Israeli Social Cleavages: The Bad News (and what to do about it)



Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig

Schusterman Visiting Israeli Scholar, Brown University

If my previous post on Israeli (internal Jewish) social cleavages was decidedly upbeat, this one will provide ample counterpoint. The tensions between Israeli Jews and their Arab counterparts have steadily worsened over time. The recent Acre riots were merely an exclamation point on the thickening exclamation itself. True, there have been a few symbolic advances (Israel’s first ever Arab Minister in this government) but overall the news is unremittingly bad. Two questions need to be addressed: who is at fault? and what is to be done?

The first question is relatively easy to answer: EVERYONE has been at fault to a smaller or larger extent. Perhaps it would be best to start with the general situation: the State of Israel has been beset for 60 years by surrounding Arab enemy states, only some of whom have made peace (at least formally) with her. One would be hard put to come up with any world example of a similar situation in which the nation did not view their enemies’ local compatriots with at least suspicion if not outright hostility. Just consider what America did with its West Coast Japanese citizens during World War II to understand the problem.

Having said that, Israeli policy vis-a-vis its Arab citizens has been quite shortsighted — from the Jewish/Israeli standpoint. For if Israel has major defense problems with its external neighbors, the last thing it needs to do is increase the hostility of its internal Arab population! This is not to say that Israel should bend over backwards in some sort of “affirmative action” towards local Arabs, but at the least it should try to guarantee equal resource distribution among its Jewish and Arab citizenry, something that has been far from the case since the establishment of the state. Even when taking into account extra-governmental largesse (Jewish National Fund disbursements from world Jewry), the amount of government money budgeted for education, sewage, etc., in the local Arab municipalities is extremely low by any standard — not to mention the fact that the state has not seen fit to create and nurture even one new Arab-Israeli city for decades.

However, Israeli Arabs have been blameworthy too. For starters, they have only themselves to blame for their political powerlessness. Despite their constituting close to 20% of Israel’s population, their voting record in national elections has been abysmal from two perspectives: voting turnout is significantly lower than among the Jewish population; too many Arab parties split the vote, and as many tiny parties do not overcome the minimal voting threshhold (today 2% in Israel) large numbers of votes are wasted. In addition, the Israeli-Arab leadership seems to be hell-bent on outdoing one another in blasting the government (and worse; some delegitimize the state and even call for its destruction or at least de-Judaization). Little wonder, therefore, that no Israeli government has been willing to incorporate an Arab party within its governing coalition — continuing the vicioius cycle of political powerlessness.

What is to be done? The first step must come from the government: a willingness to build new Arab cities and enable legal building by expanding the zoning within Arab municipalities; an automatic indexing of equal resources disbursed to Jewish and Arab institutions alike. Such a policy must be carried out consistently over several years, at which point the Israeli-Arab sector must make its own conciliatory moves. One such might be the acceptance of an Arab “national (civil) service” whereby all Arab young adults would serve for two or three years in some form of non-military civic institution (e.g. hospital, fire department, local civil guard, schools etc.) in parallel to army service that most Israeli Jews undertake as a matter of civic obligation. At some point, one would also begin to find political pressure building from within the Arab sector for a “non-Zionist” (instead of anti-Zionist) party willing to cooperate with, and be part of, the ruling government. Finally, perhaps the most critical of all: the Arab sector would have to vociferously denounce any and all “secessionist” or otherwise anti-Jewish political activity on the part of individual citizens (who do not represent the broad Arab population) and certainly on the part of its leadership (see: Dr. Azmi Bashara…).

Of course, a final peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict would go a long way to ameliorating the mutual distrust of these two largest national population groups within Israel. But we need not wait for the Messiah to arrive. Plenty can be done without connection to what occurs outside of Israel’s borders.

Oct. 22, 2008

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