The Magazine

Israel's House Divided

From the April 12 / April 19, 2004 issue: Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, and identity politics.

Apr 12, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 30 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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FENCES LOCK OUT. In the process, they lock in. So it is perfectly foreseeable that Israel's decision to keep out terrorists by constructing a security fence separating itself from 3 million West Bank Palestinian Arabs will also work to keep in 1.2 million Arab citizens of Israel and tie their fate more closely to that of the Jewish state. Less foreseeable are the precise consequences for the Arab minority, now almost 20 percent of the population and growing, and for Israel's character as a state that is both Jewish and democratic.

A new report of the International Crisis Group--an influential NGO with headquarters in Brussels that conducts "field-based analysis and high-level advocacy to prevent and resolve deadly conflict"--argues that the real issue is Israel's lamentable history of discrimination against its Arab minority. Entitled "Identity Crisis: Israel and its Arab Citizens," the report calls for massive investment by the government in Arab communities. And it recommends an extensive array of programs to promote mutual understanding between Israeli Jews and Arabs, because "mutual perceptions typically have been characterized at best by indifference, at worst by total misunderstanding and mistrust."

On a mid-March trip to Israel, I had an opportunity to discuss the condition of Israel's Arab minority with Israeli Jews and Arabs. Contrary to the International Crisis Group report, the deeper problem seems to lie in the conflicting opinions Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs have about Israel's guiding principles and core promise.

The collapse of Oslo at Camp David in the summer of 2000 and the violent demonstrations by Israeli Arabs in October 2000 in which Israeli police killed 13 marked a watershed in the two communities' relationship. Long pent-up grievances among Israeli Arabs were brought out into the open, and doubts among Israeli Jews about the loyalty to the state of their fellow citizens were crystallized. But if there was a single turning point in Jewish perceptions, it came long before--in 1947, when the Arabs in Palestine emphatically rejected the option of a Jewish state and indeed any option other than an Arab state in all of Mandatory Palestine. Israelis were compelled to conclude that the Arabs were not interested in coexistence. The conclusion was fortified by the war launched by five Arab states on the fledgling Jewish state--which spurred the exodus of hundred of thousands of Palestinian Arabs from their homes and resulted in an Israel more than 50 percent larger than contemplated by the U.N. partition plan.

Even after 1966, when Israel lifted the martial law it had imposed on Arab communities after the 1949 Armistice agreement, Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs continued to live separate lives. While one could and still can find small towns where Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs mingle in markets and cafés, the two peoples have mainly coexisted by attending different schools, shopping at different stores, and socializing in different circles. Most Israeli Jews have never really ceased to regard Israeli Arabs as a potential fifth column. And most Israeli Arabs are at best unmoved by and generally estranged from Israel's Jewish symbols and public culture.

It can't be emphasized enough that Israeli law promises all citizens full civil and political rights--and because of Israel's commitment to this promise its Arab citizens remain far and away the freest Arabs in the Middle East. It should also be stressed, as Knesset member Amnon Rubenstein pointed out in a recent article, that the Israeli welfare state has significantly reduced the tremendous gaps between Jews and Arabs--in education, health, and social and economic well-being--that Israel inherited from British Mandatory Palestine. Yet it must also be said, as a substantial majority of Israelis now recognize, that Israel failed--out of fear, out of indifference, out of bigotry--to allocate to Arab communities a fair share of state resources for roads, hospitals, and schools, and to fully integrate their fellow citizens into the nation's social and political life.

The 1993 Oslo accords seemed to many to herald a new era, starting with mutual recognition between Israel and the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank and promising something approaching social and economic integration. Oslo was both welcomed and feared by Israeli Arabs. While feeling a sense of liberation from the dilemma of having to choose between Israel and the Palestinian cause, they were also apprehensive that once a final agreement was reached, they would find themselves marginalized in both states. The collapse of Oslo and Arafat's launching of the second Intifada reinstated, and intensified, the old dilemma.