What do Israel’s minority citizens want? That was the question I attempted to begin to answer with my annual MEPIN/Keshet seminar group, assessing the challenges and progress of Israel’s 20% minority population, consisting of Arab Muslims, Arab Christians, Aramaic Maronites, Druze and Beduin.
We visited and met with academics and school children, Israeli government officials and Arab mayors, Arab colleges, a leading demographer, teachers and human rights organizations, and that was just the tip of the iceberg. Today’s Israeli Arabs self-identify as Palestinian Israelis, or more precisely as Palestinian Citizens of Israel (PCI).
To deny that PCIs have faced discrimination in allocation of government funding, infrastructure, and employment opportunities would be to deny reality.
As Yossi Klein Halevi told us, “Palestinian Israelis have a profound sense of dislocation, humiliation, and grievance going back to 1948.
Palestinian Israelis are conflicted, as the country they reside in is at war” with their brothers over the Green Line.
I had thought that the concerns of PCIs were eminently more solvable than those of their Arab brothers living over the Green Line in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A recent poll of PCIs did favor a two-state solution, but here the semantics really matter as a window into the perspective of PCIs. For Palestinian Israelis, “two states” means one Palestinian state in the West Bank with no Jewish citizens, and the current State of Israel as a non-Jewish state for Arabs and Jews.
PCIs I met on this visit said Israel would never be a democracy until Israel ends the Jewish nature of the state and the Jewish right of return for Jews living in the Diaspora.
Yet paradoxically, recent polls of PCIs showed that over 50% are proud to be Israeli. So how do you unpackage these contradictory facts? I was expecting to find an Arab populace that saw a future for themselves in a Jewish state, and that despite the current economic inequalities, if the gaps continue to narrow, there would be an appreciation and acceptance of living in the only democratic state in the Middle East, imperfect as it for its minority citizens at this time.
When I asked Palestinian Israelis, if all the economic inequities were magically erased, would they then accept living in a Jewish state accepting the responsibilities of minority citizens? None said yes.
The narrative of too many well-meaning Jewish organizations and rabbis, who tell their members that PCIs just need economic equality and will then see themselves as being full partners of a Jewish state, may be far from the truth.
While the world’s focus has been on the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the assumption has been that dealing with the needs of Arab citizens of Israel would be eminently easier. After all, Israel’s minority citizens, despite the economic inequalities, have freedom of speech, religion and the press, access to the Supreme Court, 15 Muslim Knesset members, and are freer than any other Arab citizens in the region.
Through Western eyes, economic advancement is the key issue to solve to have, if not loyal citizens of a Jewish state, ones who comfortably accept living as a minority in a Jewish state.
What I learned troubled me. With the exception of the Druze and the Christian Aramaic communities, Palestinian Israelis today do not believe Israel can ever be a democracy unless it ceases to be a Jewish state, in essence a binational state. Too many PCIs believe Judaism is only a religion, not a legitimate national movement of a people entitled to a national home. Zionism to them is racism. Compared to 15 years ago, my impression is that today’s Palestinian Israelis have become more strident as their identity has become more Palestinian.
Even if Israeli Arabs were to become economically equal to Jewish citizens, it will never be enough to satisfy their basic demands, namely the dismantlement of the Jewish nature of the state; until then they are unwilling to accept the responsibilities of full citizens.
Palestinian Israelis complain about job discrimination because employers favor Israelis who serve in the military.
But when presented with the option of compulsory non-military civil service to match fellow Jewish citizens, evening the playing field for employment opportunities, they overwhelmingly rejected that option. There was almost no acknowledgment that they too have responsibilities as Israeli citizens and they were uninterested in meeting the Jewish majority halfway, as they see the problems as primarily ones of Jewish discrimination.
The narrative of the Palestinian Israeli is that the Jews are racist, while the Palestinians are a people who have suffered the indignity of the being displaced by the interloping Jews, with the underlying conviction being that Jews have no right to be anywhere from the Mediterranean to the Jordan river Valley.
So where do we go from here? ALTHOUGH ISRAEL has not fulfilled all its obligations to its minority citizens over the years, under the current coalition government more has been done, and more funds have been committed to the minority population than ever before. Arab mayors I met with, who are no fans of this Israeli government, readily admit that the current government has begun to narrow the gaps of economic inequality with more balanced funding for infrastructure and education.
But the challenge of the PCI education system goes way beyond funding. Too many Palestinian Israeli schools willingly choose self-segregation.
The Israeli educational system, which funds at least four different school systems, allows for self-imposed segregation.
While Jewish secular schools seem willing to partner for co-existence projects, PCI schools prefer to isolate themselves as there is little desire to interact with Jewish students in a shared educational experience, undermining the Western perspective that integration of minority communities with the majority population will lead to better co-existence. It is no wonder that when well-qualified Palestinian Israeli graduates apply to jobs with Jewish employers, both groups eye one another with suspicion.
There are exceptions, like the Hand-in-Hand schools where Israeli and Arab students learn together in a 50:50 setting. Unfortunately in a nation that is 80% Jewish and 20% Arab, this model would need to be adapted to acknowledge the demographic reality. The problem still is, do PCI parents in large numbers want their children segregated, or to be a minority in majority Jewish classrooms? With regard to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, we often say that the maximum Israel can offer the Palestinians will never meet the minimum requirements the Palestinians of the West Bank can accept to resolve the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.
We now also need to ask ourselves a similar question about the Palestinian Israelis.
Suppose that the maximum Israel can offer Palestinian Israelis – full rights, recognition of their Arab identity, and economic empowerment, while simultaneously accepting the responsibilities of living as minority citizens in a Jewish state – doesn’t meet the minimum PCIs can accept, namely the eradication of the Jewish nature of the State of Israel? Yossi Klein Halevi told us, “We need a serious conversation about rights and responsibilities between Arabs and Jews.” His new book Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor begins to address these difficult conversations, which he says will make both the Left and the Right uncomfortable.
There is plenty Israel needs to do to for its PCIs. Israel has recently stepped up and now 20% of the relevant budget goes to Arab communities, and 40% goes for transportation in Arab communities.
Israel should set up programs to teach Arabic in its Jewish schools, for both inclusiveness and security.
But until the PCIs realize that they too have responsibilities as minority citizens of the state, progress will be slow. Educational opportunities are key for advancement, and even in the poorer sectors, such as the Beduin, real progress and even innovation are occurring in this regard.
Israeli Arab Christians matriculate to university at a higher rate than Jewish Israelis.
An accomplished Muslim Arab judge in Israel told us that to succeed as a Palestinian Israeli you must be the best of the best. Yet he acknowledged that part of the reason is that Arab university graduates are disadvantaged because they do not join the military or have compulsory civil service. His words should be taken to heart by the PCIs.
This is a key to solving so many of their complaints, but the Palestinian Israelis have chosen to throw away the key rather than unlocking the door to addressing economic inequality. They must get past blaming the Jewish state for all of their problems.
You can’t complain you aren’t getting your fare share when you refuse to do compulsory civil service to match the time young Jewish citizens give to the nation.
There are certainly individual exceptions and whole fields with full equality, especially in medicine. The catch 22 is that Arabs want what Israelis have materially and educationally, but do not want to become full citizens if that requires living in a Jewish state.
Even in the truly innovative educational situations I witnessed in Arab education that lead to improved Arab educational advancement, the goal is to strengthen Arab society, not to co-exist or find their place with a Jewish majority.
This is a counterproductive and a shortsighted strategy that will perpetuate Arab disenfranchisement.
Arab economic disenfranchisement will also not improve until the misogyny in Arab society subsides, letting the majority of Arab women work, so that their socio-economic status won’t continue to stagnate.
The Palestinian Israeli narrative is similar to that of their Palestinian brethren over the Green Line, seeing the Jewish presence as the cause of all of their troubles. A people needs a shared vision that is more than the dream of the destruction of the other, and the lamentation of tragedies that have befallen them.
Palestinian Israelis refuse to acknowledge the dilemma they put Jewish Israelis in when they choose to align themselves with the enemies of the Jewish state. Although they are a minority within Jewish Israel majority, they are also aligned with the majority of Arabs and Muslims that surround Israel and threaten its existence.
The harshly critical human rights organization Adalah told us Israel couldn’t be a Jewish and democratic state.
It says PCIs cannot be protected as Palestinian Israelis if there is Jewish privilege, and until the Jewish Law of Return is ended. If PCIs continue to embrace this Adalah narrative, it’s a sure path to perpetual conflict.
Hopefully Palestinian citizens of Israel will choose a better and wiser path by embracing educational opportunities that include co-existence, accept full non-military civil service post high school, and accept the responsibilities of being a minority population in a majority Jewish state.
There is a way forward, but it is a two-way street.
The writer is director of MEPIN™, the Middle East Political and Information Network™. He regularly briefs members of Congress and think tanks on the Middle East. He is a regular contributor to The Jerusalem Post.