Tinderbox in Israel

This is the second in a two-part series on Israel's policies toward its Palestinian minority. To read the first part, click here.

A few weeks ago an Arab member of the Israeli Knesset was interrupted repeatedly by a female member of a far right party. He finally told her to “shut up,” whereupon she stood up and poured a cup of water over his head.

The video went viral, and the joke was: “The only good Arab is a wet Arab.”

Relations between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel are worsening.  According to Shalom Dichter, executive director of Hand in Hand: Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel, “a harsh stream of ugly racism seems to dominate public debate.”  One phrase I heard over and over on a recent trip to Israel was, “It’s a tinderbox.”

Under the current government—the most right-wing in Israel’s history—a flood of new legislation has targeted Palestinian citizens. The ban on family unification— making it virtually impossible for Israeli Arabs to marry non-Israelis—is just part of a pattern of tightening restrictions on the Arab minority.

Over the past year, for example, the Knesset has passed:           

  • the Naqba Law, fining any organization that openly marks Israel’s Independence Day as a day of mourning. The Naqba (Catastrophe) is how Palestinians remember the loss of their lands and homes in 1948. Palestinians remember the Naqba the way Jews remember the Holocaust, and to make it illegal to mark the day is their equivalent of Holocaust denial.
  • the Boycott Law, limiting the freedom to call for a boycott of any Israeli entity;
  • the anti-infiltration law, which mandates long incarceration without trial for human rights activists who help asylum seekers and refugees;
  • a law that makes it possible to strip Israeli citizenship for alleged “disloyalty” to the state, or “breach of trust,” an indirect threat to the citizenship rights of Palestinians.

In addition, at least 20 other repressive bills are under discussion in the Knesset. They include a bill that would allow libel suits and even criminal charges to be filed against anyone who speaks ill of the State of Israel or its authorities and a bill that would enable the Knesset to veto appointments of Supreme Court justices, a move that would curb the independence of an entity that has been the principal protector of human rights and civil liberties in the country.

Progressive NGOs in Israel are reporting increasing arrests, interrogations, and police violence against human rights activists.

The chief Rabbi of Safad has issued a ruling forbidding the sale or rental of apartments to non-Jews, with endorsements from more than 50 municipal rabbis—whose salaries are paid by the state of Israel.

The rising intolerance is not just aimed at Arabs, but also at dark-skinned Ethiopian Jews, who are subject to educational and housing discrimination. “We’re not even third class citizens, maybe like the Arabs,” an Ethiopian demonstrator told a reporter from Haaretz recently. “And I’m shocked at how Arabs are treated, I identify with them.”

Attacks on women’s equality are also becoming more frequent. Images of women have been removed from advertisements in Jerusalem; religious soldiers have boycotted military ceremonies where female soldiers sing; and women’s voices are not allowed on certain public radio stations. Although forcing women to sit in the back of public buses has been prohibited, the practice continues. A religious conference on female fertility actually forbade women to speak, until the ban was successfully challenged by a coalition of rights groups.

But, Israeli Arabs do bear the brunt of the growing intolerance.  They are seen by many Jewish Israelis as a “Fifth Column”—despite being citizens—more loyal to their brethren outside of Israel than to the Jewish state, and a “demographic time bomb,” that will eventually overwhelm the state with a Muslim majority (In fact,  the time bomb has stopped ticking.  Over the past decade the Jewish birth rate in Israel has grown by nearly 20 percent while the Muslim rate has fallen by 5 percent. In 2010, 76 percent of births in Israel were Jewish, 22 percent were Muslim. The change is a result of rising educational levels of Arab women in particular, and the growing numbers of religious Jews ).

The religious are the most anti-Arab.  When asked whether Israeli Arabs are part of Israeli society, only 20 percent of secular Jews said no, while 65 percent of the Ultra Orthodox said no.

The problem is beginning to concern American Jews. In January, a one-day conference on “Strengthening Israel’s Democracy: Arab Citizens of Israel” was held in Washington, D.C., sponsored by numerous synagogues and Jewish philanthropies. “We’re at the cutting edge of a movement that’s still finding its voice in the American-Jewish community,” Ami Nahshon, president of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, told the audience of more than 200 people.

Aviva Meyer, associate director of the New Israel Fund, put it bluntly, “‘it can’t be good for the Jews’ if one-fifth of the population is alienated …. if you care about the Jewish state, if you care about social justice, anything that makes Israel less democratic, less tolerant … isolates the state and ultimately weakens it …  We are not helping Israel if we abandon it to regressive, undemocratic, and extremist forces.”

At one panel, a man protested that the Arabs in Israel still had it better than their cousins in the Arab countries of the Middle East.

“The day when Israel compares itself with Iraq and Saudi Arabia and other Arab dictatorships we’re in deep trouble,” replied Nahshon, to applause.

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