Why Israeli Arabs Are a Jewish Issue

By Kenneth Jacobson and Larry Garber

Published May 19, 2006, issue of May 19, 2006.
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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.

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