Jerusalem Takes a Fresh Look at Maligned Vision for Arab Equality

By Orly Halpern

Published March 02, 2007, issue of March 02, 2007.
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Jerusalem - After an initial barrage of hostile comments from a broad spectrum of Israeli Jews, the so-called Future Vision document on Arab-Jewish relations in Israel — prepared by a group of top Israeli-Arab public figures — is quietly getting a closer look from some of the Jewish state’s leading institutions.

A senior official in the Prime Minister’s Office acknowledged to the Forward this week that he has met privately with a key drafter of the document and that more meetings are planned in the weeks ahead. “Did we read it? Yes. Does it interest us? Yes. What do we think of it? We can’t say,” said Ehud Praver, director of the prime minister’s policy planning bureau.

The drafter, Arab sociologist Aziz Haidar, said that aides to the prime minister had promised to begin implementing the document’s program for economic equality between Arab and Jewish Israelis “within days” after a follow-up meeting where details are to be discussed.

Separately, Israel’s minister of education participated two weeks ago in a forum on the document’s educational vision, organized by the Jewish-Arab civil rights group Sikkuy. The minister, Yuli Tamir, agreed to support efforts to change the curriculum in Israeli Arab schools, but urged caution in order to avoid stirring unnecessary opposition, according to a transcript posted on the Sikkuy Web site. Future Vision drafters speak of an Arab school curriculum that reflects the traditions and “narrative” of the Arab community, rather than one “prepared for us by the Shin Bet security service.”

The Future Vision document, spearheaded by the Council of Arab Local Authority Heads, calls for changes in the existing structure of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state in order to give greater equality to the Arab minority. The drafters, a group of 38 Arab Israeli scholars and activists from an array of institutions, say Israel’s current structure has failed to give Arab Israelis the equality promised in Israel’s declaration of independence.

Among other things, the document calls for increased economic opportunity in Arab communities, as well as equalization of government funding in educational, municipal and social services. The document also calls for constitutional changes to give Israeli Arabs a collective voice in governing structures. Most controversial, the document questions such state symbols as the flag and the national anthem, which it says exclude Arab citizens from identification with the state.

When first published in December, the document prompted a deluge of criticism from Jewish Israelis across the political spectrum. Critics said the document was tantamount to a call for Arabs to separate from the Jewish state. Liberal columnist Uzi Benziman of the daily Ha’aretz called it a “declaration of war” on Israel and Zionism. Spokesmen for the Israel Democracy Institute, a liberal think tank that plays a lead role in discussions of Israeli governance and constitutional matters, issued a string of unflattering comments.

“It’s a non-Zionist statement, which negates the Zionist idea and the connection between the Jewish people and Israel,” said Amir Avramovitz, director of the democracy institute’s constitutional project, in an interview with the Forward. “I don’t see in their document any basis for discussion.”

Future Vision drafters expressed disappointment with the responses they have received from Israeli Jews. Most criticism, they complained, has focused on a small portion of the document dealing with symbolic issues, such as the flag and the anthem, which are not essential to the document’s overall thrust. They say the critics have overlooked the document’s complexities, including its elements of self-criticism directed at the Arab community. Most disappointing, they said, the drafters’ calls for dialogue and flexibility have been ignored.

“We say we are Arab citizens of Israel and we want to continue to be Arab citizens in Israel but with equal rights,” said sociologist Haidar, a senior researcher at Jerusalem’s Van Leer Institute and at the Truman Center of Hebrew University. “We say Israel should be a consensual democracy — is that ‘separation’?”

Critics, Haidar said, “always say there is no partner among the Arabs — without reading the details.”

Organizers complain, too, that some of their strongest critics have come from Israeli liberals, traditionally their main allies in struggles for equality. “Our problem is with the left, not the right,” Haidar said.

Nonetheless, despite initial fear and criticism, more and more Israelis, both in academic circles and on a small unofficial basis, are inviting the Future Vision members to give talks to describe what it is they want.

Since its release two months ago, meetings and seminars have been organized to discuss the document at the Floersheimer Institute, Haifa University, the hawkish Herzliya Conference, the establishment-oriented Ben Zvi Institute and the liberal-leaning Van Leer Institute. The left-wing Meretz party held an internal discussion on the document. Next month, Ben-Gurion University and the kibbutz-linked Givat Haviva Institute will hold conferences on it.

Interest abroad has increased, as well. The initiator of the Future Vision project, Shawki Khatib, who chairs both the Arab local council heads and the semiofficial Higher Follow-Up Committee of the Arab Citizens of Israel, is currently traveling in America, meeting with Jewish organizations and community leaders. His trip comes just weeks after a similar tour by one of the lead drafters, Haifa University legal scholar Yusuf Jabareen, who flew to New York to participate in a symposium of the Israel Democracy Institute. (The IDI continues to insist that the Vision should not be discussed; but spokesman Avramovitz said Jabareen had been invited to talk about legal issues in the Arab community.) Haidar has been invited to participate in another conference in New York in October.

In addition, key private meetings have been held, including the meetings with the education minister and the prime minister’s policy planning director.

Tamir, the education minister, expressed support for many of the Vision’s overall goals, but urged caution in proceeding. “It is necessary to act with wisdom and not in defiance, because the [Jewish] population’s attitude on this subject is different from the one in this room,” she said, according to the transcript. “The question is how much can each side accept the narrative of the other.”

A conversation was also held between Khatib, the project initiator, and Arye Carmon, head of the IDI, which is viewed as a key player because of its role in drafting Israel’s future constitution. But Haidar said further meetings with the democracy institute were on hold because of Arab anger over the institute’s public stance.

Still, Haidar said, “we have achieved out first goal: opening a dialogue. No one ever spoke to us about the nature of Israel, about our problems, about the relations between Jews and Arabs. We say that for 60, years the dialogue about us was between Arabists [academics and government advisers specializing in Middle Eastern Studies] and the Shin Bet — but not between the Arabs and Jews.”

Members of the Future Vision project included representatives from a wide array of Israeli Arab factions, including Christians and Muslims, communists and Islamists, academics, professionals and political activists. The document, developed over a year and a half of deliberation, addressed eight different subjects, ranging from relations between Arabs’ legal status and political rights to land and housing, economic development, social services, education and community institutions. The published document is a summary of the longer papers that will be released in a book later this year by the group.

Since publication, the document has drawn not only criticism but also praise and even offers of funding for the group’s plans — “more than we know what to do with,” Haidar said.

“Last week we held a meeting of the whole group in Jerusalem,” Haidar said. “We all felt a sense of pride, but also of deep responsibility — this is not something we can just toss away now.”

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