An incident during the recent retirement ceremony for Israel’s Chief Justice, Dorit Beinisch, highlighted the complexities Israeli Arabs face in relation to their identity.
Justice Salim Joubran, a respected Israeli Arab Supreme Court judge, a member of the panel passing sentence on former president Moshe Katzav, was televised standing in silence during the singing of the national anthem, Hatikva.
Yisrael Beiteinu MK David Rotem immediately accused him of having “spat in the face of the state of Israel” and suggested that if he objects to singing the national anthem he should “find a state with a more appropriate anthem and move there”.
His provocative outburst provided impetus for post-Zionists and those seeking to dejudaize the Jewish state, to renew efforts to replace Hatikva with a new anthem, an act which most Israelis would bitterly oppose.
Yet, it is surely absurd to expect non-Jews to empathize with Naphtali Herz Imber’s lyrics which relate to the “yearning of the Jewish soul” in order to live as “a free nation in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem”.
Fortunately, the debate was nipped in the bud by the response of Judge Joubran’s colleague, Judge Elyakim Rubinstein, a religious Zionist and former cabinet secretary whom nobody could accuse of compromising Zionist traditions.
Rubinstein, who emphasized that he was strongly opposed to the replacement of the lyrics of Hatikva, condemned the “ill directed” criticism stating that Judge Joubran was “a loyal citizen of the state of Israel who dutifully represents us “. He pointed out that “we cannot demand that Arab citizens should be obliged to sing lyrics of an anthem to which they cannot relate and does not reflect their roots. We must make allowances for common sense”. He said that “non-Jewish citizens must respect the national anthem and stand while it is being sung and non-Jewish army, police and prison service officers must salute while it is being sung “.
His views were fully endorsed by other prominent politicians including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Minister Moshe Yaalon. Ha’aretz, frustrated that the debate had been closed, published an editorial calling for a new anthem.
There are today 1,500,000 Arab-Israeli citizens compared to 150,000 when the state was created. Although during recent years the social gap has narrowed considerably, this sector is proportionately less affluent and less influential than the Jewish majority and could be likened to Hispanics and African-Americans in the US social structure.
There is also a highly disquieting growing antipathy and prejudice against Arab citizens amongst those Israelis who increasingly perceive them as a fifth column identifying with terrorists and allied with those seeking to destroy the Jewish state.
This trend is primarily attributable to the Arab MKs who, instead of seeking to integrate into Israeli society, compete with one another to display contempt for their country and identify with its adversaries in actions which most Israelis deem treasonable.
There are numerous examples. There was the recent attendance of leading Arab-Israeli MKs at the signing of a Hamas–Fatah reconciliation in Cairo; Dr. Azmi Bishara, a former Balad MK who has now fled the country, allegedly collaborated with Hezbollah and Syria during the Second Lebanon War; another Balad MK, Haneen Zoabi, notorious for making outrageous remarks defending terrorists and accusing the IDF of war crimes, joined Turkish terrorists on the Mavi Marmara Flotilla; MK Ahmed Tibi, Arafat’s former advisor, recently enraged Israelis when he paid tribute and sanctified Palestinian “martyrs… who died for the homeland” and “resist Israelis who occupy and murder” and during the latest rocket attacks against Israel, Tibi exhorted “Be strong, oh Gaza. Stay steadfast, oh Gaza”.
The northern branch of the Israeli Islamic Movement headed by Sheikh Raed Salah, engages in an ongoing Kulturkampf against Jews, repeatedly fanning hysteria by promoting jihad and repeatedly accusing Israel of seeking to destroy the Al Aqsa Mosque. Salah also played a prominent role in the Turkish flotilla.
Israeli Arab leaders set aside an annual date to mourn the creation of Israel as a “nakba” – a catastrophe, and commemorate it with three days of marches, conferences and rallies during which they rail against the Jewish state.
There are even densely Arab populated areas in the Galilee such as Umm al Fahm and sections of East Jerusalem which law enforcement officers have become loath to service.
In such an environment, , Israel as a besieged state is entitled to commendation for its level of tolerance towards a minority that is so widely perceived as supporting its mortal enemies.
In his speech to Congress last year, Prime Minister Netanyahu noted that “Of the 300 million Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa, only Israeli Arab citizens enjoy real democratic rights. Now, I want you to stop for a second and think about that. Of the 300 million Arabs, less than one half of a percent are truly free and that they are all citizens of Israel”.
Arab Israelis enjoy complete freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and the right to educate their children in their tradition. They receive identical social welfare benefits as other Israelis. One need only visit an Israeli hospital, especially in Jerusalem, to witness how they benefit from Israel’s remarkable health system.
Not surprisingly, none of them display a desire to leave Israel and join their kinsman in Arab countries. Indeed, opinion polls demonstrate that should a division of Jerusalem eventuate, many Arabs in the city would unhesitatingly change their place of residence to ensure that they remain under Israeli jurisdiction.
According to a 2011 poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, 52.8% of Arab citizens responded positively to the question as to whether they were proud to be Israelis. Amazingly, 45% even agreed that it is “important or very important” to strengthen Israel’s military might. Whilst one can also identify contradictory and hostile indicators, this does suggest that the jury is still out and that the anti-Israeli Arab politicians are not necessarily representative of all Israeli-Arabs, with many still opting to be loyal law-abiding citizens.
Sadly, the government has failed to chart an overall long-term strategy on how to deal with its Arab minority.
Such a plan is now long overdue. It should be based on efforts to improve the socio-economic status of Arab Israelis and bring them into line with the rest of the population. Arabs who seek to contribute positively to the state should be encouraged and rewarded. Provisions should be made for Arabs to engage in a form of national service. However, there is also a need to strengthen the laws against treason and incitement, thus enabling the enforcement agencies to deal much more severely with those who indulge in such activities or support those seeking to destroy us.
Concurrently, with negative perceptions of Arab Israelis beginning to enrage even the most tolerant sections of the nation, an intensive campaign to educate against prejudice is also required.
Who knows – were this to succeed and if in future more progressive Arab regional leaders emerged, Israeli Arabs could make a major contribution towards achieving peace.
The writer may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org