The Case For Equality For Israel’s Arab Citizens
Tue, 03/25/2014
Martin Raffel
Martin Raffel

Being a Palestinian Arab citizen in the nation-state of the Jewish people is challenging. Both a sense of justice and of self-interest should lead Israel not to make it any harder for the people who represent some 20 percent of the country’s population.

At the recent annual Plenum of the JCPA (Jewish Council for Public Affairs) in Atlanta, Ghaida Rinawie-Zoabi, co-founder and general director of Injaz: the Center for Professional Arab Local Governance in Israel, participated in a panel discussion on Israel’s key domestic challenges and offered the perspective of a Palestinian Arab citizen. A member of the audience asked her how she felt about the country’s national anthem, “Hatikvah,” which, of course, speaks of the millennial Jewish yearning for Zion and Jerusalem. She simply smiled and shrugged her shoulders, a concise and very diplomatic response that spoke volumes.

Rinawie-Zoabi asserted that Israel needed to do much more to make non-Jewish citizens feel at home and welcome in their state.  As a proud Zionist who believes strongly in the importance of maintaining Israel’s Jewish identity — and supports Prime Minister Netanyahu’s insistence on Palestinian acceptance of that identity as a prerequisite for genuine reconciliation — I completely agree. While continuing to build the Jewish homeland, Israel is a democracy and called on to treat all its citizens with full equality. Netanyahu made this point explicitly in his speech at the AIPAC policy conference several weeks ago, describing Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people “where the civil rights of all citizens, Jews and non-Jews alike, are guaranteed.” 

This promise of equal treatment for citizens’ rights is highlighted in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. But the principle goes back much further than 1948. Va’ahavtem et Ha’ger, the commandment to love the “stranger,” is enshrined in our Torah. Both the ancient Israelites and the founders of modern Israel recognized that this not only was the correct thing to do morally, but it also represented a posture of strategic importance. An unhappy and frustrated minority can tear the fabric of any society.

The question of how Israel can make its non-Jewish citizens feel more comfortable with state symbols, such as the anthem and the flag, is sensitive. But that should not prevent Israelis from engaging in a serious discussion about possible changes that might incorporate a shared Israeli dimension along with the Jewish one.  In addition, ways should be found to communicate greater respect for religious and ethnic diversity in Israel’s public square, consistent with its Jewish foundation. And instead of promoting Jewish exclusivity, as some recent legislative initiatives have sought to achieve, such as the one demanding loyalty oaths to the Jewish state, the Knesset instead should be considering measures that reinforce inclusion and integration.

Indeed, Israel seems ready to invite opinion from the diaspora about how best to strike a balance between its democratic and Jewish identities. Hebrew University law professor Ruth Gavison was commissioned by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni to explore a constitutional framework for this issue, and, with the help of the Jewish People Policy Institute, has been gathering input from Jews around the world, especially in the United States. 

But beyond the psycho/social/cultural arena is the issue of fair distribution of the state’s resources. This does not involve the deep emotional attachment to symbols, and, with the necessary political will, should be achievable. If the Israeli government is prepared to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on a joint project with the diaspora to reinforce Jewish identity and Zionist education among members of our younger generation — a widely supported initiative being launched this year — it also should be ready to invest more in narrowing the gaps between Jewish and Arab citizens. 

Progress has been made in recent years, but these gaps remain significant. According to the Authority for Economic Development of the Arab, Druze and Circassian sectors in the Prime Minister’s Office, Arab poverty rates are more than three times the poverty rates among the Jewish majority. More than half of all Arab families live in poverty, compared with 15 percent of Jewish citizens. Some 90 percent of Arab communities are rated on the three lowest socioeconomic rankings by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. In addition to the hardships faced by individuals and communities because of this situation, the country’s overall economy is jeopardized by high costs in state welfare services, lost productivity and tax revenue, and low consumer activity.

As a small minority community in the United States, American Jews, in some ways, are better positioned to see the dilemmas experienced by Israel’s Arab citizens more clearly than Israel’s majority Jewish population. A useful educational and engagement vehicle on this issue was established about seven years ago, the NYC-based Inter-Agency Task Force for Israeli Arab Issues, which now has more than 100 member organizations. A wealth of information detailing the socioeconomic gap between Jews and Arabs in Israel is available on its website, iataskforce.org.

However, the task force, by consensus, refrains from political involvement. But those of us in the Jewish advocacy world who work tirelessly to enhance U.S.-Israel relations and to defend Israel’s security have a special responsibility. By virtue of our advocacy role, deeply valued in Jerusalem, we have even more access to senior government decision-makers than most Israeli citizens to ask about how they relate to issues affecting the Arab minority and to encourage policies that advance civic equality. 

I approach this subject with humility, recognizing that America is hardly perfect in addressing the needs of its minorities. Yet, as Israeli leaders attest, diaspora Jews have the right to participate in shaping the policies and practices of the nation state of the Jewish people. We should exercise it.

Martin Raffel is senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA).

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Thank you for speaking out on this important issue, and for doing so in such a compelling and eloquent manner!

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