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Lesson for Israel: Reconciliation Begins at Home

February 2, 2000

As an American Israeli, and one with an interest in human rights, I have held conflicted emotions during the Palestinian-Israeli crisis of the past two months.

I am an Orthodox Jew, but in part because of my American upbringing and in part because of my work on human rights abuses (my project for the Council focuses on how Israel implements the human rights of migrant workers), I do not share all the passions and the prejudices of my fellow Israelis.

On the one hand, I can understand why the Israeli public is at its wit's end, faulting Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for failing to prepare his people adequately for peace. Moreover, should the seven-year-long peace process that began in Oslo be suspended as a result of the recent violence, Israel's frustration will only increase -- as will the possibility of further Palestinian protests and of a rupture in Israeli government policy toward the occupied territories.

On the other hand, I would contend that in condemning Arafat for failing to lay the groundwork for the recent peace initiatives, Israelis are also condeming themselves. We, too, are ill prepared for peace. I am not blaming Prime Minister Barak for raising the Jerusalem issue at Camp David prior to any public debate (a brave move, in my opinion, though partly due to U.S. pressure), nor am I faulting previous governments for thrusting peace packages upon an unsuspecting public. Rather, I am faulting Israelis themselves. As long as we continue to be mired in domestic conflicts with the Arabs who live in our own nation, how can we possibly be prepared to make peace with other Arabs?

For the most part, Israeli Arabs have been content to remain in Israel and reap the benefits of a developed state. Yet they joined in the initial protests against Israel of six weeks ago. This took many of my fellow Israelis by surprise, inflaming their feelings of distrust toward this oppressed minority.

It is, however, important to bear in mind why the Arab Israelis were protesting. Outwardly, they were declaring solidarity wih the Palestinians' outrage against Israeli political leader Ariel Sharon for his visit to a disputed holy site in East Jerusalem. But these protests, I would claim, were largely a pretext for forwarding their own agenda. Unlike the Palestinians, Arab Israelis were less concerned with the Israeli occupation of Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem than with improving their political and economic situation within Israel.

Constituting one million of the nation's 6.3 million people, Arab Israelis are for the most part an ignored minority. They are routinely denied equal benefits and treated as second-class citizens. Their children attend overcrowded schools, many of their villages feature open sewage and unpaved roads, and they suffer from high unemployment. Recently, they have also grown frustrated at not receiving any better treatment in the wake of the peace process. Is it any wonder they took so much heart from the Palestinians' recent display of nationalist sentiment?

From an Israeli perspective, addressing the concerns of our Arab citizens is an exceedingly delicate matter. The problem runs deeper than the need to rectify economic or social inequalities: most Israelis believe that Arab Israelis pose a potential threat to the security of our nation. This claim takes us to the very root of the problem. While Israeli Arabs would of course welcome an infusion of public funds to their social and cultural infrastructures -- particularly their schools and public facilities -- what they want most of all is to put to rest the notion that they are somehow a security threat to the Jewish state.

My Arab students at Bar Ilan University frequently gripe about Israelis citing security concerns as the grounds for preventing Arab Israelis from applying for particular jobs. The students note in their own defense that many members of the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community do not serve in the military; some in this group do not even identify with the Israeli state. Yet the Ultra-Orthodox Jews are not denied positions of social and economic importance within Israeli society. One Israeli Arab simply could not understand why he could not work for Rav Bariach, a well-known (private) security door-lock firm on the grounds that he did not serve in the military -- when the firm is known to have hired from the Ultra-Orthodox community without raising any security issues.

I sense that the frustration of Arab Israelis is growing to the point where they will soon be ready to issue an ultimatum: does Israeli society want accept or reject them? Indeed, the so-called security issue does not justify many of the inconsistencies in how Israel treats its Arab minority. This November, a group of academics presented a report to the Israeli government examining the treatment of Israeli Arabs over the past fifty years. According to their findings, the time has arrived for the Israeli state to acknowledge Israeli Arabs as having an Israeli national identity and to embrace them as members of the community at large. Security issues were factors during the inception of the state for specific and sensitive positions; but now these issues have become the accepted excuse for denying Israeli Arabs a host of private and public employment opportunities.

Many of my fellow Israelis are wondering what to do next regarding the emergence of a Palestinian state. While I can understand the Israeli preoccupation with the future, I think the answer to what we do next is right in front of our eyes: we should begin by creating an infrastructure that provides equal opportunity to the Arabs who elect to remain in Israel. Before we can consider establishing relations with Arabs beyond our borders, we must demonstrate an ability to address such problems from within. We should carefully cultivate the support of our Arab minority, which in turn would engender good will toward the Palestinians. A satisfied Arab minority would enhance communication between Israel and other Arab groups by raising our credibility and opening new opportunities for dialogue.

I felt encouraged when the Israeli government's recently proposed legislation to remove any reference to religion on the Israeli national identity card and to create an affirmative action program for governmental employees. I was further impressed when the current government accepted an Arab as a secondary minister handling sensitive issues. But I hope these are not merely token efforts. Many more changes need to occur in the areas of educational opportunities, land development, social participation, and equal allocation of funds and services for Israeli Arabs to enjoy equal status with other Israelis. Such changes should not be imposed from the top down, but should derive support from within Israeli society, as acknowledgement grows of the important contributions made by Arab Israelis.

Recently, Arab Israelis have threatened further protests -- making this matter all the more pressing. Israel knows it cannot engage in sustained guerilla warfare with the Palestinian Authority (or any other clandestine group). But such a prospect is as nothing compared to the danger of provoking the minority group within our midst to the point where the two sides are engaged in a prolonged civil battle.

The long and winding road to eventual peace does not commence with cease fire agreements or muted declarations by the Arab League. The issue for us Israelis to ponder is less the failure of the recent peace initiatives than the need for some form of internal -- and eventually external -- coexistence with the Arabs who live in the Middle East, including within our borders. Israel has the capacity to take such steps -- but could quickly lose the opportunity by not reacting now to the demands of its own Arab citizens.


Related Links:
  • BBC Online's in-depth report on the latest Middle East Crisis, including timeline, interactive maps, talking points, and analyses.
  • Adala: a key group upholding the rights of Israeli Arabs.
  • New Israel Fund: American-based organization that promotes Arab-Israeli reconciliation and joint projects.
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