Israeli-Arab actor Norman Issa. (WikiCommons)

Israeli Arabs who make a difference

In 1948, it was hard to imagine the day when Arabs would have the same opportunities as Jews to make their mark as citizens of Israel’s democracy. Sixty-nine years later, Arab-Israelis represent 2.1 million people among Israel’s population of more than 8 million and are increasingly contributing to the advancement of their country, across a variety of fields. Here’s a sample of 10 Arab-Israelis you should know about.

Lucy Aharish

Aharish was the first Arab-Israeli to become a presenter on prime-time TV. She works on the evening edition of i24News, as well as a morning show on Channel 2. A native of Dimona, she was 5 years old in 1987, when a terrorist threw a Molotov cocktail into her family’s car. She says she identifies as an “Israeli, woman [and] Arab Muslim” and lit torches during the official celebration of Israel’s 67th Independence Day. She faces criticism from Israelis and Arabs: Haaretz deemed her an “Uncle Tom” after the torch lighting, and after she spoke out against the kidnapping of three Israeli  teenagers in 2014, social activist Hanin Majadli said she suffered from “an identity crisis.” 

Rasha Atamny

This month, Atamny became Israel’s first female Muslim diplomat, appointed to represent the Jewish state in Ankara, Turkey. Atamny, who is from the small Arab village of Baqa al-Gharbiya, studied psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and participated in the school’s Model United Nations Club. During her time in college, she was selected to serve as a youth ambassador for Israel at the U.N. in New York for three months. In a blog post at the time, she wrote, “The discrimination against Israel is very prominent in the UN, and disappointing.”

Hossam Haick

Haick is the internationally known Israeli scientist behind Na-Nose, a technology that uses so-called “volatile organic compounds” found in patients’ breath to literally sniff out conditions such as cancer and kidney failure. A professor at the Technion — Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, the Nazareth-born Arab Christian claims more than 170 research publications, 28 patents and numerous awards. In 2016, the Technion entered a licensing agreement with a Canadian biomedical company to use the Na-Nose system to detect streptococcus, chickenpox and even the common cold, among other illnesses, from exhaled breath.

Norman Issa
Arts & Culture

An Israeli-Arab actor, Issa founded Elmina Theatre, a multicultural theater for young people. The Port of Jaffa-based theater aims to provide entertainment and bring together Israelis from different backgrounds. Issa is married to a Jewish woman, Gidona Raz, who runs the Elmina with him. On the Channel 2 Israeli comedy show “Arab Labor,” Issa plays the lead role of Amjad, an Arab-Palestinian journalist in Jerusalem. He also had roles in the movies “The Syrian Bride” and “My Lovely Sister,” and was born in Haifa to Maronite Christian parents.

Hassan Jabareen
Civil Society

The founder and general director of The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, Jabareen is known for his human rights work with the Palestinian community. He is an adjunct lecturer for the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University and was a senior Robina Visiting Human Rights Fellow at Yale Law School in 2012-13. Former Israeli High Court of Justice Chief Justice Aharon Barak once told a group from the New Israel Fund touring the Supreme Court building that “Jabareen should sit on this court one day.” 

Salim Joubran

Since his appointment in 2004, Joubran has served as the first permanent Arab justice on Israel’s Supreme Court. Born in 1947 in Haifa, Joubran, a Christian, studied law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is an expert in criminal law, according to Haaretz. Before his permanent appointment, he was a district judge in Haifa and then a temporary member of the Supreme Court. In 2014, he came under fire for remaining silent during the singing of Israel’s national anthem at the swearing in of the court’s chief justice.

Ayman Odeh

A member of the Knesset, Odeh is “a legislator preaching the coexistence of Arab and Jew in a time of dashed hopes, almost daily acts of terror, and regional chaos,” David Remnick wrote in The New Yorker. Odeh is the leader of the Joint Arab List faction, the third-largest party in the Knesset, and a voice for the Palestinians in Israel. The 41-year-old Haifa native, who used to protest the State of Israel and face interrogation by the Shin Beit, supports a two-state solution. In February, he protested the bulldozing of homes in Umm al-Hiran.

Ayman Sikseck
Arts & Culture

Sikseck is an Arab-Muslim author of two novels and numerous newspaper articles in Hebrew. The Jaffa-born writer gained recognition when he won a story competition held by the Haaretz newspaper, which led to a deal for his first book, a semi-autobiographical novel titled “To Jaffa,” in 2010. His second novel, “Tishreen,” was published in 2016. In media interviews, he has said that he writes in Hebrew in part to give the Israeli world a window into Arab life. “Arabic is marginalized,” he told the Jerusalem Post. “For me, writing in Hebrew has made me exist in Israel.” Sikseck currently works as an English news broadcaster for i24News.

Khaled Abu Toameh

Abu Toameh began his career at a newspaper affiliated with the Palestine Liberation Organization and then went on to work for the Jerusalem Post, a Zionist paper, for 14 years. “People ask, ‘When did you become a Zionist Arab? What’s your story?’ ” he said in a 2013 lecture at Columbia University. “I have no story. I’m a journalist. As a journalist, I have no problem working for any newspaper that provides me a platform and that doesn’t interfere with my writing.” Abu Toameh’s reporting on the Palestinian territories, most notably on corruption in the Palestinian Authority, has won him international prominence. He regularly lectures to journalists, academics and lawmakers, and has been a producer and consultant for NBC News since 1989.

Reem Younis

Younis and her husband, Imad, had to sell their car to finance their high-tech startup, which they launched in 1993. It may have seemed a risky move for the Nazareth couple, but it’s since paid off: Their company, Alpha Omega, now has dozens of employees, with sales representatives around the globe. The company’s technology is often described as a “GPS for the brain,” helping neurosurgeons locate the right spots in patients’ brains to implant electrodes that combat diseases. Beyond her work as an innovator, though, Younis traverses Israel as a booster for technology and entrepreneurship among the underserved Arab population, and sits on a number of nonprofit boards.

An Israeli protester chats to an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man near tents pitched on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard as part of a demonstration (Nir Elias/Reuters)

Separate but comfortable: How Israelis want to live

There is no better illustration of the data presented earlier today by The Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) than the decision made yesterday by Israel’s Supreme Court. The court, in a decision too complicated to explain in detail in this article, ruled that the city of Tel Aviv can permit mini-markets to operate on Shabbat. And while the decision was not aimed at changing Israel’s status quo, and was mainly a response to the government’s failure to make its own decisions, it still highlights how Israel is gradually becoming a country of communities that live by their own rules. Put simplistically: Tel Aviv – more open on Shabbat. Jerusalem – more closed.

Is this a situation that Israelis see with trepidation or with approval?

The Jewish People Policy Institute, in which I am a senior fellow, provided a possible answer to this question today when it issued a new study – its annual Pluralism Index. One of its more significant findings is that Israelis, while feeling “comfortable” about living in Israel “the way they are” – that is, they don’t feel a pressure to pretend to be something they are not – don’t necessarily want to mix with people different from themselves. They are comfortable to be who they are within their communities of similar people.

What do I mean by that? One of the things JPPI examined in this wide survey is whether Israelis support the separation of groups or communities, or whether they think that Israelis of all types should live together. For example, we asked: “In your opinion, should Jews and Arabs live in mixed neighborhoods in Israel?” A significant majority say no. 68% of Jews, 73% of Arabs. We also asked Jews and Arabs if they want their children to study together with students from the other group. Here there is a split in the way Jews and Arabs respond: A slight majority of Jews (51%) do not want their children to have Arab children studying together with them, while Arabs, by and large (76%), do want their children to study together with Jewish children.

We asked Jews in Israel if they think it is advisable for secular and religious Jews to live in mixed neighborhoods. Here things get a little more complicated, so bear with me. There are two groups of secular Jews in JPPI’s survey: those who define themselves as “totally secular” and those who define themselves as “somewhat traditional secular.” Among the totally secular, 50% do not want to live in mixed neighborhoods with religious Israelis. They are even less enthusiastic about secular-Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) neighborhoods (53% are against it).

Among “somewhat traditional secular” Israelis – 22% of the Jewish population (totally secular are 35%) – the answer is different. 69% believe that mixed neighborhoods of secular and religious Jews would be a blessing. Religious Israelis – “Dati” (but not Haredi) – agree with them. 81% of them support mixed neighborhoods of secular and religious Jews.

But even the “somewhat traditional secular” Jews in Israel have their limit. Yes, a majority of them do believe in mixed neighborhoods of secular and religious Jews, but this does not extend to the ultra-religious Haredi community. When it comes to mixing secular and Haredi Jews, the majority in both groups of secular Israelis – “totally secular” and “somewhat traditional secular” – are in the opposition. 78% of the totally secular don’t think living together with the ultra-Orthodox is a good idea. 70% of the somewhat traditional secular don’t think it’s a good idea.

And what do Haredis think? This might surprise you, but 49% of them told our pollster (Panels Politics, a survey of more than 1300 Israelis, margin of error 3.1% for Jews, 5.6% for Arabs) that they do believe in mixed secular-Haredi neighborhoods. That’s a plurality of our Haredi respondents. In the discussion we had today with experts hosted by JPPI, the common view was that this result reflects the fact that secular Israelis are more worried about Haredis interfering with their lives than Haredis are worried about secular Israelis disrupting their way of life.

The bottom line, though, is clear: there are things that make Israelis want to separate. Religious affiliation is one of them (Muslim and Christian Arabs in Israel also don’t think it advisable for them to live in mixed neighborhoods). Nationality is also one of them. But this does not mean that all differences make Israelis want to separate. In fact, there are some findings in the Index that point to areas in which differences play less of a role in making Israelis want to distance from one another.

Jewish ethnic origin is one such area. A vast majority of Jewish Israelis (89%) see no reason why Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews can’t live in mixed neighborhoods. This finding extends to almost all Jewish groups, except for one: recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union are the only group of people that is more reluctant to mix people of different ethnic origin. Close to a third of recent Jewish immigrants from the former USSR countries oppose such mixing.

Another thing that is not viewed as cause for separation is the political view of Israelis. 75% agree that leftist and rightist Israelis should live in mixed neighborhoods. And, by the way, on this question the group most tolerant of others – that is, the group whose members want mixed neighborhoods for rightists and leftists – is the one of “moderate left” (9% of Jews, 10% overall). The least tolerant group is the “right” (22%). Maybe, as someone suggested in our discussion, this is the result of the harsh view that Israelis in general have of what they call “Smolanim” – people of the hard left. Our survey shows that when asked about the contribution of different groups to the success of Israel, the groups of “leftists” is ranked near the bottom, next to Haredis, Arab Muslims, and Bedouins.

What can we make of all this? There is good news here, and disturbing news. Israel, in some ways, is a polarized country of groups willing to live together comfortably yet separately. In a way, this could make life easier for everybody. In Tel Aviv, as the court decided, more stores will be open on Shabbat. In cities with a religious or traditional majority, more stores, maybe all stores, will be closed on Shabbat. Live and let live.

But, of course, this has its down side. It will further accelerate the tendency of Israelis to live among like-minded people. It will further alienate the communities. It will necessarily erode the ability of people to coexist by making compromise and not by moving apart. It could weaken Israel’s sense of a shared destiny.




Israel’s Arabs want more industrial zones

This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

Moded Yunis, the mayor of the Arab Israeli town of Ar’ara in northern Israel, recently offered 20 jobs in nursery schools in the town. Although not particularly well-paying, more than 250 women in the town of 23,000 in northern Israel applied.

“Because of the lack of jobs, some women leave their homes at 5 am and travel hours to southern Israel to work,” Yunis told The Media Line, saying the town had opened special day care centers with longer hours to accommodate them. “It is very frustrating for anyone who graduated college and then can’t find a job.”

The lower employment levels, along with lower municipal budgets showcase a pattern of consistent discrimination against Israel’s Arab minority. The Mossawa Center, the Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens in Israel, says that about 60 percent of Israel’s Arabs are poor, and 65 percent live below the poverty line.

Mossawa invited Yunis and other mayors to a conference at Israel’s Knesset, also hosted by long-time Arab parliamentarian Ahmed Tibi focusing on the need for more industrial zones in the Arab sector. While Arabs are more than 20 percent of Israel’s populations, just 3.5 percent of all areas designated for light and heavy industry are in Arab towns. These industrial zones bring both money and jobs to the areas where they are located.

“We want to get concrete answers for the Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Industry to budget for new industrial zones,” Jafar Farah, the director of Mossawa told The Media Line. “There is no possibility of economic independence without this.”

Participation in the labor force is significantly lower in the Arab sector than the Jewish one, especially among women. More than 60 percent of Jewish women work outside the home, while among Arab citizens of Israel it is half of that.

Part of the reason is that Arab women prefer to work closer to home, both because of traditional modesty concerns, and because there are fewer day care facilities in Arab towns. Building industrial zones would solve some of these problems.

“The socioeconomic situation of many Arabs is very difficult,” Knesset member Ahmed Tibi who chaired the session told The Media Line. “The government must fight poverty with a holistic plan to improve the existing infrastructure in Arab towns.”

Israeli government officials who spoke at the government session said the government has invested tens of millions of dollars in the Arab sector and has plans for more.

“In the last decade the government has invested $140 million in the non-Jewish sector over the past decade,” Yigal Tsarfati of the Ministry of Finance told the session. “There are 55 industrial zones in non-Jewish areas and we are planning more. There is no doubt that an industrial zone is an important way to move the economy forward.”

Some of the Arab parliamentarians said that appealing to the Israeli government had not worked for decades and there was little chance it would work now.

“We have to start a public campaign, going out into the streets and holding protests,” Arab MK Ayman Odeh told the session.

Israeli officials agree there is a problem. In a recent report, State Comptroller Yosef Shapira said that efforts to integrate Arab citizens into the workforce were “broken, ineffective and deficient.” He also said that goals set by the government itself were not being met.

Building industrial zones is a long-term project but has already proven that it works. In the town of Nazareth, Israeli Jewish industrialist Stef Wertheimer has built an industrial zone that has both Arab and Jewish companies and has created more than 1000 jobs over the past few years.

Poll: Only 20 percent of Jewish Israelis see Arab citizens as ‘equals’

More than one-third of Jewish Israelis see their Arab fellow citizens as “enemies,” and only 20 percent said they consider Arab-Israelis their “equals,” a new poll has found.

The poll was conducted via face-to-face interviews with 600 Israeli Jews by the Institute for National Security Studies, which is holding its annual conference this week. It also found that 44 percent of Jewish Israelis see Arab-Israelis as “people who needed to be respected but also treated with suspicion,” Haaretz reported Tuesday.

The think tank’s poll, which is not yet available on its website, also interviewed 200 Arab citizens of Israel, finding that 70 percent identify as Israeli in some form, whether describing themselves as “Israeli Arab,” Palestinian Israeli” or “Arab with Israeli citizenship.”

Haaretz did not report the poll’s margin of error or the dates when the interviews took place.

Fifty-three percent of Arab-Israelis polled by INSS said they had “good relations with Jews,” while 19 percent said they did not have or were not interested in having contact with Jews. In addition, according to Haaretz, 70 percent said “equality of rights” for Arab-Israelis was their most pressing problem, ranking it above the issue of Palestinian rights.

Some of Israel’s highest-ranking officials, including President Reuven Rivlin, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, Education Minister Naftali Bennett and opposition leader Isaac Herzog, spoke at INSS’s conference in Tel Aviv this week. Speaking on Monday, Rivlin warned that an increasing number of Arab-Israelis are expressing support for the Islamic State, a topic not addressed in the poll.

“Research studies, arrests, testimonies, and overt and covert analyses – many by the INSS – clearly indicate that there is increasing support for the Islamic State among Israeli Arabs, while some are actually joining IS,” Rivlin said in his speech, according to a transcript shared by his office.

While noting that he did not blame the entire Arab-Israeli community, he said Arab-Israeli leaders need to do more to condemn extremism.

“I do not for a moment deny the responsibility of Arab leadership. Their condemnations — which sometimes sound forced, which are too feeble, too hesitant, that are spoken in Hebrew but are then formulated differently in Arabic — indicate, above all else, fear. More serious than this are those voices that blame the ‘occupation’ as the source of all ills, while displaying sympathy and understanding for attacks on innocents.”

Cartoon: Et tu, neighbor?

Lucy Aharish on Benjamin Netanyahu

Israeli Arabs make up 20 percent of Israel’s population – greater than either blacks or Latinos do of the American population.

So, there are very few pundits and politicians – including our own President – who have not offered their opinion on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s public election day plea urging his supporters to vote because, “The Arabs are voting in massive quantities!”

Some say Netanyahu’s rhetoric undermined the very notion of Israeli democracy – a prime minister raising the alarm that his own citizens are voting.  Others say too much is being made of what in any democracy could just be seen as an election-day gambit to motivate the base.

How did Israeli Arabs themselves react?

Some forgave the Prime Minister his remarks and accepted his apology.  Many voted for him. 

Others, such as Lucy Aharish, a popular Israeli broadcast journalist, expressed full throated outrage.

In a much-viewed Hebrew language interview on an Israeli news channel, Aharish, a native of Dimona in israel's south, clearly was move to tears by the Prime Minister’s words, but not in a good way.

The clip is embedded on site so a simultaneous translation is not possible, but Lawrence Weinman provided a translation to the Jewish Journal, which is edited below.  Even if you can’t speak Hebrew, it’s worth watching to see Aharish convey the outrage and hurt that many in the Israeli Arab community felt. 

Lucy Aharish on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's “Arabs-are-voting warning:”

“This is shocking simply shocking to hear this…I could understand it from every other Knesset member, every other party head, because many things were said in the course of the campaign: Sephardim against Ashkenazim, Left against Right, against Arabs…”

“But we are speaking of a prime minister.  When it gets to this point, when the prime minister of Israel– who is the prime minister, not of the People of Israel as he likes to say in his speeches, but of all the citizens of the State of Israel– says “The Syrians are on the border,  the Arabs are coming on busses—“  it is impermissible, simply impermissible…”

“…It seems he forgot that three months ago, that a few months ago here, 3 boys were killed because they were Jewish, and a month later an Arab boy named Abu Mohammed Kheidar was killed because he was an Arab. Next time there is a murder like this, it will be as if the Prime Minister gave a kashrut certification to this,  because he said it is okay to hate Arabs.” 

“You and I understand this, but the Prime Minister doesn’t understand this. We know what stood behind these statements. We can understand why he calls out to people like this. When extremists, like for example the head of the Shomron Council…said that at the end of the day the Israeli Arabs are enemies. The words the Prime Minister said gave them legitimacy. Because when he says, ‘The Arabs are going out to vote in masses,’ a vote which is their legitimate right as citizens of Israel …..This is shocking, simply shocking.”

“Because I am a citizen of this State! I am a citizen of this State! I don’t believe that the Prime Minister of this state can speak that way. I can understand why Yitzchak Shimoni said the things he said during  the last Gaza War. But when the prime minister of the government of Israel, who is supposed to be the prime minister of all the citizens of the State of Israel, allows himself to say such things, it is shocking, simply shocking. Impossible, impermissible. To speak words of incitement against 20 percent of the citizens of his country…”

“I agree, the Joint Arab List was problematic because it united all the Arabs left and right, extremists and moderates. I agree it wasn’t healthy,  but what the Israeli Arabs said at the end of the day to their leaders is, ‘We got 13 seats, 2 taken from Meretz.’ They said to their leaders we don’t believe in you, and they didn’t get out and vote for them.” 

“But at the end of the day what happened? The Prime Minister of Israel speaks out and says what he did,  that the ‘Arabs are getting on busses and are coming to vote…”

“I am not a citizen of this country? I don’t have an Israeli ID card? I don’t have an Israeli passport ? I am not a citizen of this state? My parents don’t live here? My parents weren’t born here? This isn’t their country?”

“What is the Prime Minister saying to me? What is the Prime Minister of Israel telling me?”

Providing books to Jaffa preschoolers makes Israel stronger

The children at the Arabic-speaking Ofek preschool in Jaffa spent a lot of time this past year thinking about a mouse named Samsoum, the character in a picture book all the kids have read at home with help from their parents.  

In class, the kids did a range of Samsoum-related projects inspired by the book “Samsoum the Mouse” by Jahil Khazaal, about a field mouse who relaxes while the other field mice gather food for the winter, but who later warms the hearts of the worker mice with his colorful stories. 

The children discussed the different emotions portrayed in the book. They also learned that every creature has a role to play in the community — and that food for the soul can be as important as food for the stomach. In the process, the children fell in love with the book.  

Throughout Israel, 45,000 Arab children in government preschools read “Samsoum the Mouse” as part of a reading-readiness program called Maktabat al-Fanoos (Lantern Library). The program began in January and is modeled after Sifriyat Pijama, which for the past five years has distributed children’s books in Hebrew to hundreds of thousands of Jewish preschoolers. Sifriyat Pijama is a sister program to the popular PJ Library Jewish family engagement program in North America, both founded by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation in Massachusetts. 

Lantern Library, created by the Ministry of Education in partnership with the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and San Diego-based Price Philanthropies Foundation, provided four books that the children took home and treasured. During the 2014-15 school year, the plan is to provide eight books to children in all government kindergartens and pre-kindergartens — 80,000 children in all.  

“As people who care about Israel and about the future of Israel, we feel it’s very important to help improve the lives of the Arab citizens of this country,” said Robert Price, president of Price Philanthropies Foundation, explaining his family foundation’s long-term involvement in the Arab community and the decision to be a partner in Lantern Library.

Culturally appropriate and with a strong storyline conducive to discussions on values and emotions, the books encourage parents and children to lay the groundwork for reading. As with books in the Hebrew-speaking effort, the Arabic books are chosen by a selection committee composed of experts in child development, children’s literature and preschool education. 

On the occasion of a visit by the Price family to Ofek, Keefah Masri Bassel, who teaches the 3- and 4-year-olds, said the program has transformed her classroom. 

“The first time I held one of the books, I began to dream that every child would have a shelf in their room reserved for their books,” Bassel said.  

A week later, the teacher invited the parents to the school, where she taught them how to create a library corner at home. The parents helped the children transform T-shirts into book bags and create “This Library Belongs to …” signs.   

When the children went outside for breakfast, a speech-language expert discussed with the parents ways to cope with the differences between spoken and written Arabic, and how to best engage the children — for example, allowing them to retell the story in their own words. Together, they explored the parents’ guide at the back of the book. 

Galina Vromen, executive director of the Grinspoon Foundation in Israel, said the Arabic-language program presented the organizers with some unique challenges. One of them is the dearth of quality Arabic children’s books that are accessible to the Israeli market. 

Vromen said the program “is largely dependent on what’s produced here in Israel, Jordan and Egypt” and noted that, due to political unrest, the annual Egyptian book fair, once the largest Arabic fair in the world, has been discontinued. Turmoil also has affected children’s book production in other nations, including Syria and Iraq. 

Because of the Arab boycott of all things Israeli, some Arab publishers have refused to sell reprint rights to Israeli publishers, who repackage the books, with a parents’ guide, for the program. That’s one reason the program has an interest in supporting the local Arab-Israeli publishing industry, which clearly benefits from a sale of 45,000 copies, whether the book is an original or reprinted.  

“We want strong readers, so we need locally made books,” Vromen said, adding that “there’s tremendous excitement” about the program in the Arab sector from publishers, teachers and parents. 

These same teachers and parents say the literacy program is particularly important for Arab children because it introduces them to formal written Arabic, which is different from spoken Arabic, at an early age.  

“Our goal is to encourage reading readiness with exposure to classical Arabic,” said Vicky Glazer, the supervisor of Jaffa preschools. 

Fatma Abu Ahmed Kassem, national supervisor of preschools for the Arab sector, said the program’s emphasis on interaction with adults “is critical to learning. Reading books offers an opportunity for quality adult interaction with children at home and in the classroom.”

The program, Kassem said, “promotes and enhances a culture of expression and discussion, and raises the awareness of language and enriches language use. Exposing children to a variety of literary works of Arab literature and culture as well as world literature encourages children to become curious and enthusiastic readers.”

Israeli Arabs prove to be part of the problem, not part of the solution

Like the rest of my circle of Israelis, who have seen war as kids and soldiers and then, as undergraduates, attended peace rallies before establishing families and joining the middle
class, I also assumed that Israel’s Arabs were part of the solution.

We met them on campus, in classes and dorms, and they seemed like reasonable people, eager like the rest of us to graduate and make the most of themselves. A day will come, we thought listening to their fluent Hebrew, when they will serve as a bridge between us and the rest of the Middle East. For as Toufiq Toubi, the longtime Knesset member from Nazareth once said of himself, theirs was the tragedy of those whose people were at war with their country. We were sure that to them, it was not we the Jews who were the anathema but the conflict itself — a dispute that had to be resolved rather than won.

Until September 2000.

That month, in my case a mere several weeks after I gullibly and publicly called for a compromise even on Jerusalem, an Israeli Arab mob stoned passing cars and torched cars, trucks, bus stops, banks, post offices and traffic lights across the Galilee. Not only was all that carnage accompanied by the most virulently anti-Israeli rhetoric, it happened as Palestinians in the territories were launching an uprising that would later climax in half a decade of suicide bombings not seen since the thick of pre-1967 Israel. It was at least reminiscent of Israel’s worst strategic nightmare: war from within and without.

Israel’s response to that Israeli Arab violence was harsh — excessively harsh, according to a government commission of inquiry. Yet that’s exactly where the debate concerning Israel’s Arab minority becomes so frustrating, because this is where Israel’s detractors conveniently change the subject from “why” to “how,” from the Israeli Arab plot against the Jewish state to its consequent treatment by Israel.

The crux of the debate is what Israel’s Arabs make of the very idea of a Jewish state in the ancestral land of the Jews. And our conclusion since the fall of 2000 has been — as the famously dovish TV journalist Amnon Abramowitz put it at the time — that while we pro-Oslo Israelis were devising two states for two peoples, our Arab counterparts, on both sides of the Green Line, were contemplating two states for one people: the Palestinians.

Down in the field, a small but increasing number of Israeli Arabs have participated in terror attacks, including driving suicide bombers to their destinations and, in some cases, performing the bombings themselves. At the same time, the Israeli Arab community’s elected leaders are attempting to hammer away at the idea of a Jewish state: They demand the abolition of the Law of Return, seek the alteration of the national anthem and hide behind a seemingly innocent apron, like the quest for a country of all its citizens.

The tactics deployed in this well-crafted assault are as simple as they are cunning: diversion and deceit. The diversion is in the systematic changing of the subject from the real aim, which is Israel’s extinction, to issues that Jews care deeply about, like freedom of expression, right of ownership or equality before the law. The deceit is in the fact that all this crusading energy disappears once one leaves Israel’s borders. They fail to demand rights and freedoms for those living under Arab rule throughout the Middle East.

In other words, Israeli Arab leaders hail Western values only when it helps undermine the Jewish state but otherwise do not believe in them.

This is the context in which the attack on the Jewish National Fund (JNF) comes.

Established in 1901 as the Zionist organization’s arm for purchasing real estate in the Promised Land, the JNF epitomized Zionism’s unique blending of vision, pragmatism and diligence. The respect with which it treated even a toddler’s penny has unified Jews, the enthusiasm with which it embraced even the most forlorn acre of wasteland impressed Arabs and the resourcefulness with which it forested barren mountains and irrigated parched deserts has inspired environmentalists worldwide.

Portraying the JNF as part of the problem is so absurd that this portrayal itself indeed is part of the problem. Never mind that the JNF doesn’t focus on land distribution — it focuses on development — while the Israel Land Authority deals with leasing. Yet the JNF is a voluntary organization whose raison d’etre is indeed to make the land of Israel available for Jews. As long as Israel’s right to be Jewish is threatened the way it is by the Israeli Arab community’s current leadership, the JNF’s mission statement remains morally valid and strategically vital.

There was a time when Israelis like me honestly believed in the imminent emergence of a new Middle East, one where people, goods, capital and ideas would transcend borders as naturally as they do in North America and Western Europe. We have since been disillusioned — by Middle Eastern despotism, Palestinian violence and Israeli Arab deceit.

The day when we Israeli Jews can roam the Middle East as freely as Italians roam Europe and purchase real estate in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia or Syria as freely as New Yorkers do in Ontario, Canada, has yet to arrive. Worse, the effort to deprive us of what land we have has yet to abate.

Now one can say, “But Israeli Arabs are Israeli citizens,” and I so much want to say, “Gosh, that’s so true.” But the truth is that Israeli Arab leaders are for now identifying with and actively assisting Israel’s enemies, and we Jews have yet to consolidate our grip on the country our parents have built, so that in the future, no Jew will be landless.

Amotz Asa-El is a lecturer at the Shalem Center’s Institute for Philosophy, Politics and Religion. He is the author of the “Diaspora and the Lost Tribes of Israel” and former executive editor of the Jerusalem Post.

Benefits bolster the case for reciprocity

The past few months saw rising temperatures of accusations and counteraccusations among sections of the Jewish community. Leftist Jews criticized Israel,
professor Alvin Rosenfeld criticized anti-Zionist Jews, the American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee) published Rosenfeld’s article, Rob Eshman criticized Rosenfeld (“Shutting Jewish Mouths,” Feb. 16) and Jewish Journal readers criticized Eshman (Letters, Feb. 23).

True, thus far it all fits the ordinary, lively Jewish debate to the tune of “Chad Gadya,” and, honestly, I would not have mentioned it here, save for one ingredient that I thought deserves our attention — somehow, the AJCommittee was the only player in the ring accused of the cardinal sin of “shutting Jewish mouths.”

For the life of me, I fail to see why Rosenfeld’s criticism of anti-Zionist Jews is stifling Jewish voices more than Eshman’s criticism of Rosenfeld.

Eshman was right in asking: “Has the AJCommittee taken a stand against Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli minister who has called for the forced expulsion of Israeli Arabs from their towns?” Eshman was also right in comparing Lieberman to Tony Kushner and stating: “One could argue that Lieberman’s opinions endanger a democratic Jewish state at least as much as Kushner’s.”

I would go even further and argue that both Kushner and Lieberman are racists, each in his own way. What I fail to understand, though, is why saying so to Kushner makes me a stifler of open debate, while accusing Lieberman turns me into a champion of lively discussion.

It is time that we articulate this symmetry as loudly as we can. Both Kushner (and Tony Judt and Jacqueline Rose) and Lieberman are racists, guilty of callous discrimination on the basis of ethnic origin — Lieberman by denying Israeli Arabs their basic rights as individuals, Kushner by denying Israeli Jews their basic rights as a nation.

Lieberman targets Israeli Arabs for dispossession, while Kushner targets Israeli Jews for a genocidal experiment called a “one-state solution.” The difference lies mainly in their respective modes of justification. Whereas Lieberman speaks in the name of “ein breira” (lacking alternative), Kushner speaks in the name of righteousness and morality. History is still undecided whom we should fear most.

But symmetry does not end here.

The vast majority of Jews do identify with the historical aspirations of their people and their right to self-determination. Are they prepared to grant Palestinians those same rights? Large sections of American Jewry, including the Zionist Organization of America, object to the idea of a Palestinian state west of the Jordan River. Is this broken symmetry justified? Is it wise?

The arguments against a Palestinian state are strong and familiar.

First and foremost, given the current sentiments and fragmentation of Palestinian society, such a state would be a serious threat to Israel’s security. Second, from a historical viewpoint, Palestinian nationhood is a recent phenomenon; Palestinians did not cultivate distinct national identity till the turn of the 20th century. Even Rashid Khalidi’s books, “Palestinian Identity” (1997) and “The Iron Cage” (2006), set out to discover and affirm Palestinian national roots, have uncovered a glaring void.

Unlike the Jews, Palestinians are not heirs to national holidays, national heroes or cultural lore connected with the land. There simply was no sense of peoplehood among Palestinians prior to their encounter with Zionism, and Golda Meir’s famous saying, “There is no such thing as a Palestinian people,” — pardon my political incorrectness — was not entirely void of historical reality.

Still, despite these differences and asymmetries, I argue that the Jewish community should reciprocate and support the idea of a Palestinian state.

Reciprocity empowers us with some of the high moral ground that we lost by winning the 1967 war. Reciprocity today is our most potent weapon in the fight against the delegitimization of Israel, because our adversaries are still imprisoned by a me-take-all mentality and the one-state delusion.

Saree Makdisi, Israel’s No. 1 dehumanizer in Los Angeles, turns utterly grotesque when confronted with the challenge of reciprocity, (e.g., “Are Jews and Palestinians equally entitled to some sovereignty, in some part of Palestine?”). His latest column in the LA Times, on March 11, expresses his frustration in handling this challenge.

By forgiving the deficiencies of the Palestinian national narrative, we obtain forgiveness for our own deficiency — physical absence of 1,800 years. Reciprocity is a reminder that nationhood is a state of mind, not a historical document.

Reciprocity of utopias does not compromise security conditions on the ground. Tough precautionary requirements on the process leading to a two-state utopia will be better accepted under the blessing of reciprocity.

An example of such a requirement could be a doctrine that no irreversible concession of one side (e.g., in territory or settlements), would be implemented without an equally irreversible concession of the other). On the Palestinian side, potential irreversible concessions include thorough uprooting of terrorist organizations, public recognition of Jewish historical ties to Eretz Yisrael, education and media programs in the spirit of shared nativity, permanent housing for refugees and more.

In summary, tactical steps need not be hindered by reciprocity, while advocacy and strategic vision will benefit from it immensely.

Judea Pearl is a UCLA professor and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, Sherman Oaks Branch Library

Bibi, Judea Pearl, Muslims and the Dennis


Thank you for presenting Larry Derfner’s candid perspective on perhaps the most shameful issue facing Israel: the treatment of Israeli Arabs (“Netanyahu Ranks High as Racist Demagogue,” Jan. 19).

Former Prime Minister Netanyahu’s disdain for Israel’s Arab citizens and fear of a future Arab majority is only the tip of the iceberg. A significant portion of Jewish Israel is unabashedly discriminatory of Israeli Arabs in a manner that is an abomination of Jewish values and a mockery of democracy.

It is a miracle that the vast majority of these Israeli citizens have not renounced their allegiance to Israel and embraced Palestinian nationalism or Islamic fundamentalism. That day however may not be so far away, and if indeed it comes, Jewish Israel will have only itself to blame. Only by truly embracing the values of Judaism and democracy can we rid ourselves of the fear of an Arab majority in Israel.

David Orenstein
Los Angeles

Larry Derfner’s article demonizing Bibi Netanyahu was mistakenly placed in The Jewish Journal, instead of where it really belonged, in Al Jazeera.Netanyahu’s delight that his economic decisions resulted in a lower Arab birthrate has nothing to do with racism, as Derfner accuses, but with Jewish survival.

Demographers have predicted that with the current birthrate in Israel, Arabs could become a majority in less than 50 years. If that were to happen, the only Jewish homeland would be voted out of existence, and the safety of the Jewish population seriously jeopardized. Maybe Derfner believes that if that were to happen, they could count on the assistance of the United Nations. Most Israelis, however, are not that na?ve.

Derfner also slams Netanyahu for wanting the limited funds of the Jewish Agency to help the Jews but not the Arabs affected by his economic plans. Derfner’s misplaced rage should rather be turned toward the Muslims around the world funneling hundreds of millions of dollars to terrorist organizations to buy weapons, instead of to their poor Muslim brethren to buy basic necessities.

Daniel Iltis
Los Angeles

Judea Pearl

Judea Pearl talks about Palestinian and Arab recognition of Israel’s right to exist (“Palestinians Generate Cheer and Doom,” Jan. 19). The truth is that no matter what the Palestinians or Arabs say for publicity purposes, they are driven by Islamic belief that the Middle East is ordained by Allah to be Islamic territory. They will never stop their fight to eliminate Israel, and the world should recognize that fact.

Larry Derfner criticizes Benjamin Netanyahu as a anti-Arab racist for his statements about Jewish and Arab birthrates. The truth is that Israel was founded and is intended to be a Jewish state, and birthrate differences that increase the Jewish majority are a help to Israel, so Netanyahu is not a racist but an Israeli patriot.

Marty Annenberg
Huntington Beach

Muslims and Jews

Kudos to you for your generous spread Jan. 19 on “NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change,” initiated by the Progressive Jewish Alliance and the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

We’d like to point out a small but important mistake on the cover. Under the title, “Try, Try Again,” our new program was incorrectly described as an “Arab-Jewish Project.” (We’re pleased that it was corrected on your Web site, but the printed page is irreplaceable). In reality, our participants are Jews and Muslims from all ethnic and denominational backgrounds who seek to build authentic relationships rooted in honesty and consistent engagement over mutual issues of concern.

Malka Fenyvesi
Progressive Jewish Alliance
Interfaith Program Coordinator

Aziza Hasan
Muslim Public Affairs Council
Interfaith Program Coordinator

I was really pleased to learn that Daniel Sokatch was renewing efforts to establish a meaningful relationship with the Muslim American community. We cannot abandon these efforts.

Our community should be very proud of Daniel and his continued work on behalf of strengthening ties within our culturally diverse region. I only wish that he had chosen a counterpart whose motives, intentions, and integrity have been proven to be as pure as Daniel’s.

Stu Bernstein
Santa Monica

Prager’s Words

Your news briefs of Jan. 5, in which you reported on the Democrats calling on the GOP to condemn Dennis Prager and Rep. Virgil Goode Jr., seemed to be more of an opinion piece than a news brief.

Prager is absolutely correct in identifying Rep. Keith Ellison’s refusal to have a photo-op with the Bible in place as a refusal by Ellison to recognize the source of values from which the laws of this country derive. Goode is absolutely correct in his analysis. Immigration “reform” from 1986 has resulted in a steady flow of Muslims to the U.S.A.

People like Prager and Goode best serve the Jewish community’s interests, while those like Abe Foxman and the ADL, unable to see clearly, do a disservice.

Brian Dennis
Studio City

The ‘Hood’

I was disappointed with David Suissa’s definition of the “hood” as an “Orthodox neighborhood.” Although the point of this column is very important — that we Jews can gain a great deal of insight from learning and caring about the lives and beliefs of Jews who are different from us — I disagree with his generalization that a column about the “hood” automatically means a column about Orthodoxy.

I am a Conservative rabbinical student living in Pico-Robertson. This past Shabbos, on my way home from the Shtibl Minyan (a vibrant egalitarian community on Robertson Boulevard), I passed numerous friends and neighbors, all coming from other Conservative and egalitarian minyanim. I send my daughter to preschool at Pressman Academy at Temple Beth Am, a very successful Conservative synagogue and day school in the heart of the hood.

Yes, Pico-Robertson is a thriving, observant community, but it is not merely an Orthodox neighborhood. It is a Jewish neighborhood — a place where Jews of all different affiliations love to live. This Jewish diversity is one of many aspects that distinguishes our hood from other neighborhoods, and this diversity deserves recognition.

A Solution to Israel’s Demographic Peril

When Israeli Arabs protest that talk of the “demographic threat” is racist, can Israeli Jews blame them? If non-Jewish professors and politicians anywhere on earth spoke of a Jewish demographic threat to their countries, what would Jews call it? What, for that matter, would decent non-Jews call it?

Raising the specter of the Arab demographic threat to Israel is, in fact, racist — if you believe that Zionism is racism, that a Jewish state is a racist state.

I don’t believe that (even while I know there is no shortage of Jews whose Zionism doesn’t amount to anything more than racism). Although the Jewish state by definition “belongs” to the Jews more than it does to its non-Jewish citizens, I don’t consider it a force for racism, but the opposite: Whatever racism exists in Israel, the Jewish state came into being as an answer to racism of a rather larger magnitude — the habit of anti-Semitic oppression.

And however unjust a Jewish state is to its Arab citizens, if Israel stops being a Jewish state it will start being an Arab state, and I think the injustice to the Jews that would result from that is worse than anything Israeli Arabs have to endure.

So I don’t think it’s racist or anti-democratic or unfair to want a Zionist future for this country. And while Zionists are known to argue over what makes a Jewish state, I’d say the absolute minimum, the point every Zionist can agree on, is that it must have a solid Jewish majority.

How much is solid? Eighty percent, the current figure (including the Russian immigrants who think of themselves as Jewish, even if the religion does not), is solid. But I’d say that once the figure drops below 75 percent, which leading demographers predict will happen in about 20 years, the viability of a Jewish state with an Arab minority in the Middle East starts coming into question. And the way things are going demographically, it’s downhill from there.

Obviously, Israeli Arabs, and not just them, take all this in as racism. But as it turns out, the project to solidify Israel’s Jewish majority serves not only the purpose of preserving the Jewish state, but also — despite all the Jewish racists — of protecting the democratic rights of Arab citizens.

There’s no way to avoid it — the more Israeli Jews feel their majority threatened, the more hostile, fearful and punitive they will become toward Israeli Arabs. It can already be felt: in the denial of citizenship to Palestinians marrying Israeli Arabs; in Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s boast that his child welfare cuts brought down the Israeli Arab birthrate; in the growing Jewish majority telling opinion polls that the government should “encourage” Israeli Arabs to emigrate.

None of this would be happening, I don’t think, if the 80 percent Jewish majority were secure; if Israel weren’t inching steadily toward a demographically binational state; if its foundation — its citzenry — weren’t headed for a “tipping point.”

Demography is a dirty business. I don’t like dealing with it. I don’t like knowing that if an Arab friend has a baby, I’m of course happy for him personally, but in the abstract, as a Zionist, as an Israeli thinking about the national interest, I have to say that such a birth is bad news.

This is a miserable state of affairs. And it wouldn’t be if demographic trends showed Israel’s Jewish majority holding at 80 percent, or even a little less, for generations to come. In the name of the national interest, Zionists could celebrate the births of all the Israeli Arab babies just as much as the births of all the Jewish ones. (More than a few Zionists, I’m sure, would still refrain.)

So for the sake of Israel’s Jewish character and democracy, the demographic threat has to be overcome. There have been all sorts of suggestions, some of which are truly malevolent, such as Netanyahu’s stated motive in cutting child welfare, and the idea of encouraging Arab citizens to leave the country — to coerce them into leaving, to bring about “voluntary transfer,” to make Israeli Arabs’ lives so daunting that they will “choose” emigration.

And if these are the only ways to preserve Israel as a Jewish state, then let’s leave it for the Arabs and the Jewish racists and help the decent Jews find a better place to live.

Then there’s the idea of cutting out a heavily Arab section of the Galilee and joining it to a Palestinian state in the West Bank, maybe in exchange for Israel’s annexation of the West Bank settlement blocs.

There are a couple of drawbacks here: One, who wants to give up the heart of the Galilee? Two, the Arab citizens in the Galilee don’t want to become part of Palestine, so you can’t force them. (Incidentally, you can force Jewish citizens out of Gush Katif, because Gaza, unlike the Galilee, doesn’t belong to sovereign Israel.)

A couple of other notions to bolster the Jewish majority involve easing the conversion process for interested gentiles, and pushing aliyah with more enthusiasm and marketing skill among the 5 million to 6 million American Jews. There’s nothing objectionable about either of these ideas, I just don’t think they’re mass-scale solutions. I don’t think they’re going to get enough takers to make a dent in the demographic threat.

So here’s my idea: Secular Israeli Jews have to start making more babies, say one more per family. If the religious also want to have more babies, that’s, of course, just as good, but I mention the secular, because they only have an average of about two children per family, while the religious have more, often many more.

In the pioneering era, when there weren’t that many Jews here, Jewish fertility was an overt Zionist value. Among the secular, it’s long forgotten, and I think it’s time to remember it again.

The biological clock is ticking for the Jewish state — and for its democracy.

Larry Derfner is the Tel Aviv correspondent for The Jewish Journal.