Israeli Arabs Try New Strategy for Rights

By Ethan Porter

Published June 25, 2004, issue of June 25, 2004.
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A group of Arab-Israeli human rights activists have spent the last month in America meeting with Jewish groups and government officials in order to agitate for the improvement of the unequal status of Arab citizens in Israeli society.

The group, a delegation from the Mossawa Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens (Mossawa means “equality” in Arabic), has met with representatives from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and Americans for Peace Now, as well as the State Department and the Council on Foreign Relations, in the hope that if Americans pay more attention to the problems facing Israeli Arabs, pressure will be brought to bear upon the Israeli government to correct them.

The trip is part of what Mossawa calls a “new strategy” on the part of Israel’s Arabs to assert their rights by nongovernmental outreach both in Israel and internationally.

“We don’t want to be isolated any more,” said Mossawa Director Jafar Farah. “Our rights were isolated because it was possible to isolate our community. We’re looking for outreach…. We’re looking for Jewish people to stand in the Jewish community in the United States against incitement, discrimination and hate speech.”

As Mossawa sees it, Israel’s Arab citizens face a host of challenges, chief among them a lack of financial parity with Jewish citizens as well as what Mossawa describes as growing racist incitement. Although Arabs constitute some 20% of the population, 40% of those below the poverty line are Arabs; Arab municipalities typically receive only a quarter as much funding from the government as Jewish municipalities do.

But the problems of the “Arab sector” cannot be remedied with a mere influx of funds, the group contended. What is needed is political support for actions that elevate the status of Arabs in society, as well as denunciations of the racist rhetoric that the group says has become commonplace. According to polling data published by the group, Jewish Israelis have become increasingly tolerant of racism against Arabs since the onset of the current intifada, which has come to be reflected in the rhetoric of rightist politicians. The group said its trip to America was prompted by Avigdor Lieberman’s call for the transfer of the majority of the Arab population, a proposal to which Nabila Espanioly, a member of the Mossawa delegation, responded: “We are not merchandise.” Espanioly said the reception of Lieberman’s rhetoric, and the lack of denunciation, showed that the idea of transfer has become “mainstream” in Israel. Espanioly said ideas such as “transfer” and blanket descriptions of Arabs referring to them as a “cancer” ought to be disquieting in light of the Jewish history of the last century. “Racism is racism is racism,” she said.

Farah said that the American Jewish community has the power to improve the situation, especially because American Jews provide financial backing to Israeli political parties — even to those parties that he said traffic in racism. In his opinion, the tide will turn against racism once Americans become aware of the situation in Israel. He spoke approvingly of an ADL statement against Israeli citizenship laws that have resulted in the breakup of thousands of Arab families, lauding the move as a positive sign that the group would like to see repeated and lead to “action.”

“We think the Jews living in America understand better than the Jews living in Israel what violation of minority civil rights means,” he said.

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