Why Israeli Arabs Are a Jewish Issue

By Kenneth Jacobson and Larry Garber

Published May 19, 2006, issue of May 19, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The leadership of several major American Jewish organizations recently established a task force to improve relations between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews and to address the disparities of opportunity and discrimination confronting Arabs in Israel. The task force comprises 50 Jewish organizations and aims to generate awareness among both North American Jews and Israelis, with the aim of advancing civic equality in Israel and, in certain cases, leveraging financial resources to provide effective solutions for long-standing problems.

With all the many issues on the agenda of American Jewry and the complex character of the Israeli Arab situation, it is reasonable to ask why American Jews should bother.

After all, the threats to Israel’s security today are arguably greater than they have been in some years. The Hamas victory, the nuclearization and even greater radicalization of Iran, the continuing international assaults on Israel’s good name and, here in the United States, the discourse about the “Israel Lobby” resulting from the Mearsheimer-Walt paper seemingly provide more than enough challenges to focus our attention. At the same time, one hears and reads about signs of fundamentalism and radicalism among segments of the Israeli Arab community that suggest a desire to challenge the Zionist character of Israel and a willingness to identify with Hamas, even as they eschew their terrorist means.

None of those points can be ignored. There is, indeed, much on our plate. It is, however, exactly because the internal and external challenges for Israel are so great that we believe our community must see the issue of Israeli Arabs as one of immense and immediate importance.

There are many reasons why. First, it is in Israel’s strategic interest to address this growing problem. During the past 58 years, Israel has constantly defended itself against enemies who have denied its legitimacy. Calls for unity within the Israeli public, usually meaning its Jewish public, are sounded time and again.

But what has existed and should not be taken for granted is an Arab minority in Israel — about 20% of the population — that has, despite experiencing inequities and discrimination, remained loyal to the state. We do not discount the examples of Israeli Arab violence or the provocative critiques of Israel emanating from some segments of Israel’s Arab community, but Israel’s ability to confront extreme foes committed to its destruction without having to face conflict from within has been a remarkable boon to the Jewish state.

The riots by the Israeli Arab community in October 2000, however, signaled that there was no guarantee that the civil peace would last. The Or Commission, which was appointed by the state to investigate those riots, concluded that the Israeli Arab issue “is the most sensitive and important domestic issue facing Israel today.” That commission and, indeed, common sense tell us that if the condition of Israeli Arabs continues to be neglected, the consequences for the security and stability of the state will be immense.

Second, Israel’s treatment of its minority population is an issue of Jewish values. Israel’s strength lies in its Jewish and democratic nature. One characteristic without the other would undermine the great country that means so much to all of us.

These values, embodied in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, are the root of cohesion for a nation whose people come from diverse backgrounds and political ideologies. The fact that the Arab sector does not receive its fair share of state resources, and that not enough is being done to uproot pervasive societal discrimination, are examples of Israel not meeting the principled aspirations that it has set for itself.

Third, addressing the issue will enhance Israel’s image in the world at-large and among Jews in Israel and the Diaspora. Image is not a peripheral matter but fundamental to Israel’s strategic interest. Of course, we are not so naïve as to believe that addressing Israeli Arab equality will turn around those in the world who engage in unrelenting anti-Israel bashing.

Many others, however, are more ambivalent about Israel and what Israel does can have impact, as was seen in the reaction to its disengagement from Gaza. Treatment of underprivileged minorities is an issue in dozens of countries; Israel can set an example in how it addresses the problem.

Many American Jews, particularly those who are unaffiliated, might open their eyes to the significance of an Israel that takes seriously the responsibility to realize ideals of a Jewish and democratic state. And many in the United States and around the world would welcome it as a model state that successfully internalizes and synthesizes core values based on a combination of religious traditions and contemporary human rights principles.

Let us be clear: In calling for American Jews to make this issue a priority, we are not saying that we should tell Israel what to do. We respect Israel’s sovereignty and do not underestimate the complexity of its societal challenges.

But American Jews do matter in the world Jewish community. As on other issues, when we pay attention, when we direct funding to certain projects, we send an important signal about our priorities to Israelis of all backgrounds.

To the many organizations participating in this task force, this is a not a left-wing or right-wing issue. Rather, it is a subject that Jews of whatever ideological stripe should consider important for the well-being of the Jewish state and our own sense of identity.

Kenneth Jacobson is associate national director of the Anti-Defamation League. Larry Garber is executive director of the New Israel Fund.






Find us on Facebook!
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.