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Minority report: On equality and inequality in Israel

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

This year’s winner of the Israeli reality show The Voice, Lina Makhoul, might not be exactly a household name outside Israel, but week after week she thrilled viewers with her beautiful voice. Many doubted whether she would win the competition, not because she wasn’t the most accomplished contender, but because she is part of the Palestinian minority in Israel. In the week leading to the final, it was debated whether the Israeli public, which is mainly Jewish, would vote for her or for a Jewish contender. Ironically she won the competition with a moving rendition of Leonard Cohen’s song Hallelujah, endearing her with many Israelis regardless of their religion or ethnicity.

Another mystery of Israeli society, the success of Lina Makhoul prompted a public debate about the role and integration of the Palestinian minority within Israeli society. By law all Israeli citizens should enjoy equal rights, however, the practice is more complex. The fragmentation in Israeli society is greater than any reality TV show might suggest, and in daily life Arab Israelis are far from being integrated; they face subtle (and sometimes less subtle) discrimination and deprivation. The other side of the coin is that as long as peace eludes the State of Israel and their Palestinian brethren, who live under Israeli occupation, many of Arab Israelis themselves struggle with their own identity and torn loyalties.

Arab-Israelis

Surprisingly, one of the least discussed issues in the Jewish-Israeli discourse is that of the 1.4 million Arab-Israelis and their exclusion from many centers of social and political life. This is despite the fact they comprise roughly one fifth of the country’s population (of which 82% are Muslims and the rest Christians and Druze.) The Arab-Israeli parties have never been considered for participation in government though, in the very fragmented political system, their 11 out of 120 seats in the Knesset could tilt the political balance.

Redressing the injustices of the past can only benefit both communities, and in the longer term assist Israel in integrating into the region.

Yossi Mekelberg

Moreover, the Arab minority in Israel, along with the Jewish ultra-orthodox, is the fastest growing population, but suffers from inferior life expectancy, level of literacy, and income per capita (among other indicators), to that of the Jewish population. Unemployment among Arab-Israelis is twice as high in the Israeli economy, resulting in more than half of them living under the poverty line. Equally concerning is the legal discrimination against them. The Adalah NGO, which monitors the legal and social-political rights of the Arab minority in Israel, highlighted in its reports that laws are applied differently to the Arab-Israelis than to the Jewish population. Citizenship rights and land ownership rights are only two alarming examples in which the law is applied discriminately by the state. Additionally, Arab-Israelis are not treated equally when it comes to immigration and nationality laws. The state puts almost impossible hurdles in place to hinder spouses Arab Israelis, who are from the Palestinian Occupied Territories, from acquiring residency rights in Israel, an action which breaches international conventions. Even the right to mourn the Nakba, the catastrophe that befell the Palestinians in 1948, was outlawed. Moreover, a combination of legislation and institutional mechanisms deprive Arab towns and villages from access to land, which results in overcrowding.

Protesting hardships

These are just a few examples that raise questions about the future of relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel. Historically, Palestinian citizens rarely take to the streets to protest their hardships. On two of the occasions in which they did, it ended in violence and tragedy. The first in 1976, what is now known as Yum al-Arad (Land Day), six Arabs protesting against the confiscation of land were killed by Israeli security forces. This day is commemorated every year on 30 March by demonstrations against the way the Arab minority is treated. Even more violent clashes took place in October 2000, with the killing of 13 Arabs by Israeli security forces.

All of this leaves strong residues of resentment, especially when the loyalty of the entire community is questioned by many among the Jewish population, with no evidence to support such a claim. Furthermore, this type of insinuation is also used opportunistically by right wing parties as justification for their proposal that some Arab villages and towns be transferred to the Palestinian State as part of a peace agreement, regardless of the wishes of its inhabitants – a population transfer for all means and purposes. Proposed legislation compelling every citizen to swear their allegiance to the Jewish State, was put forth in a deliberate attempt to embarrass the non-Jewish population and cast doubt on their loyalty. In recent years repulsive anti-Arab and Muslim chants can be heard on football terraces, especially among the supporters of Beitar Jerusalem, which is associated with the right wing in Israel.

Inadvertently, the mass protestation of summer 2011, in which hundreds of thousands of Israelis lined the streets of the main cities to demand a fairer division of the economic and military burden, also highlighted the issue of the role of Arab-Israelis in the society and the need for radical reforms to allow for better integration. A committee led by Professor Manuel Trajtenberg was appointed to discuss the grievances of the Israeli middle class in carrying most of the social-economic burden. They also provided recommendations which if implemented, would improve employment among Arab-Israelis, especially among women and youth. The committee addressed, for the first time in Israel, the need to break the employment barriers and discrimination. It identified factors such as language, training, child care and exploitation of the lowly paid, many of whom come from Israel’s Arab minority, as a real obstruction to Arab-Israelis’ full integration into the country’s economy. Prof. Trajtenberg, who is also chair of the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education in Israel, outlined in a recent visit to London, his plan to increase the number of young Arab-Israelis studying at universities. Additionally, upon completion of their degrees, to assist them in finding employment in their field of expertise, this is not currently the case. At present, they make up only 12 percent of university students studying for their first degree, 8.2 percent of master’s students, and 4.4 percent of doctoral students. The percentage of Arabs among the academic staff is no more than 2 percent. The aim of this new policy is to elevate economic conditions among Arab-Israelis and with that boost the economy’s general performance.

At last there are some members of the Israeli society applying creative and constructive thinking in addressing the prevailing neglect of the Arab-Israelis. The refreshing element in Prof. Trajtenberg’s approach is that reforming the state’s approach towards the Arab minority is not a matter of charity, but a long term strategy which will improve conditions among the Arab population, benefit Israeli economy, and will prevent further rifts and radicalization. Redressing the injustices of the past can only benefit both communities, and in the longer term assist Israel in integrating into the region.

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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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