The Middle East Channel

Putting up a big tent in Israel

When Knesset members from Israel's three largest parties (Kadima, Likud, and Yisrael Beiteinu) announced last week that they were planning to introduce a bill that would officially redefine Israel from being a Jewish and democratic state to simply being "the national home for the Jewish people" -- dropping the democratic aspect altogether -- and end Arabic's status as an official language in Israel, the news was another depressing confirmation of the erosion of Israeli democracy. The effort to stigmatize and exclude Israel's Arab minority, about 20 percent of the country's citizens, continues. This was just the latest in a long line of parliamentary bills, some of which have now become law, which have entrenched Israel's Jewishness at the expense of its democratic nature and undermined the rights and status of Israel's Palestinian-Arab citizens.

But just as the future of Arab-Jewish relations in Israel looked even bleaker, news also came of the growing participation of Arab citizens in the social justice protest movement that has rocked Israel in recent weeks. Tent protests have sprung up in Arab towns and villages across Israel, and in the main tent city that has mushroomed on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard Arab activists pitched their own tent alongside those of Jewish demonstrators. Perhaps even more importantly, the young Jewish organizers of this new protest movement have added specific Arab demands to the list of demands that they are making to the Netanyahu government. Jewish and Arab citizens protesting and campaigning together -- something that is very uncommon in Israel -- raised the prospect of a much brighter future for Jewish-Arab relations, one in which they recognize their common challenges and work toward shared goals.

 

To be sure, what has emerged in Israel in recent weeks is not a true Jewish-Arab protest movement. A few young Jewish residents of Tel Aviv launched demonstrations that have now grown to encompass large sections of Israeli society. Arab citizens make up only a small fraction of the protestors and apparently none of its leadership. Nor are the grievances of the Arab community of particular concern to many of the hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews who have taken part in the recent protests. Very few of them probably have Arab citizens in mind when they call for social justice. Nevertheless, Arab participation in the protests is symbolically significant -- a rare display of civic solidarity -- and could turn out to be practically important too, if it encourages more social and political activism involving Jews and Arabs.

Which will be Israel's future, that of growing Arab-Jewish conflict or cooperation? The outcome will depend on whether what's happening in the country's parliament or on its streets triumphs. If the right-wing members of the Knesset have their way, Arab citizens of Israel will be increasingly marginalized and disenfranchised, and Israel will become a democracy for Jews only. If, on the other hand, the economic and social-welfare agenda that is now being voiced by the tent protestors succeeds, then Arabs will also benefit and the deep divide between them and Israeli Jews can be narrowed.

Israel's Arab minority, of course, has its own longstanding issues, some that date back to the state's founding in 1948 (the Nakba, or catastrophe, for them). The high price of living and cost of housing in Israel are by no means their only concerns. They also have to contend with persistent poverty (around 50 percent of the Arab population in Israel currently live below the poverty line), relatively high levels of unemployment, inadequate educational resources, home demolitions, municipal under-funding, and discriminatory legislation. These problems will not simply be resolved by the kinds of social and economic reforms that the tent protestors are seeking (although the issues of poverty and home demolitions could certainly be helped). They could even be exacerbated if the Netanyahu government responds to the protestors' demands by providing housing subsidies and other benefits only to those who have performed military service; thereby excluding Arab citizens as the vast majority of them do not serve in the IDF.

But although the social and political agenda of the Arab minority in Israel is not exactly the same as that of the middle class Jewish Israelis who are leading the new protest movement in Israel, by joining this movement Arabs are sending the message that they are also part of Israeli society, and that they have to deal with the some of the same challenges that Israeli Jews do and are willing to join them in addressing these challenges. Similarly, by embracing Arab citizens and some of their demands within the broader social justice movement, Israeli Jews can help to diminish the profound sense of alienation that many Arabs feel in Israel.

By coming together in protest, Jews and Arabs in Israel can realize their shared citizenship, and pave the way for more joint action and political cooperation in the future. This is essential if they want to preserve Israeli democracy and resist the efforts of right-wing demagogues in Israel's parliament who seek to divide Jews and Arabs and encourage the latter to leave Israel. A Jewish-Arab partnership is the only way to ensure that Israel does not become a state for Jews only. In other words, an apartheid state.

Dov Waxman is an associate professor of political science at Baruch College and at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). He is the co-author of the recently published Israel's Palestinians: The Conflict Within (Cambridge University Press, 2011).

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