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Israeli Arabs want some attention

Yasmin, left, an Arab student wearing a birthday crown adorned with Arabic and Hebrew writing, sits with her Jewish friend Natalie, right, at the Biligual School in Jerusalem in a file photo. (Brian Hendler)

Yasmin, left, an Arab student wearing a birthday crown adorned with Arabic and Hebrew writing, sits with her Jewish friend Natalie, right, at the Biligual School in Jerusalem in a file photo. (Brian Hendler)

HAIFA, July 13 (JTA) — How can you tell that elections in Israel are approaching? Political interest in Israel’s Arab population is rising. Judging by the intensity the issue has received in recent weeks, stocks of the Arab constituency are all “buy.” In fact, primaries for the Labor Party chairmanship were postponed because of suspicions that many of the recently registered Arab members of the party indeed were bought. Some 30,000 of the 130,000 registered Labor members are Arabs, making them the party’s largest constituency. Is it because thousands Israeli Arabs have suddenly turned Zionist, or is it because each of the five candidates — Shimon Peres, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Ehud Barak, Matan Vilnai and Amir Peretz — is in desperate need of the Arab vote? Israel’s 1 million-plus Arabs are like problematic children hungry for attention, and suddenly the political arena is paying attention to them. The Knesset Law Committee heard last month from Justice Theodor Orr, chairman of the state inquiry commission that investigated the October 2000 riots, that the state had not done enough to implement the commission’s recommendations; far-right legislator Avigdor Lieberman came out with a campaign calling for “disengagement from the Arabs”; and various academic symposia are discussing how to upgrade the status of Israeli Arabs. Nearly five years ago, days after the Palestinian intifada began, Israeli Arabs took to the streets in the most violent riots since the establishment of the State of Israel. Now they enjoy temporary positive attention. The town of Sakhnin, where past clashes with security forces had ended in bloodshed in 1976 and 2000, now is the symbol of Arab-Jewish coexistence, mostly thanks to a successful soccer team. Interior Minister Ophir Pines-Paz has recently appointed an Arab, Oscar Abu-Rizek, as director general of his ministry. The Arabs yearn to be hugged, but who wants to hug them? That’s what one can conclude from a new report by Haifa University sociologist Sammy Smooha, who has been measuring Arab-Jewish attitudes in Israel since 1976. The bottom line of the report underlines Smooha’s findings over the years: Israel’s Arab citizens are much more motivated to be fully integrated into society than the Jewish population is willing to integrate them. But it also contains a very positive finding, disputing the common belief that radicalization of the Arab population is unavoidable as long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues. “Reality dictates coexistence, and the radicalization process is not mandatory,” Smooha said at a recent symposium at Haifa University discussing his findings. Smooha’s survey was conducted among 700 Jews and 700 Arabs. Some of his findings are surprising: • Most Arabs, nearly 71 percent, are willing to live in mixed neighborhoods with Jews. Only 34 percent of Jews agree. • Most Arabs, 73 percent, support mixed education, while 52 percent of Jews are opposed. • Fully 80 percent of Arabs would like for an Arab party to be included in a government coalition. Most Jews, nearly 58 percent, do not want Arabs to participate in the political executive branch. The bad news is that 48 percent of Arabs said they don’t trust Jews, and nearly 58 percent of Jews said they don’t trust Arabs — so much so that nearly 72 percent of Israeli Jews said they wouldn’t enter an Arab settlement in Israel. But Smooha says such figures were even higher in the past. Smooha has shown that both sides feel threatened by each other. Lieberman’s recent campaign for “disengagement from Umm el-Fahm,” an Israeli Arab city that is home to the fundamentalist Islamic Movement, has increased Arab fears of “transfer” or of a possible territorial exchange with a future Palestinian state. On the other hand, Israeli Arabs fail to understand that Jews feel threatened. “How can they feel threatened? They have an atomic bomb,” Smooha quoted Arab respondents as saying of Israelis. Some 53 percent of the Arabs declared that they feel “alien and rejected” in Israeli society, but 64 percent feel “proud in the country when it succeeds” — such as after a recent soccer match with Ireland where Israel managed tie thanks to a goal by an Arab player. One of the more interesting findings draws a distinction between a Jewish and a Zionist state. Whereas 70 percent of Arabs said they “support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish democratic state,” not even 14 percent support “a Jewish Zionist democratic state” — that is, one that accepts Jews who want to make aliyah. In other words, the Arabs are willing to accept Israel as is, but reject Zionism because it implies that Israel is not just a Jewish state but the state of all the Jews in the world. “The Arabs refer to Zionism as racism,” Smooha explained. Faisal Azaizeh, head of the Arab-Jewish Institute at Haifa University added, “The Arabs say, We have no problem with a humanistic Jewish state, but they also say, Don’t impose the Zionist project on us.” What are the political implications of the survey? “There is no doubt that the historic process is one of rapprochement. For the first time, the Arabs accept that the Palestinian ‘right of return’ should apply to the future Palestinian state only,” Smooha said. “In the 1970s, most Jews didn’t accept the notion of a Palestinian state, and now they do. Jews and Arabs alike are sobering up to realize that not only the other side is guilty.” But Smooha added that Israeli Jews needed to re-evaluate their own definitions of the state, since Arabs now number some 20 percent of the population. “Once the Arab proportion in the population reaches 25 percent, it will be difficult to maintain Israel as a Jewish national state,” Smooha said.

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