Israel's Arab Citizens

Moment, September-October 2009 | Go to article overview

Israel's Arab Citizens


AN INTRODUCTION

The situation of Israel's Arab citizens has always been immensely complex. On the one hand, Jews and Arabs have lived together side by side in what Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua calls "a kind of remarkable co-existence." On the other hand, the unresolved Israeli-Arab conflict has cast Israel's Arabs as perpetual outsiders and figures of suspicion by both Jews in Israel and their Arab brethren abroad.

For most of Israel's history, the question of how they should be treated has not been clearly answered. "In 1948 when the state was born, there was no policy for a situation in which a Jewish state would be established with an Arab minority," says historian Elie Rekhess, the Crown Visiting Chair in Middle East Studies at Northwestern University and head of Tel Aviv University's Adenauer Program on Jewish-Arab Cooperation. "Zionist ideologies evaded the question entirely." Faced with a minority of 100,000 Arabs, the state granted them citizenship but pursued what Rekhess describes as two diametrically opposed principles: one based on democracy, the other on security.

The escalation of the Israeli-Arab conflict in the latter decades of the 20th century exposed the widening chasm between the Jewish state and its Arab citizens. The first intifada, lasting from 1987 to 1993, ignited anger and sympathy among Israeli Arabs. Many provided the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza with money, food and clothes and joined solidarity strikes held throughout Israel. The second intifada, which began in the fall of 2000, led to greater radicalization. During the October 2000 demonstrations, 13 Israeli Arabs were killed by police, leading to a large-scale Arab boycott of the 2001 elections.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The government investigation into the October 2000 deaths was eye-opening. Beyond reprimanding the police, the 2003 Or Commission report was an indictment of the state's neglect of its Arab minority. "The Arab citizens of Israel live in a reality in which they experience discrimination as Arabs," the report concluded. "Although the Jewish majority's awareness of this discrimination is often quite low, it plays a central role in the sensibilities and attitudes of Arab citizens. This discrimination is widely accepted, both within the Arab sector and outside it, and by official assessments, as a chief cause of agitation."

In the aftermath of the report, Arab and Jewish leaders and organizations have advocated for greater equality, with mixed success. Just a year after its publication, Judge Theodore Or, the retired Supreme Court Justice who headed the Commission, himself criticized the government for not doing enough to implement its recommendations. …

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