Quite naturally, our attention when we think of Israel is principally focused on issues of war and peace: the intifada, the persistent terrorism, the halting peace efforts both governmental and private, the occupation and so forth. But there is, of course, another Israel — not the Israel of the deadly headlines, but the Israel where people give birth, raise children, look for work, the Israel where life goes on. These days, that Israel faces a staggering array of very serious problems. Beyond a stagnant economy, with all its consequences, there is an education system that is in deep trouble, a rising problem of organized crime, a slackening support for democratic norms and a growing coarseness in the treatment of Israel’s Arab citizens.
In 2001, Israeli fourth-graders tested for literacy scored 23rd among the 35 countries where the tests were administered — slightly above the international average, just behind Romania, well behind Latvia, Lithuania and Bulgaria. A new report from Israel’s National Council for the Child asserts that 40% of Israel’s children live “in poverty, squalor and delinquency,” and that another 30% are on the brink of a similar fate. Organized crime, “The Sopranos”-style, has finally become a matter of urgent national concern. As to support for democratic norms, the latest annual report shows that “support for the democratic system has plunged to the lowest level recorded during the past 20 years.” So, for example, more than half the respondents in the study agree that “strong leaders can do more for the state than debates and laws,” and where 90% of respondents just five years ago agreed that “democracy is the best system,” that number is now down to 77%.
With regard to Israel’s Arab citizens, who include one of every five Israelis, matters are especially serious. While 20% of Jewish children live below the official poverty line, 54% — more than half — of non-Jewish children do. No one any longer doubts that the condition of Israel’s Arabs is wretched, and that no small part of that owes to governmental discrimination. Prime minister after prime minister has promised to repair the discrimination, but none — not Labor’s Ehud Barak any more than Likud’s Ariel Sharon — have delivered on their promises. In the course of his much-reported speech in Herzliya on December 18, Prime Minister Sharon mentioned as one of the challenges facing the nation the “improvement of relations between Arabs and Jews in Israel.” If he’d been serious, he could have started that improvement right then and there by denouncing the speech given at the same conference by Yitzhak Ravid just a day earlier.
Ravid, a senior researcher at Rafael, Israel’s Armament Development Authority, proposed that the state implement a stringent policy of family planning in relation to its Muslim population. He asserted that “the delivery rooms in Soroka Hospital in Beersheva have turned into a factory for the production of a backward population.” (Soroka Hospital serves many members of Israel’s Bedouin community.) One might have supposed such contemptible remarks would have been hooted down by the audience, or that the prime minister would have seen fit to condemn them. Neither happened.
Perhaps the lack of deserved outrage at what Ravid said was because attention was focused on the considerably more important speech on the very same day by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “We have a demographic problem, but it lies not with the Palestinian Arabs but with the Israeli Arabs.” True, Netanyahu also said that “if we want Israeli Arabs to integrate, we need a flourishing and dynamic economy,” and he spoke of the necessity of improving educational standards, especially for Arab citizens. But having said what he said about the Israeli Arabs as “a demographic problem,” and having stoked the fire he thereby lit by adding that “if Israel’s Arabs become well integrated and reach 35-45% of the population, this will no longer be a Jewish state,” and also that even if the percentage of Arab citizens rises above it current 20% mark, “this will also undermine the [state’s] democratic fabric,” his more constructive comments were entirely lost, as he must have known they would be.
Netanyahu’s remarks, unlike Ravid’s, were rebuffed, albeit not by Sharon. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel complained that “Comments like these fan the flames of hatred, racism and discrimination that are the daily reality of Israeli Arab citizens and undermine the basic trust that underpins a democratic society.” Yossi Sarid, the former head of the Meretz party, said that Netanyahu “at Herzliya poured a fuel tanker on the bonfire of relations between Jewish and Arab citizens in Israel, and a thousand firemen won’t be able to put out a fire that one light-hearted man ignited.” But it was left to Ahmed Tibi, an Arab member of Israel’s Knesset, to hit Netanyahu in the teeth: “Netanyahu’s demographic bomb is a stink bomb and racism. The day is not far off when Netanyahu and his flock will set up roadblocks at the entrance to Arab villages in order to tie Arab women’s tubes and spray them with spermicide.” That, presumably, is the sort of thing Ravid had in mind when he proposed the imposition of “a stringent policy of family planning” for Israel’s Arabs.
One cannot gloss over the issues that are raised by the presence of a large non-Jewish minority in a Jewish state. Those issues merit — nay, demand — thoughtful consideration; they go to the very nature of Israel’s hopes and fears. But if the stage for such consideration is set by comments such as Netanyahu’s and Ravid’s, the play itself will be a tragedy. Or, worse still, a farce.
Leonard Fein’s most recent book is “Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2001).