Beyond Left and Right in Israel

When it comes to politics in Israel, left and right rarely agree. In a country where even sports teams are aligned with political parties, there is

one issue that should unite Israelis and their American supporters from across the political spectrum: the need to foster opportunity and equality for Israel’s 1.2 million Arab citizens.

At a time when Israel faces profound external and internal challenges, some may question whether this issue belongs at the forefront of the nation’s agenda. For a growing number of Israeli leaders on both sides of the political divide, however, Jewish-Arab coexistence and equality is beginning to get the attention it deserves. Improving living conditions in the Arab sector and reversing the growing alienation between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens are necessary steps towards building a more cohesive and stable society.

Although living standards for Arab Israelis have increased steadily over the past 15 years, disturbing socio-economic gaps still exist between the Jewish and Arab communities. By all measures, Arab Israelis lag far behind their Jewish peers. Infant mortality, for example, is twice as high for Arab citizens, while average wages are 40 percent lower. When it comes to education, Arabs also fare poorly, with larger classes and fewer resources. Although Arabs comprise 18 percent of the population, only 5 percent of Israeli college graduates are Arab. The picture is equally grim in terms of housing; since 1975, Israel’s government has built nearly 340,000 public housing units for Jews and only 1,000 for Arabs.

Conditions like these, coupled with a string of broken promises from governments on both the left and the right, are fueling alienation and anger within the Arab community. In October 2000, sparked by the resurgence of the Palestinian intifada, violence between Israeli Arabs and the police erupted in the Galilee. When it was over, 13 Israeli citizens — 12 Arabs and one Jew — were dead. The riots, along with the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism in Israel and the involvement of a small number of Arab Israelis in terrorist acts, have created a new level of fear, mistrust and anxiety among Israeli Jews. On the other side, provocative public rhetoric and calls by some Jewish political figures for the transfer of Arab citizens from Israel have added to the tension.

As the government’s Or Commission noted in its report investigating the riots, the status of the Arab sector “is the most sensitive and important domestic issue facing Israel today.”

Israelis and their American friends must tackle these issues head-on to halt the further fragmentation of Israeli society and build a culture of co-existence based on the values of mutual respect, equality and shared citizenship.

Education will play a major role in achieving these objectives. Israel’s few experimental bilingual schools have been a success among students and parents. So successful, in fact, that a large group of Jewish and Arab parents in the often-contentious Wadi Ara area, eager to create stronger bonds between their communities, are preparing to open a bicultural school in the Arab town of Kafr Kara.

Next January, an important pilot project in Haifa will mandate the study of conversational Arabic and Arab culture in 25 percent of the city’s Jewish elementary schools. This breakthrough program will give Jewish children a window into their neighbor’s culture and will send a much-needed signal of respect and inclusion to Arab Israelis throughout the country.

Schools are only one institution in Israel that must undergo fundamental change.

More than three years after the Galilee riots, relations between Arab Israelis and the police remain strained. Problems in Arab neighborhoods and villages are often improperly handled or unaddressed. Many Jewish police officers lack sufficient knowledge to serve Arab or ethnically mixed communities effectively.

To counter this, the Israel Police and The Abraham Fund Initiatives, with the support of the UJA-Federation of New York, have implemented a project to transform relations between Arab Israelis and the police. Through education and training, the recruitment of Arab Israeli officers and volunteers, and improved communication, the project is raising awareness among police working in the region and reducing the chance of violence.

Major institutional changes such as these must be accompanied by tangible government efforts to improve infrastructure, close spending gaps and expand opportunities for Arab Israelis in education and employment.

The goal of creating a more just and equitable society is a Jewish value that transcends traditional notions of left and right. That is why former President Yitzhak Navon and other leaders from all of Israel’s major political parties are advocating for change. They recognize that social security is as important as physical security, and that Israel’s future will rest in part on a more complete integration of the Arab minority into the economic, social and cultural mainstream of Israeli life. Although they may differ on many other issues, securing Israel’s future is one objective on which all should agree.

Ami Nahshon is president and CEO of The Abraham Fund Initiatives, a New York- and Jerusalem-based nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing coexistence and equality among Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens.