Approximately 20% of Israel’s population is Arab. Approximately 85% of the Arabs are Muslim, with the remainder divided between Christians and Druze. About 20% of the Muslim Arabs are Bedouin. Israel’s Declaration of Independence proclaims all citizens equal under the law; Israel has no written constitution, and the Knesset can write laws that override decisions of the Supreme Court. The Declaration of Independence does not have the force of law. Arabs have voting rights, and Arabic, along with Hebrew, is an official language. Arabs (except for Druze) do not serve in the army or have any national service obligations.
Yet in many respects, equality clearly does not exist. The Arab school system is not the best, the infrastructure of the Arab villages and towns is far from equal to those where the Jews live. Arab political parties have never been party to ruling coalitions, although there are Arab members of the Knesset.
Two things make things even more complicated. Israel is a “Jewish State” – this does not help the Arabs’ sense of self esteem or their dedication to the country, nor does it lead the Jewish leadership to treat the Arabs as they treat their fellow Jews. Secondly, Israel continues to occupy the West Bank and Gaza, home to fellow Arabs.
The Israeli government is not sitting by idly, however. For perhaps the first time, under the leadership and guidance of Minister of Minority Affairs Aveshai Braverman, attention is being paid, funds have been appropriated to support development in thirteen Arab villages, and to establish an Arab venture capital fund.
On the other hand, the Arab leaders are not sitting back either. The Arab community is growing more conservative, and some of the conservative/radical Muslim groups are growing active in Israel, providing social services to fill the void where the Israeli government has failed.
On the third hand, the Israeli Arabs are the only Arabs in the Middle East living in a functioning democracy, and some of them are doing financially very well.
Of course, these are very complicated issues. And they were discussed in some detail on Sunday at the DC Jewish Community Center in a four hour forum sponsored by the Greater Washington Forum on Israeli Arab Issues, attended by more than 200 people. In addition to two plenary sessions, there were six breakout sessions dealing with various aspects of the situation.
The presenters (Jewish and Muslim) were all excellent, I felt, and the audience was clearly engaged. What the next steps are for the Washington based group (which has members representing a number of synagogues and non-profits) is unclear. I also noticed that there were few non-Jews in the audience, and relatively few younger attendees. This lack of diversity will not make it any easier to take positive steps.
Israel, with all of its good points, has more than its share of problems, some as a result of outside forces, some internal. While a focus on its Arab residents is clearly important, whether it is the one that should be addressed first, or if in fact there is anything that can be done (outside of providing funding) until some of the other Arab-Jewish issues in the region are resolved.