Clear-Cut Racism or Complicated Relationship?

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Grave concerns have arisen lately that racism is on the rise in Israel today. Are the ostensibly anti-Arab bills under consideration by the Knesset, the “Rabbis’ Letter” that forbids the sale of real estate to non-Jews, and the findings of the 2010 Israeli Democracy Index clear-cut indicators of racism? Or are more complex factors at play? IDI Research Fellow Yair Sheleg shares his view, along with some operative suggestions for improving the relationship between Jews and Arabs in Israel today.

The values of Israeli democracy have been under sustained attack recently, especially with regard to Israel's Arab minority. According to the 2010 Israeli Democracy Index, recently published by the Israel Democracy Institute, 62% of Jewish Israelis who define themselves as supporters of the Right and 29% of supporters of the Left (!), oppose equal rights for Arabs and Jews. In the Knesset, a number of bills have been proposed that seem to express discrimination against the Arab public. The most frequently cited example of such legislation is the ongoing extension of the Law of Citizenship and Entry into Israel—a temporary order originally enacted in 2003. This law prevents residents of the West Bank and Gaza who marry Israeli Arabs from receiving Israeli citizenship or residency permits, in contrast to spouses of Jewish citizens of Israel, who are entitled to receive Israeli citizenship immediately, even if they are not Jewish themselves.

Beyond this, there are additional legislative initiatives that are not intended explicitly to discriminate against the Arab populace, but are understood that way. These include a bill that would require anyone who wishes to become a citizen of Israel to pledge loyalty to the Jewish and democratic state, an initiative to revoke the citizenship of anyone who is convicted of terrorist activities or espionage, and a bill that would allow admissions committees of small communal villages to reject candidates if the applicants are deemed socially, nationally, or otherwise incompatible with the other residents of the community. If these initiatives are not enough, in a recent letter, several dozen rabbis asserted that there is a religious prohibition against selling or renting real estate in Israel to non-Jews.

The anger elicited by these initiatives should not exempt us from seriously examining their contents and underlying motivation. This kind of analysis will reveal, for example, that with the exception of the rabbis' letter, all these initiatives and positions do not seek to harm Arabs because they have a different national-religious identity; rather, they originate in the national conflict between Jews and Arabs that has been going on in Israel for years. It is not racism that underlies these initiatives, but fear: the Jewish majority's fear of losing its dominance due to demographic changes, or the fear that it experiences by virtue of being a minority in an Arab-Muslim region.

During the last decade, the Arab public itself has played a role in feeding these fears. Israel's Arab population embarked on a struggle not only for equal rights but also against Israel's identity as the State of the Jewish people—a struggle that the Jewish public rightly perceived not only in its cultural context, but also as having extremely significant existential-security implications. Moreover, during the last decade, quite a few members of the Arab public joined the violent struggle against Israel. This refers not only to a handful of terrorists who were convicted of criminal activities, or to several well-known leaders, such as Sheik Raed Salah or Knesset MKs such as Azmi Bishara or Haneen Zoubi, but also to a large number of Israeli Arabs who took to the streets in October 2000, concurrent with the beginning of the second Palestinian intifada, in order to harm Jews. The result was tragic for the Arab community itself. Our dismay at the outcome, however, must not cause us to forget its cause: the fact that members of Israel's Arab community joined their Palestinian brothers in a violent struggle against Israel.

Despite the above, we must firmly reject the anti-Arab positions expressed in the Israeli Democracy Index and in the rabbis' letter, since an enlightened society, which fosters human dignity, must restrain itself even when facing a difficult national conflict. Just as the legitimate demographic concern about the possibility of losing the Jewish majority would not make it legitimate to suggest sterilizing Arab women or limiting the number of children that they may bear, so too legitimate security concerns do not make it legitimate to infringe the basic rights of equality of Arab Israelis, including their right to buy and rent homes. The goal of preserving the Jewish character of the State of Israel must be achieved through positive means, such as encouraging Jewish immigration and encouraging Jewish birth, not by negative measures, such as discrimination against Israel's Arab population.

From this analysis, it is also clear that while the anti-Arab attitudes that are reported in the Israeli Democracy Index and are evident in the rabbis' letter must be rejected, a different and more complex approach to the Knesset's recent legislative initiatives concerning Israeli Arabs is necessary. Not only are none of these initiatives "racist," but some of them are legitimate and justified. For example, the bill that is intended to allow small communal villages to be selective regarding applicants for membership has legitimacy (in contrast to similar restrictions in cities or other kinds of towns, which clearly must be opposed), since these communal villages, with their unique social and economic structure, are by definition intended to enable communal living in relatively homogeneous groups. While I myself am not fond of communities that define themselves as exclusively religious or secular, it would be wrong for the state to legally prohibit people from organizing themselves in such groups—as long as it allows members of other kinds of groups, including Arabs, to organize themselves in their own communities as well.

The bill designed to revoke the citizenship of anyone convicted of terrorist activities or of espionage against the state is similarly not a racist law, and is also justified. This bill does not indicate that it refers only to Arabs. Moreover, any country that faces the degree of threat that confronts Israel most definitely should be able to impose the harsh sanction of revoking citizenship on anyone who commits an act of serious violence against the state. Civil rights, in contrast to human rights, should not be considered natural rights. It is certainly justified to revoke the civil rights of people who have performed acts of serious violence against their own country—whether they are Jewish or Arab.

The rabbis' letter is worse than all of the other examples above. This letter calls for preventing the sale and rental of apartments not only to Arabs but to all non-Jews, which includes migrant workers, refugees, etc. As such, the ruling presented in this letter is not motivated by demographic or security concerns, but rather by a deeper concern, which has been imprinted in the Jewish people throughout history: the fear of assimilation. This ruling, unfortunately, does indeed fit the definition of "racism." An important distinction must be made here: the fear of assimilation itself is not racist. It is permissible for a community to teach its children to limit marriage to within the community in order to preserve their tradition. But there is a big difference between educating children against intermarriage and making it illegal for Jews to marry people who are not Jewish. Just as a bill of that nature, were it ever proposed, would be defined as racist, so too legislation that forbids non-Jews from buying or renting property—as well as religious rulings doing the same—should not be accepted.

It is clear from the examples cited above that Jewish-Arab relations need intensive rehabilitation, and that it is not enough to simply reject discriminatory initiatives. Accordingly, following are some suggestions for improving relations between these two populations:

  • The fundamental mistake: The principle of political and civil equality between citizens that was affirmed by the Declaration of Independence is subject to ongoing damage in Israel today. At the same time, there are Arab communities that Israeli law enforcement agents refrain from entering due to fear. What is needed is just the opposite: An iron fist should be used against the violent, radical minority among Israeli Arabs, while the "silent majority" should be nurtured.
  • The term "Jewish and democratic state" is unnecessarily alienating to Israeli Arabs, because they understand it as defining Israel as a state that seeks to ensure the Jewish character of the state by damaging the civil rights of its Arab residents. Therefore, whenever this term appears in Israeli law, it is important to define its meaning explicitly, within the spirit of the Declaration of Independence: Israel is the national homeland of the Jewish people (and therefore its symbols and the content of its national culture are  Jewish in nature), but has a parallel commitment to ensuring equal rights for all citizens. A survey conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute three years ago found that a proposed constitution that contained an explicit formulation of this nature would be supported by 75% (!) of Israeli Arabs.
  • A key factor in the mutual hostility between Jews and Arabs is a lack of familiarity: members of the two groups rarely meet, and in the occasional encounters that take place between them, the Arabs are usually providing the Jews with services. Thus there is a vital need to create a national program that will generate encounters between these populations. This program should encourage the development of joint educational frameworks, promote encounters between members of all age groups and social strata, and establish a new symbolic day on the annual Israeli calendar—"Citizen's Day," which will stand alongside Israeli Independence Day (which is a day of celebration for Jews and of sadness for Arabs) and emphasize the things that all Israeli citizens have in common.
  • The foolish policy that has been adopted by all governments of Israel by which Arab parties are ruled out as potential coalition partners must be abandoned. Disqualifying Arab parties from participating in the government seems to be the central catalyst for the political extremism of Israeli Arabs, for if Israeli Arabs cannot integrate into the accepted political game, there is no incentive for them to moderate their positions. The Arab public should be informed that their parties will be invited to participate in coalition negotiations just like all other parties, and the results of the negotiations will be determined by the party's ability to reach common ground with the parties that will be forming the government. It is likely that a scenario like this will spur Israeli Arabs to establish new political organizations that will emphasize protection of the rights of Israeli Arabs, rather than support for the Palestinian struggle against Israel, and will therefore be acceptable candidates for participation in the government.

Even if most of the responsibility for fostering relations between Jews and Arabs naturally rests on the leaders of the Jewish majority, it is impossible to exempt Arab leaders from responsibility completely. Those Arab leaders who think that the escalation between Jews and Arabs serves the interest of their public and who hope that the international community will help them force Israel to abandon its Jewish identity, or even to establish autonomous Arab entities in the Galilee and the Negev, should recall the lessons of history: During both the War of Independence (the great Nakba) and the events of October 2000 (the little Nakba), extreme positions eventually led to a boomerang effect, and brought disaster to the Arab public. Moderation, therefore, is essential on the Arab side as well as on the Jewish side. 

Yair Sheleg is a Research Fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, where he is part of the "Religion and State" research team. A noted columnist and commentator, he is the author of The Jewish Renaissance in Israeli Society: The Emergence of a New Jew (IDI Press: 2010).

An expanded version of the ideas in this article can be found in the Hebrew article "Rabbis, Be Careful What You Say" on the IDI website.