For Israel's Jews and Arabs to Truly Coexist, This Is What Needs to Happen

How to build a shared Israeli society where Jews and Arabs are equal and perceive themselves as sharing a joint homeland

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A Palestinian woman reads a copy of the Koran, Islam's holy book, as a Jewish Orthodox man walks past her in Jerusalem's Old City on September 10, 2015.
A Palestinian woman reads a copy of the Koran, Islam's holy book, as a Jewish Orthodox man walks past her in Jerusalem's Old City on September 10, 2015.Credit: AFP / AHMAD GHARABLI
Ron Gerlitz
Ron Gerlitz
Ron Gerlitz
Ron Gerlitz

Efforts to understand the Israeli government’s approach toward the state’s Arab citizens have become dauntingly complicated in the past year. Many Jews and Arabs are unable to fathom what the government’s true policy is toward what amounts to one-fifth of Israel’s citizens. Still, that’s not surprising, when we consider that the Netanyahu government has broken two records with regard to the Arab citizens: on the one hand, an extensive budgetary investment, and on the other, a debasing political offensive that has crossed every red line.

While with one hand, the government transfers new and meaningful budgets to Arab towns and cities, with the other it has unleashed an unprecedented wave of legislation and incitement directed against Israel’s Arab citizens. The attack last Friday, when three Arab citizens killed two police officers at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, has only exacerbated the situation and deepened the rift.

Amid this overwrought state of affairs, is it possible to promote a society here that is both egalitarian and shared by Arab and Jewish citizens alike? I will risk departing from the conventional wisdom and put forward an almost optimistic thesis. I believe that a shared and equal society is possible, and I will try to back up this assertion by painting a picture of an attainable future.

Budgetary equality is an essential condition for the creation of a better reality. The Arab citizens and their leadership, together with Jewish partners and civil-society organizations – such as Sikkuy: The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality, of which I am the co-director, together with Rawnak Natour – have for years waged a persistent struggle against budgetary discrimination. That struggle is not yet over, but the data show that even alongside the government’s discriminatory policy, and even in the shadow of the political attacks on and the inflammatory rhetoric used against Arab citizens – the effort to achieve material equality has scored considerable successes in recent decades. There’s been a slow, consistent process of narrowing the material disparities between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens. That’s good news, and if we wish to promote true equality, it’s better not to deny it. The road to equality is difficult and complicated, but with regard to material resources – budgets and land – it’s relatively easy to define what equality is.

Elusive, but exciting

Is material equality the same as a shared society? And if not, then what is it? Shared society is truly an elusive concept, but also an exciting vision. It’s possible, theoretically, to arrive at a situation of equality between Jews and Arabs in budget allocation, infrastructures and land, but with the two communities continuing to live, work and attend school separately.

To many people that sounds natural, even desirable. But equality cannot exist in a situation of separation between majority and minority. And in any event, equal budgets, however important they are, do not ensure that feelings of hatred, alienation and fear will fade. Those are the contents of the powder keg that’s perched below the joint citizenship of Jews and Arabs, and that can ignite the relations between them, as occurred in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, with the encouragement of irresponsible leaders.

In a shared society for Jewish and Arab citizens, the two groups would perceive themselves as sharing a joint homeland, and view the members of the other group as partners in society and the state. We are a long way from that. Too many people on both sides don’t see Israel/Palestine as the homeland of both peoples, and perceive the other group as a foreign element that will, it is devoutly hoped, disappear.

Equal budgets, however important they are, do not ensure that feelings of hatred, alienation and fear will fade.

For Jews and Arabs to see this place as a joint homeland and to promote a shared society, a few things need to happen. First, increasing representations of a shared society and joint spaces must be created. Second, education for shared society and the teaching of both languages must be a significant part of the Hebrew and Arab educational systems, from kindergarten through high school. This is more important than mathematics, and it’s worth moving quickly in order to take advantage of the fact that Arabic is the mother tongue – or the mother tongue of one of the parents – of the majority of Israel’s citizens.

Third, the Arab citizens must become part of the decision-making process in Israel, including in the government. And fourth, it is impossible to advance a shared society while the occupation of the Palestinian people in the territories continues. A society in which the majority operates a military regime against members of the minority cannot be a shared society.

What would such a shared society in Israel look like in practice? What is the goal to be strived for? If we work hard, beginning tomorrow morning – and not only after all manner of imaginary conditions are met – and if we succeed in sustaining a political alliance between moderates from both sides and in overcoming the forces of separation, visitors to Israel 30 years from now will see an overwhelming majority of Jewish and Arab citizens who believe that their homeland is shared by both peoples. The voices that will consider it the homeland of one group only will be marginalized.

The public space in Israel will be shared. Only the elderly will remember a public space in which Hebrew, Jewish and Zionist language, symbols and culture reigned exclusively. Arab language and culture, as well as Islam and Christianity, will be ubiquitous. Every serious museum will exhibit Palestinian art, every culture festival will include Arab and Palestinian events. No means of public transportation will receive a permit before the Languages Authority, established in 2025, confirms that it’s fully bilingual in terms of its signs and verbal announcements. Arabic will be a compulsory language in the education system, and a large proportion of Jewish citizens will be able to speak Arabic. (It goes without saying that most Arabs will speak Hebrew since that is already the case.) Without studying Arabic, a person will not be able to receive a high-school matriculation certificate – and there will be no compromises and no exemptions. All government officials will know Arabic, because knowledge of the language will be a condition for employment in the civil service.

The Palestinian historical narrative will be part of the curriculum, alongside the Zionist narrative, in both the Arabic and Hebrew educational systems. Both narratives will be represented at all historic sites in Israel. Arab citizens will be present in power centers and decision-making circles in every sphere. The fact that an Arab citizen is appointed a university president or director general of a ministry or is selected the winner on a reality show will have become simply boring, of no public importance – it will be the same as a Jew of Moroccan origin becoming a ministerial director general. Disputes over the definition of the state (Jewish state or state of all its citizens) will be normal and legitimate in public discourse. There will be no laws that oblige political parties to pay allegiance to a particular definition of the state.

The notion of a “Jewish majority” in the Knesset will no longer exist. In 2023, 30 years after Arab citizens became part of the government’s power base for the first time, in the Rabin government, Arab participation in the government will break a new record: Two parties representing their community will become part of the coalition, their representatives being given three ministerial portfolios: social welfare, agriculture and transportation. That will be the springboard for representatives of various Arab parties to hold even more senior ministerial portfolios and have a voice in fateful decisions. The idea that the Jewish public has priority in terms of access to any material resource, including land, will go by the boards.

Bilingual revolution

Sounds fanciful? Possibly. But it’s definitely possible to get there, or at least to get close. Here’s a brief historical narrative, unfortunately unconventional – but accurate – about relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel.

In a shared society for Jewish and Arab citizens, the two groups would perceive themselves as sharing a joint homeland.

Compared to the situation that existed here 30 years ago, significant progress has been made in terms of the standing and presence of Arab citizens in Israeli society. There’s no need to celebrate this, or to be thrilled by the fact that the period of military regime rule over these citizens passed in the late 1960s, or to be proud that the ‘70s and ‘80s – when Jewish citizens encountered Arabs almost only as sanitation workers and manual laborers – are behind us.

But we should also look forthrightly at the process by which the Arab society has already grown stronger and is beginning to integrate into the centers of power, the economy and the society.

Two conflicting trends are at work today in Israel: one that is angling for a confrontation with the country’s Arab citizens, and another that is striving to develop good, normal human relations between the two communities and to promote equality between them. There’s no way to know which tendency will prevail, whether we are headed for an aggravation of relations or for the development of a shared, equal society. In recent years, even in the shadow of the highly charged relations between Jews and Arabs, progress has been made with regard to many elements of a shared society.

Many Arab citizens are now employed in hospitals, drugstores, the courts, high-tech firms and public service. Moreover, since 2016, a bilingual revolution has been underway in public transportation in general, with Arabic being used in the signs and announcements in buses and at bus stops throughout the country. A relatively modest effort by a coalition of nongovernmental organizations made Israel Rail add Arabic to the schedules, maps and electronic boards at all stations. The Nature and Parks Authority is working on adding Arabic explanations to signs posted at all the sites it oversees.

In addition, the University of Haifa and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have decided that classes will not be held on three days of holidays celebrated by Arab citizens (contrary to the claim that collective rights cannot be advanced in the present state of affairs). Arab citizens are also increasingly represented in the Hebrew-language media, as shown by a weekly index that tracks their representation. And there are more examples.

But we must also not flinch from acknowledging the harsh truths: namely, that the primary challenge is to advance an equal, shared society amid a reality of inequality and discrimination in almost every sphere; the exclusion of Arab citizens; continuing governmental incitement against them; a deep dispute over how the state is to be defined; and the strengthening of the anti-Palestinian Jewish extreme right wing and of voices in the Arab community that oppose Arab-Jewish partnership. And then there’s the elephant in the room: the solid, stable Jewish majority that is unwilling to forgo prioritized national rights for Jews – in symbols, in the definition of the state and in immigration rights.

It is impossible to advance a shared society while the occupation of the Palestinian people in the territories continues.

Among Israel’s citizens there are two clashing narratives – the Palestinian and the Zionist – with attendant identities and ideologies. The Arabs are not about to part with their Palestinian identity, nor will most Jews abandon their Zionist identity. Every effort to divest the other side of its identity is hopeless and will have only one consequence: a heightening of alienation, estrangement and hatred. The legitimacy of criticism – including fierce and trenchant criticism of both national movements, their ideologies and their deeds in the past and present – along with recognition of other side’s legitimacy, is a cornerstone of a shared society.

It’s clear, then, that the idea of a shared society will not be the End of Days vision held by many Israelis, Jews and Arabs alike. But it will make it possible for equal and shared forms of civil society, management and government to take hold, for the benefit of all.

This article is being written in the summer of 2017, at the height of a difficult period in relations between Jews and Arabs. The ruling party in the coalition is pushing ahead with a wave of legislation against Arab citizens, inciting against them and systematically trying to undermine their political representation as well as the status of their language. These developments reached new lows with the demolition of homes in the town of Kalansua, in central Israel, anfd in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev, and with the accusation that Arab citizens were responsible for a rash of wildfires around the country last fall.

Not so long ago, in summer 2014 and in October 2015, we were witness to a series of violent incidents between Jewish and Arab citizens across the country. It’s true that these and subsequent attacks against Arab citizens and their rights have been due in part to a backlash by the extreme right to the growing strength of the Arab community. So, one might well ask, with so many political attacks against Arab citizens and efforts to reduce their rights – how is it even possible to talk about a shared society?

It is both possible and desirable to dream of a different reality. I believe with all my heart that this dream will ultimately be fulfilled. Many citizens, Jews and Arabs who possess faith, power and drive are working to bring this day.

On the Id al-Fitr holiday in 2047, Manal, Alaa and their children, from Acre, will take a short vacation abroad. They will not lose workdays, because the northern district of the Agriculture Ministry, of which Manal is the director, and the Carmiel school in which Alaa is the coordinator of mathematics studies, will be closed, as they are on every official holiday. The family will take the train to the airport, the announcements of all the stations along the way will be read out in Hebrew, Arabic and English. At the airport – whose name was changed, after an intense and painful public debate, in consideration of what the name David Ben-Gurion symbolizes for Arab citizens – all the passengers will undergo identical security checks. Announcements will, of course, be made in both languages, along with English.

The family will fly abroad, happy to be on vacation, but will miss their colleagues and students – many of whom are Jews – who are getting a few days off even though they are not celebrating a holiday. As the plane lifts off, they will feel that they are leaving home, and missing it already.

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