, Netanyahu) that Israeli Arabs are a threat that must be dealt with rather than fellow citizens. We ignore them most of the time but when they do make a brief visit to our conscious, it’s usually as members of the Knesset making outrageous statements or young men running off to join Islamic State, setting off the same hysteria that followed last week’s shootings.

But there are much bigger and more important things happening that tell a different and truer story. More and more Israeli Arabs are doing civilian national service and count for more than a quarter of the total, and polls routinely show they are content to be citizens of Israel. As the Paris attack showed, Europe has a much bigger problem with Muslim violence and alienation than Israel does within its borders. But the exceptions, and the media coverage they elicit, end up becoming the conventionally accepted rule.

Relative freedom for a people apart

Neglect and fear have created an unusual situation for Israeli Arabs, giving them the kind of cultural autonomy that would never pass muster in the West. They are educated in their own schools in their own language, they are subject to Muslim (or Christian) religious law on personal status issues and they live for the most part in their own self-governing towns. There are no bans on minarets as there are in Switzerland or the veil as in the case in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Arabic is an official language and appears on road signs and product labels. Muslim Arabs aren’t drafted into the army.

It’s been a tacit agreement that satisfied everybody. Arabs could preserve the culture, religion and values, and the Jews could go ahead and build their Jewish state without having to be too concerned about making its institutions and ideologies relevant or accessible to a large minority of its citizens, or even have much daily contact with them.

But – European multiculturalists take note – this autonomy has made Israeli Arabs a population apart, cut off from the mainstream and the opportunities it brings.

Arabs are less likely than Jews to hold a job, and Arab women are the least likely of all. The poverty rate for Arabs is nearly four times as high as it is for Jews. Arabs perform worse than Jews on standardized school exams, and far fewer finish high school ready to go on to higher education. Arab towns get much less money for infrastructure and services, they have less land available for expanding and are not served well by public transportation.

Discrimination plays a role in this, but it is also a function of separation. If your mother tongue is Arabic, it’s much harder to compete in a Hebrew-speaking environment. If you don’t serve in the army, you don’t share in a key experience of Israeli life, make friends and connections, or learn skills.

Jews and Arabs protest racism in Israel in October 2015.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

When he isn’t baiting Arabs, there is a pragmatic side of Bibi that understands that it can’t continue like this.

Netanyahu may or may not be concerned about justice or equality, but he does understand that Israel will be in trouble economically if more isn’t done to raise educational standards for Israeli Arabs, bring more of them into the workforce and provide them with better-paying, i.e., more productive, jobs. According to a projection by the Central Bureau of Statistics, the non-Haredi Jewish portion of Israel’s population will shrink to 50% by 2059, from 68% today. The two growing segments of the population – Haredim, whose share will more than double to 26.6% and Arabs whose share reach 23.1% – are both less educated and less productive than the core Jewish population.

Unless Israel does something to narrow the gaps, we risk dropping out of the ranks of the world’s developed economies. Startup Nation, which requires a highly educated and motivated workforce, will be history.

That’s why the cabinet last week approved a plan to spend 15 billion shekels ($3.8 billion) over the next five years on a wide-ranging program to shore up Arab communities with extra budgets for things like roads and public transportation, better housing, daycare subsidies, helping build industrial zones and education. Nearly everything in in plan is geared toward making Israel’s Arabs better prepared for the job market – and not just as construction workers or cleaners.

But even if the plan is carried out – and past government’s record on initiatives like this has not been very good – it does nothing to change attitudes. In fact, even as Bibi gave his backing to the proposal, he couldn’t help worrying about the political fallout from the right. His official statement on the plan didn’t use the word “Arab,” instead calling the beneficiaries “minorities,” and devoted more words to their needing to be law-abiding citizens than Israel’s need to close socio-economic gaps.

The message is we’re giving you money but nothing else. We still don’t trust you.

You can build roads and industrial parks and improve educational standards, but if a young Arab engineering graduate doesn’t get the job because he doesn't “fit in” or because another Arab murdered someone the week before somewhere, it will be all for naught. The buck doesn’t stop with the budget. It stops with attitudes.



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