Israel and her Arab Citizens
As many of us join to celebrate Israel’s 60th Anniversary, my thoughts turned to the subject of her Arab minority. Along with most of my fellow Jews I rejoice in the many achievements of Israel’s sixty years, including her: welcome of successive waves of oppressed Jewish immigrants, vigorous democracy, cultural triumphs including Israel conductors at the helm of the world’s great orchestras and novelists translated into the world’s major languages, and her scientific and technological achievements. One could go on and on with these successes but this anniversary should also be a time for reflection.
It cannot be said often enough, that a nation must be truly judged by the treatment of its minorities. Thus Canada lamentably has, as yet, failed to deal adequately with the plight of her native people and the deep scar of her racial legacy still mars the American visage. Israel’s great minority problem is in the treatment of fully one-fifth of her citizens, the Israeli Arabs whose third class status is unacceptable. They unfortunately constitute a third class because Israel now has the widest income gap in the western world and thus hundreds of thousands of those impoverished Jews, who have been left behind in the economic race, constitute the second class. The Arab third class is not only over-represented in the ranks of the poor but is also subject to racism and discrimination.
In 2003 Israel’s Or Commission made numerous recommendations to close the gap between Jews and Arabs. But in 2007, Prime Minister Olmert would say: “I wont cover up the fact that in Israel there is discrimination against Arabs.” His government has undertaken an affirmative action programme to raise the number of Arab civil servants from eight to ten per cent but that would, even if realized, be only half of their representation in the population.
Substantial racism among Israelis is surely responsible for many of the injustices suffered by her Arab citizens. 75% of Israeli Jews have stated that they would not live in the same apartment building with Arabs and 32% think Arabs are culturally inferior. 42% of Jewish Israelis would deny the vote to their fellow citizens and fully half of them would now support so-called “transfer” of Israeli Arabs to other Arab lands. Of course, “transfer”, “removal”, “ethnic cleansing” is an act we associate with the most barbarous nations in the world but in Israel it has now moved from the extreme right to the mainstream of Israeli discourse. This marks a significant failure of the Israeli political and religious leadership to educate the population in the basics of democracy.
One of Israel’s worst forms of institutional racism is denying Israeli Arabs access to their own lands. In 1953 the government of Israel confiscated 300,000 acres of captured village lands, declaring this land government property for Jewish settlement and security. While much of this land remains vacant, no longer (perhaps never) relevant to security, and with no great wave of new immigration expected; its original owners are denied access. One Israeli scholar, in reasonable tones, explains that “the country is not big. What you cede to Arabs can no longer be used for Jews who may still want to come.” His words represent the meeting ground of nationalism and racism, in which the claims of unknown, even unborn Jews are superior to those of the Arab citizens of Israel.
It is high time for Israel to act on behalf of her Arab population and make Israeli democracy a reality for all her citizens. Let us hope that by the time of her 70th anniversary we can celebrate the realization of a democratic Israel.
Dr. Scheinberg is emeritus professor of history, Concordia University, and co-chair of Canadian Friends of Peace Now. His editorials can be heard on Montreal’s Radio Shalom 1650AM on Monday at 7:15A.M. and Wednesday at 6:14P.M.