Arab-Israelis aren’t like Jewish-Americans (Three short comments on Israel’s identity)

March 27, 2014


Martin Raffel, in an article for the Jewish Week, made an interesting comment writing about Israel as a “Jewish and democratic” state and about equal rights for Israel’s Arab minority:

As a small minority community in the United States, American Jews, in some ways, are better positioned to see the dilemmas experienced by Israel’s Arab citizens more clearly than Israel’s majority Jewish population. 

This is an idea I often hear, and always wonder about. Obviously, if one needs to be part of a minority to better understand other minorities, then Raffel is right and the American Jewish community is indeed “better positioned” to discuss the experiences of Arab Israelis. But is this really the most crucial aspect of the discussion of Israel’s Arab minority? In many ways, the experience of American Jews has no relevance to that of Arab Israelis. The Jewish minority is much smaller, it is very much Americanized, and it has always – always – been patriotic and in tune with American ideals. Jewish Americans do not consider Independence Day to be a day of mourning. Many Arab Israelis do. Jewish Americans have no dispute over land with the American majority – many Arab Israelis do. Jewish Americans don’t want to change America from within to become something else – to no longer be American – while many Arab Israelis want to change Israel until it is no longer Israel, the Jewish state.

There is very little in Raffel’s article with which I do not agree. Striving to have equal rights for Arab Israelis is an important mission. And I always welcome the input of Jews or the world in Israeli affairs – when it is serious and based on fully developed study and understanding of circumstances. Yet, I’d argue against the belief that minority equals minority and hence makes a minority better positioned to discuss the “dilemmas experienced” by a minority. This is the kind of argument that make Israelis less hospitable to outside input.

Minorities have some similar “dilemmas” but also many different and unique ones. If Arab Israelis were to Israel what Jewish Americans are for America – there would be no problem. But we know they aren’t. They aren’t for many reasons, among them, possibly, discriminatory policies and the inherent character of the Jewish state. Arab Israelis are not like Jewish Americans, do not want to be like Jewish Americans and cannot be like Jewish Americans. That is, among other things, because Israel is not America and does not want to be America. Nor would most American Jews want it to be like America.


I’m currently working on JPPI’s final report on “Jewish and democratic: perspectives from world Jewry” (our interim report can be read here). That is the project Raffel also talks about in his article. In the research process, I found this IDI article by Prof. Yedidia Stern and Jay Ruderman. It explains the court’s decision from a while ago not to recognize an “Israeli” nationality in the “Jewish” state – an explanation that has relevancy to the Jewish world. Worth reading:

If the nationality of Jewish Israelis is defined as “Israeli” rather than “Jewish,” then the “national” bond we believe binds together Jews in Israel and Jews in the Diaspora will be severed.

The Court dealt with this last point extensively. It adopted the position that one of Israel's essential characteristics as a “Jewish state” is its responsibility for the fate of the entire Jewish people – including the Jews of the Diaspora… The responsibility of the State of Israel for world Jewry is an important expression of the fact that Israel is not an ordinary democratic state, but also a “Jewish state.” Though we may be divided by geography and citizenship, Israeli and American Jews – and their brothers and sisters around the world – are members of one nation.

Thus, it is imperative for the State of Israel to distinguish between citizenship and nationality. Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs share a common citizenship. They are both Israeli, and are therefore entitled to and must be accorded the same civil rights. But they are not members of the same nation.


Tonight, Israel is moving the clock one hour forward. Daylight Saving Time is going to last for 212 days – a long time in Israeli standards. The only negative comments one can make about this move is that Israel needed to first get rid of its religious parties for it to be able to pass such sensible and obvious legislation that benefits the entire population. It is one achievement of the current government that should be commended, and the only question is whether it will last when another coalition is in place. A couple of months ago, I speculated that this one is, indeed, going to last:

[T]here is some reason to hope that this will be a more lasting change. For one, the current governing coalition doesn’t include an ultra-Orthodox party. So its decision better reflects the majority view and not political shenanigans. The second difference is more subtle: A new generation of Israelis has proved in recent years that it has lost patience with government favoritism. Israeli politicians are therefore becoming much more careful not to defy the public on matters that might reek of catering to religious interest groups.

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