What’s the true state of Arab-Jewish relations in the State of Israel?
If you read the results of the latest Index of Arab-Jewish Relations, a poll of 1,400 Israelis, the results are pretty depressing. The proportion of Israeli Arabs that said they support Israel‘s right to exist fell to about 59% last year from 66% in 2015. Less than half said they accepted Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish and democratic state, down from 53.6%.
Sammy Smooha, the Haifa University professor who has been conducting the poll every two years since 2003, put as positive a spin on the numbers as he could, noting that the majority of Jews and Arabs still believed in a “shared society.” But nearly all the poll data show the majority is shrinking and, in any case, the fact that nearly 42% of Arabs don’t believe in Israel’s right to exist is distressing.
But let’s look at a highly unscientific poll of just one person, who happens to be my fix-it man. He is a West Bank Palestinian, not a citizen of the State of Israel, but if anything, that makes the world he lives in even more confusing and contradictory. He is not political and we have never discussed politics, but he is thoughtful and intelligent, and without the occupation he might have done much better for himself in terms of education, income and work.
Nevertheless, he does his work expertly. He takes initiative, follows through and often comes up with advice and creative solutions for problems. Some of that may be his trying to level the socioeconomic division in a world where Palestinians work for Jews, almost never the other way round. Perhaps, but it’s hard to know because our relationship consists of my hiring him for a job accompanied by small talk about the weather and kids.
The point, however, is that on a functional level, it works. That’s because my fix-it man is first a father, husband, neighbor and breadwinner; whatever he might feel about his Palestinian identity is secondary in his day-to-day world. In other words, he’s an ordinary person for whom national identity isn’t an existential political statement.
I don’t question the poll data, but I do wonder how it relates to the very critical issue of how Israel can integrate its Arab minority into mainstream society.
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Behind the growing alienation
Integration is an ethical and human rights issue about aspiring for equality, but it’s also a critical economic issue.
Without the 20% of the population that Israeli Arabs represent fully integrated into the labor force, our economic prospects are considerably dimmed. They are an untapped human resource that the high-tech sector badly needs. And, as the Jewish population ages, Israeli Arabs will become a bigger part of the country’s labor force. But without access to education and career opportunities, they won’t be as productive, and all of Israel will be the worse off for it.
Smooha contends that the growing alienation of Arabs from the state has been prompted by Israel’s right wing government.
On a practical level, the government has done some positive things for Arabs, like the 5-year development program for Arab communities. But all of that is overshadowed by hyper-nationalist attitudes and legislation, like the proposed nation state law or the Nakba law.
Behind this attitude is the idea beloved by the Israeli right, that no one can be a contributing member of society unless he or she is dyed-in-the-wool, the blue-and-white nationalist. Non-Zionist Arabs don’t deserve a state-subsidized university education. No employer should hire them in preference to a Zionist Jew. You wouldn’t want one of them to be your supervisor at work (which is what nearly 40% of Israelis said in the Smooha poll).
But my fix-it man tells another story, and so do other, more scientific data.
The number of Israeli Arabs in higher education has jumped 60% in the last seven years, and the number doing civilian national service has grown more than seven-fold. Close to 85% of Israeli Arabs in a survey expressed a strong desire for their children to learn Hebrew at a young age.
The same poll that shows Arabs rejecting Israel’s Jewish identity, also found that big majorities would rather live in Israel than anywhere else, and wouldn’t want to move to a Palestinian state if there were one.
What it all adds up to is a pragmatic decision by Israel’s Arabs to aspire to a middle class life in the democratic, prosperous and pluralistic society that Israel remains, despite the right’s best efforts to roll these characteristics back.
Like the judge who famously refused to sing the national anthem “Hatikva” at a state ceremony, Israeli Arabs can be good citizens and productive workers without all the patriotic baggage, and that is exactly what they’re doing.
The real issue is whether Israelis can live with that perfectly reasonable solution.
Distressingly, the Smooha poll shows that large minorities of Israelis don’t seem ready for that on an operative level. They don’t want Arabs in their schools, or to have them as neighbors or to accept them as full members of society.
That needs to change, which can’t happen if the government takes the narrow view that economic integration means better housing and better public transportation for Arabs, while sending them the message that their presence in Israel is conditional.