The real world is a complicated and often messy place. Sadly, all too often people ignore the complexity and prefer to look for inaccurate oversimplifications. The Israel / Palestine conflict is a good example, with many having strong views based on the sketchiest of knowledge. From talking with many people, I am acutely aware of the widespread ignorance about the 17 per cent of Israeli citizens who are Muslims of Palestinian ethnicity. (In comparison the UK is only about five per cent Muslim.) For example, I have met highly educated British Muslims who did not know that Israeli Muslims are allowed to vote in Knesset elections.
For extra background, I recommend reading the Jewish Virtual Library page “Latest Population Statistics for Israel.” To summarise, of Israel’s 8.5 million citizens, 74.8 per cent are Jewish, 20.8 per cent are of Arab ethnicity, and 4.4 per cent are “other.” The ethnic Arabs are detailed on the page “Minority Communities in Israel”; 85.6 per cent of them are Muslims, almost all Sunni, about 7.2 per cent Christian and about 7.2 per cent are of the Druze religion.
Positives about the lives of Israel’s citizens of Arab ethnicity
Like all other Israeli citizens, they have full political rights and have the privilege, like Britons, of living in a free democratic society. This compares very favourably with the 22 countries of the Arab League where my reckoning is that only the Comoros Islands, Lebanon and Tunisia can make any real claims to be democracies.
The Fathom article “Israel’s Arab citizens and the struggle for equality” shows:
- Israeli Arabs have a life expectancy one year longer than Americans, and 10 years longer than the average for Arab countries.
- Israeli Arabs have average annual per capita income of $15,000 compared with $10,000 for Arab countries overall.
Negatives faced by Israel’s citizens of Arab ethnicity
On average, Israeli Arabs earn about 70 per cent of what Israeli Jews earn. How much of this is attributable to discrimination (which is real) and how much to lower quality education would need much more detailed analysis. Furthermore, the state has historically spent noticeably less per capita on Arab education than on Jewish education. In terms of family incomes, inequality is exacerbated by Arab women having a much lower labour force participation rate than Jewish women.
As an illustration of the extent of both discrimination and the scope for legal rectification (Israel is a country which is ruled by law) read the history of land discrimination associated with the Jewish National Fund.
Perhaps most fundamental, as discussed in my 2011 piece “An Israel for all Israelis” is the difficulty of living as a citizen in a state where all the symbols of the state are associated with only one racial group despite it comprising only 75 per cent of the citizenry.
What Israel’s Arabs should do
Every individual has agency, and every individual is responsible for taking personal decisions that will improve his or her life.
Accordingly, no matter what discrimination they may encounter, individual Israeli Arabs should remind themselves that their main responsibility is to themselves, and not to other Arabs who live in Gaza or the West Bank. (Paradoxically, because what I propose will also help to advance the cause of peace, there will be indirect benefits for Gazan and West Bank residents.) Some of the actions individuals can take include:
- If they are of the right age, volunteering to serve in the Israel Defence Forces. This will increase their technical skills. Also military service often creates lifelong friendships, in this case with Jewish Israelis, which should be helpful in post-service life.
- Ensuring that they always vote. That is the way to make governments more responsive to your needs.
- Joining political parties; not just Arab parties but also mainstream parties except where such parties have an obvious and explicit anti-Arab agenda.
- I understand that Arab residents of occupied East Jerusalem have the right to apply for Israeli citizenship, although most have chosen not to do so. They would improve their lives by obtaining Israeli citizenship; not least because it would increase the total Arab voting power inside Israel.
As Israel’s Arab citizens successfully integrate themselves into Israeli society, as well as improving their individual lives they will also influence the dynamics of the state with regard to its external and internal policies. For example, they can add their voice to those of other Israelis who are campaigning for the state to introduce a civil marriage system, something taken for granted in most states but absent in Israel.
What Britons can do to help
The most important thing is to learn about the complexities of Israel’s society and to work at building up personal connections (both real and virtual) with Israelis from all parts of society, Jewish and Arab. That is something I personally have been able to do much more of since I started living in London. Last year, I was delighted to attend an iftar at the home of the Israeli ambassador, and this year for the first time I will be attending Israel’s Independence Day celebration in London.
Ultimately peace depends upon both sides understanding each other’s historical narratives. I despair of “anti-Zionists” in Britain who fail to understand that for Jews the existence of Israel is fundamentally about survival and who ignore the implications of historical experiences such as the SS St Louis. Only when you think about the experience of no country in the world being willing to take you in do you understand why it is a matter of life or death for Jews to have at least one country that is always guaranteed to take them in.
I also despair of ultra-Zionists who dismiss the Palestinians as squatters to be expelled from land which the ultra-Zionists regard as theirs by divine right.
There are many charities which work to reduce inequality inside Israel and to help integrate Israeli Arabs into wider society. To name but a few with which I have some connection: The Abraham Fund Initiatives, The New Israel Fund, the UK Task Force on issues relating to Arab citizens of Israel, Merchavim and Oasis of Peace UK which helps support the unique village of Neve Shalom / Wahat al-Salam, an equally mixed Jewish and Arab village in Israel which I visited in 2009. Such charities need as much financial and non-financial support as possible from Britons. The more successful Israel is at building an internally cohesive shared society, the greater the prospects for wider peace.