A change in electoral laws aimed at raising the representational threshold in Israel’s parliament prompted a merger of Arab parties and the consolidation won The Joint List thirteen seats, making it the third largest Knesset faction.
“We think about our very survival before we think about environmental issues, or about co-existence issues for that matter,” said M.K. Ahmed Tibi (Joint List) referring to Israeli building inspectors who routinely invoke nature preservation rules to limit residential construction in Arab areas.
Arabs comprise twenty percent of Israel’s population but less than five percent of new homes are built in their neighborhoods. A series of demolitions targeting unpermitted construction has increasingly incensed the community.
“We are for cooperation and collaboration but the days of being ‘nice’ and dancing to the tune played by the majority are over,” Tibi told the Third Annual Givat Haviva Conference for a Shared Society in Israel.
Palestinian-Israeli Arab leaders and their Jewish allies are calling for a multidimensional rethink of “The Jewish State” and are grappling with issues including immigration and naturalization laws and language equality.
New questions are being raised about the inclusiveness of touchstone symbols especially the national anthem and the Star of David flag.
“We are not only individual citizens, but also a community deserving national rights,” Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh told the Shared Society Conference.
“I had to study Hebrew in school, why shouldn’t Jewish children study Arabic from the first grade. Does it bother anyone? We should enjoy there being more than one nation, more than one culture.”
“Arab citizens want their politicians to make headway on their internal concerns,” said Arik Rudnitzky, the lead researcher at the Konrad Adenauer Program for Jewish-Arab Cooperation at Tel Aviv University.
“About forty five percent of the respondents told us that they want the Joint List to prioritize employment, education, healthcare, violence, and women’s status. Nearly thirty percent of the respondents told us they prioritize government policy toward the Arab population. Notably only 20 percent say Israeli Palestinian diplomacy is their chief concern,” Rudnitzky said.
The community ranked relations between Israeli Arabs and the neighboring countries as a low priority. Fewer than 7 percent of the respondents told pollsters that in the Adenauer – Tel Aviv University poll that cultural and religious ties between the Arab public and the Arab and Muslim world were a top concern.
“From what I see, Ayman Odeh has internalized the Arab citizens' priorities,” said Rudnitzky.
“For example he turned down an invitation to attend an Arab League Summit and instead participated in a march on behalf of Bedouins from the unrecognized villages in the Negev.”
Givat Haviva is the campus of the left wing Kibbutz Federation and its affiliated Hashomer Hatzair youth movement. Historically the campus is known for its top-notch Arabic language-training program with more than a few graduates serving in Israeli intelligence units.
“Givat Haviva was founded by the movement of Hashomer Hatzair, which is the leftist movement within the Jewish people. For us, there's no Zionism if it is not based on peace and equality with the Palestinians of Israel and the Palestinians outside of Israel,” said the center’s director Yaniv Sagee.
Today the Shared Society Center is at the forefront of joint Jewish-Arab community organizing efforts throughout Israel.
“We in the Jewish majority have the authority and are considerably more privileged so definitely there's no equality in Israel,” said Sagee.
“We are living in a segregated country where our children go to different schools in different educational systems. Children don't integrate; the majority of them will finish twelve years of school with no opportunities to meet with the other. There's no mechanism for creating a sustainable base of relationships.”
Sagee is critical of a system of segregation that starts with education and extends towards where people live.
"Today the Shared Society Center is at the forefront of joint Jewish-Arab community organizing efforts"
“Most of the Arab citizens of the State of Israel are living in their own villages or their own towns and do not integrate with the Jews. Most of the Jews don't even bother to go into those villages, not even once a month. Some can live in Israel without doing it at all, so we are very distant in this society.”
Citing the lack of Arab judges in the court system and their underrepresentation in the civil service generally, Sagee believes forms of democracy such as voting rights have yet to extend to the mechanisms of political power.
“There are no real opportunities for the Arab minority in Israel to have an impact on decision making process,” Sagee told Your Middle East, adding that their citizenship status faces ongoing threats such as the enactment of new “Jewish State” legislation that would rule out national rights for Israeli Palestinians.
Mohammed Darawashe, Givat Haviva’s Director of Strategic Planning concurs.
“We look at Israeli Jewish society and we see ourselves as the children in this national family who are asked to accept a second class status by the father figure, by the prime minister. It creates a feeling, the realization that you have been crushed without capacity to really resist because you are the minority,” said Darawshe.
The status of the Arab minority in Israel’s political system came sharply into focus in the final hours of the March Knesset elections when Prime Minister Netanyahu used social media to warn his base that Arab voters were turning out to the polls “in droves”.
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“Israeli democracy has been premised on everybody in the country being treated equally and fairly," Obama told reporters after Netanyahu’s remarks adding that the Prime Minister’s messaging gave “ammunition to folks who don't believe in a Jewish state” and threatened to “erode the meaning of democracy in the country."
But Washington’s concerns pre-date the heated rhetoric of the campaign.
The State Department had already issued a rebuke to the Israeli government last November when Netanyahu’s cabinet moved to approve new “Jewish State” legislation.
"Israel is a Jewish and democratic state and all its citizens should enjoy equal rights. We expect Israel to stick to its democratic principles," declared State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke.
A left-wing protester argues with an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man during a protest
European diplomats are also increasingly speaking out on the status of Israeli Arabs.
In a keynote address at Givat Haviva, Germany’s Ambassador to Tel Aviv, Andreas Michaelis, acknowledged his nation’s historic crimes against the Jewish people and spoke of the post-war legislative effort to prevent future ethnic and religious discrimination in the Federal Republic.
“Civil rights and additional minority rights can only unfold their full protective umbrella when their implementation is supervised and guaranteed in practice too,” said the ambassador.
“For that, an independent judicial system with strong and independent courts is key,” said Michaelis taking a diplomatic swipe at Israel’s new Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who is pressing for the Jewish State legislation and more parliamentary oversight of Israel’s judiciary.
Sheked’s initiatives are seen by many as an attempt to assert Jewish national prerogatives over the civil rights of the country’s Arab citizens.
Ambassador Michaelis also emphasized an extensive university stipend program for Arab Israelis supported by the German government.
“Our commitment to the Arab-Palestinian community does not end with handing over checks. The quota of Arab-Palestinian students who benefit from German scholarship programs is above average,” said Michaelis.
Arab citizens are underrepresented in Israel’s higher education system comprising only about 1o percent of the college and university population.
“I think Netanyahu apologized for what he said to the Arab citizens and I’m seeing him take steps to apologize not by words but with actions,” said Likud MK Gila Gamliel who has been appointed to handle Israeli Arab issues in the newly created Ministry for Gender and Minority Equality.
Just two days before the opening of the Shared Society Conference, the prime minister moved to establish a cabinet level task force to handle issues raised by Israeli Arabs.
“It is important to understand that housing is a problem for everybody in Israel,” Gamliel said.
“But for the Muslims there is a problem of illegal building while on the other hand we need to give a solution to young people to build their houses,” Gamliel said.
The government holds title to more than 93 percent of the land in Israel and according to a report funded by the Abraham Fund, only 3.5 percent of the land is under Arab ownership and the areas under their jurisdiction are only 2.5 percent.
At the Givat Haviva conference, Gamliel pledged to work on options aimed at retroactively legalizing some of the construction in Arab towns and villages while developing new programs to expedite permit approvals.
“Still we must ensure that construction conforms to national standards,” said Gamliel, whose parents immigrated to Israel from Libya and Yemen.
“We share a culture. We lived together with Muslims and in the past we had good neighborly relations. Maybe it is easier for me to connect and I’m proud of the mutual respect I have with the Arab members of the Knesset.”
In his address to the Givat Haviva assembly President Ruby Rivlin hinted at an embrace of the Shared Society idea including a more prominent place for the Arabic language.
“The Jewish public must acknowledge that the Arab public is part and parcel of this land - a public shaped by a collective cultural identity,” said Rivlin.
“To the same extent, and regardless of threats or fear, the Palestinian consciousness and history must never be defined as an opposition or resistance to Zionism or the Jewish people.
“When we seek confidence building measures between Jews and Arabs, we must work to nurture the positive identities of each side, and from within these identities, reach out to the other's culture and story,” said Rivlin to the applauding audience at Givat Haviva as he received the institute’s prize for leadership in building a shared society in Israel.
“Reuven Rivlin is the first leader of this state who visited the site of the Kafar Kassem massacre where our border police killed Israeli Arab civilians, asked for forgiveness, and took responsibility for what we had done,” said Sagee.
“I think this is more than a symbol. It is a message for the future, saying that we will base our future on the understanding of the wrongdoing and the ability to create a real society that is built on equality for all.”