Dispatch from Nazareth

If the Israeli government’s plans to install authoritarianism are carried out, the first victim may be the Arab minority – so why don’t they seem to care?


Israel’s Arab citizens are a fascinating case study: unlike Palestinians elsewhere they’re actually citizens of the “Jewish state,” descended from the 150,000 Arabs who found themselves in Israel after the 1948-9 war which established the country (during which 600,000 fled or were expelled). But it doesn’t always feel that way.

Now numbering about 2 million and accounting for 20% of the population, they have the same rights in theory as Jewish Israelis – but few would deny that it is a second-class citizenship. That’s as evident in the state’s less-diligent investment in their communities (including in policing them) as in the very fact that the country’s flag and anthem are rife with Jewish symbolism, conceding nothing to other narratives.

As such, Israel’s Arabs may be the clearest case of a potential fifth column in the world, and perhaps in all of history: they share an ethnicity with the dominant one of every single country surrounding Israel, all of whom either have been or still are in a state of war with it. And yet, despite this, and almost incredibly, there has been almost no serious sedition in the community (several period of rioting aside) or terrorism coming from it. In the final analysis they have been quite loyal citizens.

I say almost incredibly, because there’s another story. National identity issues aside, it cannot escape any citizen that Israel ‘s per capita income is more than three times higher that of all its neighbors combined (Egypt, Lebanon, the Palestinian areas, Jordan, and Syria). And that for all its flaws it is a democracy.

Which brings us to the issue at hand. Israel’s Arab (or Palestinian) minority is now among the groups that have the most to lose from the initiative by the nationalist-religious government to torch that democracy and install authoritarianism instead.

Under a raft of legislative initiatives the government is euphemistically terming a “judicial reform,” all limits on the government’s powers would effectively be removed. Not only would the government appoint all judges in accordance with their politics, but it would be able to override Supreme Court decisions by a simple majority vote in parliament (which, because of Israel’s electoral system, the government already largely controls). There is more, including measures to indemnify officials and remove impediments to corruption, all of it in the same direction: a Putinization of Israel.

The thus-empowered government could decide elections are to be held every 10 years, or 20. The government could decide to shut down non-kosher restaurants. The government could easily take away the voting rights of non-Jews (after the previous liberal government became the first to include an Arab party formally in the coalition).

This scandalous situation has awakened the country’s normally somnolent liberal half, along with many erstwhile supporters of the right. Opponents have been filling the streets in protest by the hundreds of thousands; reserve air force pilots are boycotting drills; investors are issuing apocalyptic warnings as the shekel falls; companies are moving money out; Israel’s friends around the world are being beseeched to step in.

But the Israeli Arabs have hardly been heard from, which may seem odd. The issue is bigger even than the governmental coup: even if that abomination is defeated, in the long term there’s no hope for a modern Israel without the Arabs being part of the project. It’s essential – and also the right thing.

That’s why I was happy to be invited to a conference held in Nazareth on the “reforms” organized by the Israeli Democracy Institute in conjunction with the Bokra organization – which runs a progressive Arabic website and a civil society organization dedicated to the interests of the sector from a perspective of integration. If half the Arab citizens were dragged to the polls in the last election (compared to over 70% of the Jews), it’s because of the efforts of Bokra and few other organizations.

The several-score participants included the veritable elite of Arab society in Israel – academics, jurists, experts in various fields, municipal and religious leaders. All spoke flawless Hebrew. And few of them were willing to say what liberal Israelis want to hear. I found a number of interesting takeaways:

  • There is considerable disdain for the Supreme Court. I have written before that the right’s claims of an activist supreme court is a lie, as the court did little to block the iniquities of the West Bank and Gaza occupation. But among the participants at the conference, the main issue was that the court has done very little to uphold the rights of Israeli Arabs.
  • Despite this, most of assembled did seem to accept, begrudgingly, that they should care about the coup. But there was a strong feeling that if they protest, it should be apart from the Jews. The sum of the parts would be greater, they felt: For one thing, the Arabs are repelled by the sea of Israeli flags at the mass protests to date; and they know Palestinian flags would upset many of the Jews.
  • The grievance over stolen lands during the Naqba (the “catastrophe of 1948-9) isn’t going away. One participant at my table, who works for a major Jewish organization, was moved to tears as he described what this did to his family. They returned to their village after a brief time away to find their plot fenced off and confiscated. The lands cannot be returned. Fair compensation needs to happen, period.
  • Some of the older participants are happy to call themselves Israeli Arabs, or even Israelis. But many others, and I think most of the younger ones, insist on a Palestinian label.
  • I tried to diplomatically gauge whether participants were willing to genuinely accept Israel as a nation state of the Jews with a minority whose individuals have totally equal rights (like Romania, whose president is an ethnic German not given to waving German flags all day). They tended to run away from the question; and when they answer, Jews won’t like what they hear. The attacks on Israeli Jews wanting a nation-state (as if the Portuguese do not), the claims this is “racism,” strike me as ungenerous. But I assess the only way to impact the Arab’s emotional detachment from the state is to change the blue-and-white flag (perhaps adding an Islamic symbol to the Star of David) and the anthem and repeal the ill-advised 2018 Nation State Law, which Arabs despite for failing to mention them or guarantee equality.

I did my best to contribute to the discussions, and at the end I even gave a little speech, whose essence was this: This is not the time for settling accounts, or for purism. The country is on fire. I know very well the Supreme Court has not been very useful to you. But for the moment, you do have the right to vote. Use it and you’ll see the other problems melt away. If you voted at the same rate as the Jews you’d have 25 Knesset members of the 120, and no one could ignore you. If that happens, and you use that power to further collaboration and coexistence, you will find partners.

I argued it is no shame, it is no disgraceful compromise, to sometimes make do with the least bad option. Things could be much worse for the Arabs and the country. What now exists should be improved upon — but it is also the least bad option that had been available: “If you’re offered syphilis or leukemia, you’d be wise to embrace syphilis.” I was cut off by a respectable-seeming lady who declared: “What we already have is leukemia.” Everybody laughed, which struck me as a good thing.

“Somewhere in the middle perhaps,” I replied. We were forced to find a compromise. I think everyone in Israel will need to do the same, if the place is ever to know peace.


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