Sunday, November 9, 2014

Why Have Jewish-Arab Relations Deteriorated in Israel? The View of Sikkuy's Ron Gerlitz, by Phyllis Bernstein

What follows is a summary of remarks delivered by Ron Gerlitz, co-executive director of Sikkuy: The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality, at an Inter-Agency Task Force for Israeli Arab Issues meeting on November 6, 2014 in New York. 

"To hate Arabs isn't racism, it's having moral values! #Israeldemandsrevenge
By Phyllis Bernstein

This summer, and since the war in Gaza, we have witnessed a serious deterioration in relations between Jewish and Arab citizens in Israel.  Unlike the events which took place in 2000 between the police and Arab citizens, since the summer of 2014 we’ve seen civil clashes between Jewish and Arab citizens.

In most cases, Jews have attacked Arabs verbally or physically.  What’s new is the frequency and intensity of these incidents. This is something we’ve never seen before in Jewish-Arab relations in Israel.   A few examples:  shouting “death to Arabs” on the street, demonstrations demanding the firing of all Arab employees in some shopping malls, organized pressure on employers to fire Arab employees, death threats against people who expressed sympathy for Arabs, including former Defense Minister Amir Peretz, physical and verbal attacks against Arab citizens, racist incitement in social media, dismissal of Arab employees by mainstream Jewish employers, and incitement by politicians such as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman who called on Jews to boycott Arab businesses.

The results:  Arabs have simply become afraid to go out in the street, speak Arabic in public, and go to work. The level of hate has increased significantly on both sides.   Extreme right-wing organizations have also incited hatred against Israeli Arabs through well-organized demonstrations and marches.

Some believe this has happened because of the war in Gaza.   But there have been three other wars in Gaza in recent years and these things did not happen before.    If we simply see these developments as an “unexplained outburst of racism" in Jewish society, we will be unable to find solutions.   What we are seeing is a backlash by the very extreme right to the strengthening of Arab society and its ever-increasing integration in the economy and society in Israel.

Arab society in Israel has gotten stronger – economically, socially and also in terms of political representation.  Many factors have driven this process, some due to Arab society itself, some to government efforts, and some to NGO’s working for equality. 

While growing up near Tira in the seventies, Ron saw Arabs working only as school janitors or as farmers. Today you can see Arabs working in pharmacies and in hospitals as doctors and nurses.  The symbol of success is the Arab Supreme Court judge who sent former President Katzav to jail.  Arab citizens of Israel have not only become better off, but they are also more visible and this has changed how the extreme Jewish right sees them.

The backlash began in the Knesset with a wave of legislation against Arab citizens.  But the politicians failed, and Arab society has continued to flourish.   This summer, people took to the streets to try to do what the politicians couldn’t do. 

The extreme right wing wanted to stop integration in employment, and the “Chuligans” in the street (similar to the KKK, but with different hats) descended on pharmacies to demand the dismissal of Arab employees. They cannot tolerate the strength and visibility of Arabs in public in Israel. They want to put them in the only place they’re willing to see them – back down at the bottom. 

During the summer, the assault against Arab citizens took place in the Knesset, within the government, on social networks, in the media and, of course, on the street.  This makes the situation much worse because it is harder to control.  And we have come very close to the point where things could spin out of control. 

What does all this mean for Israeli society?   In a word, it’s dangerous.    There is a real possibility that the largely non-violent relations between Arabs and Jews in Israel will deteriorate into serious violence. 

We must develop solutions for this new situation, because things have changed dramatically.   A few important lessons emerge.    First, we didn't expect the backlash from the right wing to the success of efforts to strengthen Arab society and especially to the strides made in integrating Arabs into the Israeli work place.  The process of economic development, integration and narrowing of gaps between Arabs and Jews is not linear.  There are people on the other side who want to stop it and we need to take this into account.  An example:  While Israeli and American Jewish philanthropists are giving microfinance to small Arab businesses, the foreign minister called on Jews not to buy from those very same businesses!   Philanthropic efforts must take this into account.  Otherwise, their efforts are at risk of failing.

There are more and more shared spaces in which Jews and Arabs mix on an equal basis, especially in work places and in the new mixed cities like Nazareth Illit.  And it is exactly in those places that we saw clashes between Jewish and Arab citizens.

If the Arab woman from Sakhnin hadn’t graduated university and worked as a pharmacist in Haifa, no one would have cared what she thought about the IDF during the Gaza war.   But she is a graduate of an Israeli college and she works in a pharmacy.   So right-wing hooligans demanded her dismissal because of what she wrote on Facebook during the war.   "Death to the Arabs" marches were not held in Baqa al-Gharbiya but in Nazareth Illit and Haifa.  The Arab doctor was fired and not the Arab hospital cleaner.

While we have worked hard and had success in narrowing gaps, for example through increased economic development in the Arab sector and creating more shared places, no one considered that those places could become focal points for tension between Jews and Arabs in times of war.   It is exactly in those places where the right wing will react. 

Perhaps the most important lesson is that economic development by itself simply isn’t enough.  The difference in narratives between Jews and Arabs dramatically affects the ability of these societies to live together.  NGOs and philanthropists cannot create a common narrative for both sides.   The Zionist and Palestinian narratives are very far apart.   That chasm will not be bridged in the next two generations.   But we must find ways to live together despite these different narratives.

We must be ready for the next escalation.   Every newly shared space could become the arena for the next escalation between Jews and Arabs.  It is important to develop and promote ideas that will enable those shared places:  for example, the workplace must become tolerant of the different narratives.  As an example, an Arab doctor should not be fired for Facebook posts in sympathy with the Palestinian children killed in Gaza.   

We should not stop pushing economic development forward, and we should continue to build a shared society.  But now we must also prepare for the reactions of those who find these unwelcome.   In addition to our investment in economic progress, we will also have to invest in preparing our response to the likely counterattack.   We will have to find ways that those shared spaces, especially places of employment, can accommodate the two differing and sometimes conflicting narratives of Jews and Arabs in Israel.

Phyllis Bernstein adds:   Israeli Arabs, and the Palestinians in the West Bank and in Gaza, all view themselves as part of the same “Palestinian people.”   Arab citizens want to remain in Israel as citizens, but in times of war they are unable to express dissenting views against the government’s policies or the IDF’s actions.   Israeli civil society really needs to start addressing the question of how to deal with the “Palestinian peoplehood narrative” of Israel’s Arab citizens.   In short, Israel needs to work much more on its democracy issues.

Phyllis Bernstein is co-chair of the Israeli Arab Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest New Jersey and serves on the executive board of Partners for Progressive Israel.  Her views are her own and not those of any organization with which she is affiliated. 

Here are links to three Op-eds by Ron Gerlitz with further analysis of the deterioration in Arab-Jewish relations in Israel this summer: 

1. Why Palestinian citizens of Israel are no longer safe, Ron Gerlitz | +972 Magazine  

2.  A short version of that op-ed appeared in Ha’aretz:   The backlash against Arab integration
3.  And a new op-ed about the firing of Arab employees during the war:   Dismissal for Narrative Reasons | Ron Gerlitz | The Times of Israel


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