How The Other 20 Percent Lives


F lag Season is the time in the spring when Israelis remember victims of the Holocaust and military battles and terror attacks by standing in silence while sirens wail around the country.

For the vast majority of Israeli Jews, it’s a time of somber remembrance and national pride, flags, and barbecues in the park. A period of reflection cushioned by the reality of having a Jewish homeland.

For Israel’s Arab citizens, who comprise 20 percent of the country’s population of more than 7 million, Flag Season is complicated. While they are full-fledged Israeli citizens, study the Holocaust and understand why their Jewish compatriots celebrate their country’s birth, they don’t share the joy.

For them and their Palestinian brethren in the diaspora, Israeli Independence Day is the Nakba (Catastrophe) — a reminder of their defeat, their humiliation and their displacement.

Yossef Mtanes, an 82-year-old Israeli Arab who was honored during the opening ceremony of Israel’s 62nd Independence Day Celebrations, is the personification of this paradox. Mtanes, a Maronite Catholic from the village of Biram, which Israeli forces destroyed during the Independence war, hid six of his Jewish co-workers during an Arab riot in November 1947.

In an interview with Catholic News Service, Mtanes said agreeing to light a torch during the official opening for Independence Day presented him with a huge dilemma.

“I want to emphasize that it was not an easy decision to take, it was not comfortable. It is not easy for me and the people of Biram. But I know it is a private honor for me personally and out of respect for me, for something I did before the establishment of the state.”

Mtanes said he never hesitated to help his Jewish co-workers.

“What else could I have done? These were innocent people who had nothing to do with the violence going on outside. I am very proud that they have remembered me after 63 years and want to [show their respect] for me,” Mtanes said.

For me, the most interesting part of the interview was Mtanes’ acknowledgement that Arabs in Israel enjoy a better quality of life than Arabs in almost all Arab countries, but that they measure their communal strides against the strides of Jewish Israelis.

“I live in this country and it does help us with social rights such as health insurance and national social security. I see on television how Arabs in Arab countries live, and we here have a higher quality of life, but still it is difficult … still there are things which can be improved,” Mtanes said.

Despite having equal rights under Israeli law, Arab communities receive less government funding than Jewish communities. Their roads, if they are paved at all, are potholed; their schools tend to be in poor condition and woefully overcrowded. Because the government rarely allocates money for industrial zones in the Arab sector, unemployment is high.

Israeli Arabs say the country under-serves their community, and also underestimates its value.

Government statistics show that more than 45 percent of all Arab families live at or below the poverty line, compared to 15 percent of Jewish families. Only 18 percent of Arab women (compared to 55 percent of Jewish women) earn a livelihood, partly because they have many children and also due to social taboos. The majority of Arab men are employed in jobs that do not require a college education.

But that’s not the whole story. More Arabs than ever before, especially from the north of the country, are attending Israeli universities and studying for higher degrees. Israeli hospitals are filled with Arab health care professionals, including large numbers of physicians. Walk into any pharmacy anywhere in Israel, and chances are the pharmacist is an Arab.

Yet even with advanced degrees, Arab graduates frequently hit a brick wall. Often, Jewish employers will hire only veterans of the Israeli Defense Forces, putting Arabs, who are exempt from military service, at a severe disadvantage. Screening exams, which are language- and culture-sensitive can be another obstacle.

Many employers won’t even hire the tiny number of Arabs who perform National Service, which is an accepted alternative to the IDF.

Kav Mashve, the Employer’s Coalition for Equality for Arab University Graduates, proved there is widespread discrimination when, as an experiment, the group sent out resumes — half of them from Jewish candidates, the other half from Arabs with equal credentials. Only the Jewish candidates were contacted.

There are three major issues that frustrate Israeli Arabs,” Riad Kabha, co-director of the Givat Haviva coexistence center told me. First, there is no comprehensive government development plan for Arab municipalities and it’s extremely difficult to receive a building permit; second, there is no industrial infrastructure, so Arabs leave home in the morning, go to the Jewish sector, and return home at night, “as if home were a hotel”; and third, there is a high rate of unemployment for academics.

Kabha says his community has a great deal to contribute to society and the economy, but that this potential goes untapped. Motivated and hard working, Arab Israelis are nonetheless excluded from many jobs, especially in the government, where they could most make a difference.

He blames both Israeli Arab leaders and the Israeli government for the Arab sector’s ever-growing frustration.

Whether this frustration will turn to armed struggle remains to be seen. “We don’t see any pockets of resistance, any political upheaval taking place in the streets, and we’re not far away from commemorating the 10th anniversary of the intifada,” Professor Eli Rekhess, Israel’s foremost expert on Israeli Arabs, told me from Northwestern University, where he is currently teaching.

“But this quiet could be misleading because there is a sense of government neglect. If it goes on, it will eventually lead to some sort of explosion.”

Although the majority of Israel’s Arabs are loyal to the state, Rekhess said, “the potential for deterioration is there.” He noted that Jewish-Arab relations have been tense during the past decade, because both Jews and devout Muslims on the far right have become more radical. A significant number of Jews view Arabs as potential enemies within — a notion reinforced by large-scale rioting at the start of the second intifada.

Some Israeli Muslim clerics, meanwhile, are insisting that Jews never lived in Jerusalem, and that Israel has no right to exist, and their following is growing. A few Israeli Arabs have driven West Bank terrorists to points in Israel, where the terrorists attacked civilians.

Rekhess says the government’s recently announced an 800 million shekel ($200 million) commitment to the Arab sector “is a drop in the ocean” after decades of neglect, but that it’s a step in the right direction.

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