Dilemmas in Jewish-Arab relations in Israel
by As'ad Ghanem
In Israel today there are about one million Palestinian citizens, constituting one-tenth of the Palestinian people worldwide and some 17 percent of Israel's citizens. While both Jews and Arabs accept that Arabs are citizens of Israel, a dilemma in this regard stems from two asymmetries. The first is that both sides are aware, to differing degrees, of the existence of systematic and prolonged discrimination at various levels of the community and state authority, generally supported by the Jewish public, in favor of Jewish citizens. The second asymmetry is the substantive difference in the attitude of Jews and Arabs toward the symbols and values of the state, to the extent that these symbols lose their func'tion of uniting the citizenry.
The primary dilemma at the strategic level derives from the Jewish-Zionist nature of the state, which renders full equality for Arabs an unattainable goal. The practical possibility that Arabs will be integrated into society and national life on the basis of equality is not accepted by the state itself. At the most basic existential level, the Arabs cannot adopt a full Israeli identity because that identity is woven into the Jewish fabric of the state. The situation is further exacerbated by virtue of the fact that in each of the two communities there is a different consensual view regarding the desired solution to the Palestinian problem.
The vast majority of Arab citizens approach their citizenship rights very seriously. Their struggle for equality is the best indication that the Arabs do not take their citizenship for granted. But their understanding of the substance of citizenship generally does not correspond with the usual Jewish interpretation of loyalty to the state. At many crossroads of life, the Arab citizen discovers that the Jewish establishment and majority do not treat him/her as an equal citizen, and that the state's Jewish nature and security needs dictate its attitude toward him/her to a greater extent than does the state's declared democratic nature.
Nor do Arab and Palestinian culture and heritage receive the same degree of attention or recognition as the Jewish ones. While Arabic enjoys the same official status as Hebrew, this theoretical equality finds almost no practical expression and is usually totally ignored. The state and Jewish public discourage Arab culture and heritage--and Palestinian identity--and frequently suppress them. The country's Jewish roots are emphasized, while Arab history is deliberately ignored. The extent to which the official curricula for both Jews and Arabs emphasize Hebrew language and literature and downplay Arab language and history has been widely documented.
Turning to discrimination at the level of state symbols, Jews treat the symbols and values of state institutions as part of their heritage and a source of identity, whereas Arabs are alienated by these exclusively Jewish and Zionist symbols. The quandary in this regard is further exacerbated by the clear disagreement between the country's Jews and Arabs regarding central social and political aspects of Israel's regional and foreign policies and domestic politics. This reinforces the Arab community's sense that it would be difficult to reach a common denominator.
The discrimination policy stems from the authorities' official approach and enjoys Jewish public support. The explanation provided for this policy and the support it enjoys among the Jewish public can be summarized in the following points: (1) the Arabs are a hostile minority that must be watched closely; (2) the Arabs should be grateful for the progress they have enjoyed since 1948; (3) Israel is the state of the Jewish people, a Jewish-Zionist country in which the Arabs should suffice with limited individual rights and not demand recognition as a national minority; (4) the Arabs are a new minority, devoid of any connection to the Palestinian people; and (5) the Arabs must accept that they are not part of the country's centers of power and decision-making.
The vast majority of Arabs rejects these arguments, and struggles in the Knesset and beyond to change this approach and the policies based on it. Most call for total equality and a solid anti-Zionist policy; they seek communal equality that finds expression in equal treatment by the state, full integration, and cancellation of the state's official ideology, which they believe is the decisive cause of their mistreatment. In other words, they want to turn Israel (within the green line) into a binational state.
There is also an important and dynamic perceptual gap between Arabs and Jews, in the public and the leadership, concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, its underpinnings, emergence, and desired solutions. Jews and Arabs each claim exclusive historic rights to the country. They each have their own explanation of the sources of the conflict, with each blaming the other for starting it and for the violence, killing, and aggression that have accompanied it. The solution accepted by the Arabs calls for all the lands occupied since 1967 to be returned to the Arab countries and for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, including East Jerusalem. For their part, the Jews mainly argue the need for border alterations in Israel's favor along the 1967 lines, and the impossibility of giving Arabs and Palestinians control over any part of Jerusalem.
Thus the negative status of Arab citizens is rooted at the strategic level. Under the existing constitutional structure, it is impossible to achieve equality, whether individually or communally, for Arabs in Israel. Nor can the diametrically opposed political and ideological concepts regarding the most central issues be resolved between the Arab and Jewish publics. Most Arabs recognize that they will not be able to achieve equality for themselves or future generations as long as the state exists in its current configuration.- Published 17/6/2004 © bitterlemons.org
As'ad Ghanem is a lecturer at the School of Political Science at the University of Haifa and the head of Ibn Khaldun: The Arab Association for Research and Development.