How Can Israel End ‘Jewish Privilege’ When Most Citizens Believe They Deserve It?

A little-discussed finding in the recent Pew survey of religion in Israel reveals that while 79% of Arabs “say there is a lot of discrimination against Muslims in Israel,” only “21% of Israeli Jews” see things this way. Yet 79% of Israeli Jews say that they (the Jews) “deserve preferential treatment.” So there’s a paradox. Jews want the system to discriminate in their favor against non-Jews. Yet these same Jews do not perceive non-Jews as being discriminated against. It’s an Alice-in-Wonderland labyrinth of privilege and denial.

The story of ethnic preferentialism in Israel — manifested in many public inequities vis-a-vis the Arab sector — is by now well known. Yet this new evidence of a deficit of democratic will among Jewish Israelis will be fresh fodder for the BDS movement, whose platform rests not only on ending the occupation and pressing for the right of refugees to return, but on equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Others who still believe in Israeli democracy may have been optimistic about Israel’s ability to reform from within — with the help of NGOs like Adalah, ACRI and Sikkuy. But any NGO-initiated reforms will depend on a critical mass of Israelis with an appetite for change. Unfortunately, the Pew survey suggests that this is sorely lacking.

Adalah has released a document listing dozens of what it considers “discriminatory laws.” While some are probably misplaced (for instance, the 1965 Broadcasting Authority Law which, inter alia, provides for “maintaining broadcasts in the Arabic language for the needs of the Arabic-speaking population,” or the 2014 amendment raising the electoral threshold which has the equal if not greater effect of reducing the power of the far-right to shape policy in a disproportionate way), many of these laws are important targets for change.

Examples include the 2011 Nakba law, which jeopardizes state funding to institutions seeking to commemorate the Palestinian experience of expulsion and dispossession; economic benefits awarded to discharged soldiers, which serve to deepen economic inequities given that Palestinian citizens are generally not sent draft notices; bans on family unification for a citizen whose spouse is a Palestinian resident of the West Bank or Gaza, a law that almost exclusively affects Palestinian citizens of Israel, and a 1981 ruling declaring that Hebrew versions of the law are the binding ones, something that flies in the face of Israel’s declared official policy of bilingualism.

There are also per capita funding disparities between the Arab and Jewish schools (most pronounced in high school), which in turn carry implications for student success in college and university. And the lack of a bilingual culture across the country means that the pool of Arabic-language support for professionals — like occupational therapists or speech and language pathologists — is smaller than it should be. And there are the practical difficulties faced by residents of “Arab” towns who find it nearly impossible to obtain building permits.

Given all this, there are some Israeli Jewish thought leaders now swimming upstream — voices like former speaker of the Knesset Avrum Burg — who talk in terms of new Israeli-Palestinian arrangements that would seek to end “Jewish privilege.” It’s a phrase that is increasingly important to consider as observers and activists consider the array of negotiated possibilities facing Israelis and Palestinians. Focusing as they do on ending the occupation above all else, many two-state solution proponents haven’t given enough thought to the status of Palestinian citizens of Israel. And analysts like Dov Waxman have even pointed to the chilling possibility that a two-state solution might lead to issues around internal inequities getting even less attention than they do now, with Israeli Jews potentially believing that a territorial withdrawal was a sufficiently steep price to pay.

In the meantime, Israeli leaders should consider the kind of incremental change that might erode this sense of ethnic superiority among the majority. This should start with curricular reform —including bringing in more Palestinian citizens to shape their own curriculum within the Jewish-run Ministry of Education, securing democracy experts to ensure that civics materials promote democratic ideals of citizen inclusion, and shoring up funding for additional bilingual schools to chip away at the two-solitudes problem characterizing Israeli society.

There are ethical dilemmas raised by exposing these kinds of ethnic-superiority attitudes without proper follow up. While it’s not the responsibility of organizations like Pew to deal with the implications, it’s more urgent than ever for Israeli leaders — if they still consider Israel a democracy — to work to address these social ills.

Mira Sucharov is associate professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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How Can Israel End ‘Jewish Privilege’ When Most Citizens Believe They Deserve It?

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