When I made aliyah almost 40 years as a graduate of the Zionist youth movement Young Judea, I was inspired by the fundamental value we learned and passed on: Moving to Israel was not simply a change of address.
The message was that making aliyah was also about dedicating our lives for the improvement of Israel and for the benefit of the Jewish people. We were taught to seek out, to discover what were the main challenges facing the State of Israel and to devote our energies toward making a difference.
In the late 1970s, I defined those main challenges as: the Israeli-Arab conflict, and the struggle for equality for all citizens in the State of Israel – both between Ashkenazi Jews and Sephardi Jews (as we called them then) – and between the Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel.
I most wanted to devote myself to working on the Israeli- Arab conflict, and specifically on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But when I tried to engage at that time, the Palestinians I met, officials and non-officials, refused to recognize Israel’s right to exist and did not see any solution that involved Israel being here. So when I immigrated in 1978, I dove into working for equality between the Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel. We used to call these activities “coexistence” until we began to understand that coexistence also exists between a donkey and a person riding on its back.
I lived and volunteered as a community organizer in Kafr Kara in Wadi Ara for two years. I then became the first civil servant in Israel whose responsibility it was to build peaceful coexistence between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs (as we called them then). In the Education Ministry, I worked toward the establishment of a department for coexistence and democracy education, which was created by former education minister Yitzhak Navon. I established and for seven years directed the Institute for Education for Jewish Arab Coexistence, which was attached to the Prime Minister’s Office and the Education Ministry.
IN 1988, at the age of 32, after the breakout of the First Intifada, I transitioned to working cross-boundary on the two-state solution. I have always believed that even if we managed to create greater equality between the Jewish and Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, as long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict exists, the Palestinian citizens of Israel would always be suspect in the eyes of the state and many of its Jewish citizens, and the Palestinian citizens of Israel would always identify with their people, Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. This sentiment was best expressed by MK Abed el Aziz Zouabi who served in the Knesset from 1966 until 1974. When he was the deputy health minister, he said, “My dilemma is that my people is in a state of war with my country.”
Israel does not appear to be closer to peace with the Palestinian people now than when I first came here as a new immigrant in 1978. There has been great improvement in the lives of the Palestinian citizens of Israel since I lived in Kafr Kara from 1979-1981. But the sense of alienation among them and the intensity of racism against them, particularly in the decade under the Netanyahu regime, have grown.
The Palestinian citizens of Israel have made great achievements against great odds. It is true that their situation is much better than that of the Arabs of Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, but those are not relevant comparisons.
They are citizens of the State of Israel, not Syria, Iraq, Yemen or Libya. And no one has the ability to claim that they are equal citizens in the State of Israel.
The gaps that exist between the Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel cannot be explained by different starting points. Israel is more than 70 years old and there are absolutely no excuses to explain away the discrimination that exists.
The discrimination that exists in Israel is systemic and ideological. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel NGO has documented the laws that discriminate, and Adalah-The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel has published the Discriminatory Law Database.
This is not interpretation or polemics, this is fact. The recently passed Nation-State Law ended the façade that Israel is a state based on the pillar of equality for all of its citizens as stated in its Declaration of Independence: “It will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
The new Nation-State Law is not merely symbolic and changes nothing, as some people claim. The new law solidifies Israel as a state with a large minority that has formally erased the illusion or the dream of equality.
The Netanyahu regime is not here forever. When it finally disappears from this world, the first order of business will be to undo this law and to work on reconstituting Israel as a the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people and all of its citizens based on a truly shared society made up of its Jewish and its non-Jewish, mostly Palestinian, citizens. The Jewishness of Israel will then be measured by Israel’s moral values, which “will be based on precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught by the Hebrew prophets” (as the founders wrote in the Declaration of Independence).
The writer is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and her neighbors. His latest book, In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine, was published by Vanderbilt University Press.