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Arab Minority’s Vision Is Foremost About Opportunity

This past December, Israeli Arab academics, legal experts and community leaders came together to release “The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel.” The document, of which I was a co-author, represented the community’s views on the legal, political and socioeconomic status that we have held as distinct minority citizens of Israel.

The report outlined goals and visions for realizing full equality and inclusion in all sectors of Israeli society. Self-steering of Arab education in Israel, equal housing and employment opportunities, and equal status for the Arabic language and culture were among the document’s demands. Also incorporated were calls for reforming many Israeli laws to apply equally to the country’s Arab minority.

If the goal of publishing the “Future Vision” report was to inspire debate, cause uproar and even expose antipathy, then it can surely be declared a success. In fact, this type of dialogue — even in its harshest and most unpalatable moments — is a healthy and essential prerequisite to building a democratic society based on equality for all its citizens.

Yet we must not forget that the “Future Vision” document arose, first and foremost, out of the dire reality of the Arab citizens of Israel, where decades of legal, social, economic and political exclusion have left the one-fifth minority among the lowest echelons of nearly every aspect of Israeli society. It is from this socioeconomic position that the Arab minority demands equal funding of its institutions, especially education and equal opportunity — including the teaching of Palestinian Arab history and heritage in schools and the increased presence of the community’s voices in the political arena.

Ironically, the recent upheaval over the document revolves not around these demands, which form approximately 90% of the substance of the report, but rather over the opening few pages. It is those first few pages’ description of the state’s foundation, critique of the Law of Return and demands to share state symbols, such as the flag and national anthem, that have sent critics from all ends of the political spectrum running.

The public tempest has sadly obscured the fact that the majority of Jews — both in Israel and the United States, on both the left and the right — has welcomed the calls for equal funding, equal opportunity and equal citizenship for Arab citizens expressed in the remainder of the document. After all, it is in the interest of both Jews and Arabs that a full democracy flourish in the State of Israel, based on principles of fairness and equality — and such a state is dependent on the true inclusion of its 20% minority.

It is deeply unfortunate that the most urgent needs of the Arab community, and their agreeable redress, have been overshadowed by this debate. Needless to say, for a community rife with poverty, performing poorly in schools and unemployed at rates triple those of the Jewish majority, the hot-button issue of the state flag’s design is far less urgent than receiving adequate funding for social services and school districts — demands which in no way offend the Jewish character of the state.

Furthermore, although the initial reaction of critics was to scorn the document and its drafters for calling for “separation” or “one-and-a-half states” — and although there are still those extremists who will continue to deny the Arab minority the right to claim full citizenship — there has been a growing openness on the part of the Jewish community to listen to the Arab community’s experiences and discuss its requests.

In my own conversations with a full range of Jewish scholars and concerned citizens in the United States and Israel, the general response — after clarifying doubts and concerns — has been to view the document as representative of the major voice of the Arab community, and to acknowledge that even if we disagree, the document must be understood as an appeal to open a genuine dialogue process among Jews and Arabs in Israel.

In fact, many leading Israeli Jewish scholars have come out in support of a host of the document’s sections, including the education section, which contains perhaps the most critical of the document’s demands. I recently attended a meeting with Education Minister Yuli Tamir, for example, who expressed her wholehearted interest in incorporating the document’s suggestions on education.

Such meetings, and the willingness of many Jewish leaders to discuss the major demands of “Future Vision,” demonstrate that the Jewish community need not adopt the entirety of the document in order to implement key portions of it. Indeed, it would be a grave mistake to condition realization of the non-controversial majority of the document upon acceptance of the highly contentious part.

Being responsible to the desperate socioeconomic situation of many Arabs in Israel requires that we not forestall negotiations on those aspects over which there is general consensus. Moreover, the document must be seen as a serious overture from the Arab minority intended to catalyze a genuine dialogue between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority in Israel — rather than as an ultimatum.

That said, the Arab citizens of Israel are firm in the belief that equal status will only be achieved once the state recognizes, practically and symbolically, both people’s shared inhabitance in, and claims to, this land. The Arab minority is committed to deliberating and discussing the contours of that shared future via democratic channels, peaceful dialogues and the kind of patience it takes to yield true equality.

It is entirely feasible to implement the issues over which there is broad agreement today, while continuing to dialogue openly around the more controversial subjects. In the meantime, the mere consideration of our proposals by numerous policymakers and activists holds more promise to improve the situation of the Arab minority than has been seen in decades — and that is real cause for hope.

Yousef Jabareen, director of the Arab Center for Law and Policy in Nazareth, authored the legal section of “The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel,” as well as the Mossawa Center publication “An Egalitarian Constitution for All.”

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