Whenever I want to have a sense of what’s going on with Israeli Arabs, I take a ride with Zachariah, my favorite taxi driver.
Zachariah lives in Beit Nakuba, a village on the main road to Jerusalem. In 1948 his parents made a strategic decision not to fight the Jews. It was a decision they never regretted. While other villagers fled and became refugees, Zachariah’s folks stayed and became citizens of the State of Israel.
Today, the village is prospering, and it seems to me that Zachariah is quite happy with his lot. He always says “we,” referring to all Israelis, Jewish and Arab alike, and he is proud of the Israeli democracy. He told me that if and when a Palestinian state is established, neither he nor any Israeli Arab he knows would even think about moving there. All in all, he is quite a jolly, optimistic fellow.
Sometimes, however, the stories he tells me are not so amusing. When he took me to the airport last month, he told me with a smile that earlier that day he had a Hasidic passenger who had just arrived from New York. Because of Zachariah’s name and his lack of any distinct Arabic accent, the passenger was sure that he was Jewish. Therefore he stretched in the back of the car and said amicably: “You know why I like traveling with your taxi company? Because you guys don’t employ Arabs.”
Zachariah looked at him in the mirror and said, “Except for one. Me.”
It took us Jews generations to have a state of our own so that nobody would be able to talk to us, or at us, the way this passenger talked. And when we live in other countries, we raise hell at the slightest incident of discrimination against Jews, let alone open antisemitism. Yet we seem to see the splinter in other’s eyes, but not the beam in our own. What kind of credibility can we generate by decrying wrongs done to us, when we do the same to others?
During a recent trip to the United States, I went to see Irwin Green, formerly from Detroit, now living in Boca Raton, Fla. Green is in his late 80s and he doesn’t hear well, but his mind is as sharp as ever. He has given generously to build a soccer stadium in Nazareth so that Jewish and Arab kids can play together.
I told him about the work the Israel Democracy Institute is doing among high-school students in Israel, including Arabs, to promote the idea of a constitution. A constitution, I told Green, would enhance equality between Arabs and Jews. He didn’t disagree, but he was clearly impatient. “A constitution will take time,” he said. “But there is so much we need to do right away.”
How right he was. On the flight back home the Israeli newspapers threw in my face the varied and complex Arab-Jewish realities in Israel. One article reported on the nomination of Oscar Abu-Razek as the first Arab director general of the Interior Ministry. Another reported on an Israeli Arab being prosecuted for assisting a Palestinian terrorist.
Yet another article told of Adel and Imen Kaadan, an Arab couple from the Arab town of Baka Al-Gharbiya who succeeded — after 10 years of trying and finally appealing to the Supreme Court — in getting a permit to build a home in the nearby, newly incorporated Jewish village of Katzir. I presume they would rather live in a modern Arab village, but it was only recently that Israel’s housing minister announced plans to build one.
The sports pages, meanwhile, reported on the heroics of Abbas Suan, an Arab-Israeli soccer player from the township of Sakhnin. The Israeli national team was minutes away from losing its World Cup qualifier match to Ireland when Suan evened up the score with a dramatic goal.
Days later, Suan would be booed when his club team, Bnei Sakhnin, played against Betar Jerusalem. For Betar’s mostly right-wing fans, Suan’s lifting of Israel from the clutches of defeat on the soccer field apparently didn’t count for much. After all, he was still an Arab.
In Israel’s next World Cup match, another Israeli Arab player, Walid Badir, repeated Suan’s heroics, putting in the tying goal with time running out. Equaling the score in soccer games, it sometimes seems, is the closest that Arabs can get to equality in Israel. But as Irwin Green says, it’s up to us to do something about it.
Uri Dromi, director of international outreach at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem, was chief spokesman for the Israeli government under prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.