Analysis from Israel

It feels almost tasteless to be writing about good news while France is mourning a horrific terror attack. Yet there’s been so much good news from Israel over the last week that my biggest dilemma has been which item to pick. Having discussed immigration yesterday, it’s time to move onto Israel’s Arab minority–specifically, the stunning new Israel Democracy Institute survey in which 65 percent of Arab citizens said they were either “quite” or “very” proud to be Israeli in 2014, up from 50 percent the previous year.

To be fair, the poll was conducted between April 28 and May 29–meaning after the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian talks broke down, but before the summer’s war in Gaza, the shocking murder of an East Jerusalem teen by Jews, and other difficult events of the past several months. Thus had it been taken today, the number might well be lower.

Nevertheless, given the torrent of accusations of “racism” and “apartheid” that have been hurled at Israel for years now from both inside and outside the country, it’s quite remarkable to discover that as of eight months ago, 65 percent of Israeli Arabs were “proud” to be citizens of that “racist,” “apartheid” Jewish state, and 64 percent said they usually felt their “dignity as a human being is respected” in Israel. This raises the obvious question of whether perhaps Israeli Arabs know something about Israel that its detractors don’t.

In this regard, it’s worth considering some of the survey’s other surprising findings. For instance, 57 percent of Israeli Arabs said they have faith in the Israel Police–second only to the Supreme Court (60 percent), and significantly higher than the proportion of Jews who said the same (45 percent). This reflects the fruit of a decade-long effort by the police to rebuild trust with Arab communities after the nadir reached in October 2000, when policemen killed 13 Arabs in course of suppressing massive, violent Arab riots. Since then, police have tried hard to recruit more Arabs to the force, open more stations in Arab towns, and maintain a regular dialogue with Arab community leaders. And as the survey shows, this effort is working.

Even more astounding is that 51 percent of Arabs expressed confidence in the Israel Defense Forces–aka the “occupation army” that, according to Israel’s detractors, ruthlessly oppresses their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank. This exceeds the level of confidence Israeli Arabs expressed in the Knesset, the media, or their religious leadership and suggests they don’t buy the canard of IDF brutality enthusiastically swallowed overseas. I also suspect the IDF–and Israel as a whole–benefited from comparisons with the real atrocities being perpetrated in Syria and the heavy-handed tactics used by Egypt’s military: The contrast with the meltdown in much of the Arab world can’t help but make Israel look more attractive.

Yet Israeli Arabs’ pride in Israel also reflects the concerted efforts to improve integration and narrow Jewish-Arab gaps that successive governments have made over the past two decades.

For instance, an affirmative action program launched in 2007 quadrupled the proportion of Arabs in the civil service over the space of just four years. It’s still significantly lower than their proportion in the workforce, but nevertheless constitutes dramatic improvement.

Similarly, a government program to subsidize employment of Arab high-tech workers helped quadruple the number of such workers between 2010 and 2013. And in Israel’s premier technological university, the Technion, Arabs now constitute 21 percent of the student body–slightly higher than their share of the population–thanks to a special program to recruit Arab students and give them extra support while they are there.

The gap between Jewish and Arab matriculation rates hasn’t disappeared, but it did shrink by more than a third from 1996-2012. Arabs remain underrepresented among master’s and Ph.D. students, but the percentage of master’s degrees awarded to Arabs more than doubled from 2005-2013 and the percentage of Ph.D.s rose by 40 percent. Concerted efforts to build more Arab schools have brought average class sizes down to the same level as in secular Jewish schools. And so on and so forth.

In short, while gaps and discrimination still exist, Israel has been working hard to reduce them, with considerable success. And Israeli Arabs have responded with growing pride in being citizens of the democratic Jewish state.

Originally published in Commentary 

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Physicians, Heal Thyselves

It’s no secret that many liberal Jews today view tikkun olam, the Hebrew phrase for “repairing the world,” as the essence of Judaism. In To Heal the World?, Jonathan Neumann begs to differ, emphatically. He views liberal Judaism’s love affair with tikkun olam as the story of “How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel.” In fact, he believes tikkun olam endangers Judaism itself. Anyone who considers such notions wildly over the top should make sure to read Neumann’s book—because one needn’t agree with everything he says to realize that his major concerns are disturbingly well-founded.

Neumann begins by explaining what he considers the modern liberal Jewish understanding of tikkun olam. It is taken, he says, not just as a general obligation to make the world a better place, but as a specific obligation to promote specific “universal” values and even specific policies—usually, the values and policies of progressive Democrats.

He then raises three major objections to this view. The first is that the only way to interpret Judaism as a universalist religion with values indistinguishable from those of secular progressives is by ignoring the vast majority of key Jewish texts, including the Bible and the Talmud, and millennia of Jewish tradition. After all, most of these texts deal with the history, laws, and culture of one specific nation—the Jews. The Bible’s history isn’t world history, nor are its laws (with a few exceptions) meant to govern any nation but the Jews. Judaism undeniably has universalist elements. But to ignore its particularist aspects is to ignore much of what makes it Judaism, which therefore corrupts our understanding of Judaism.

The second problem is that if Judaism has no purpose other than promoting the same values and policies touted by non-Jewish progressives, there’s no reason for Judaism to exist at all. Consequently, the tikkun olam version of Judaism really does threaten Judaism’s continued existence, and it’s no accident that the liberal Jewish movements that have embraced it are rapidly dwindling due to intermarriage and assimilation. After all, why should young American Jews remain Jewish when they can do everything they think Judaism requires of them even without being Jewish?

This also explains why, in Neumann’s view, tikkun olam Judaism endangers Israel. If there’s no reason for Judaism to exist, there’s certainly no reason for a Jewish state. Indeed, Israel is anathema to the tikkun olam worldview because it’s the embodiment of Jewish particularism—the view that Jews are a distinct nation and have their own history, culture, and laws rather than being merely promulgators of universal values. Thus it’s easy to understand why tikkun olam Jews increasingly abhor the Jewish state.

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