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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Israel’s do-over election performed a vital service for democracy

Like many Israelis, I was horrified when April’s election led to another in September; it seemed a colossal waste of time and money. But the do-ever election proved critical to maintaining Israel’s democratic legitimacy among half the public—the half that would otherwise have thought that April’s election was stolen from them.

In April, rightist parties that explicitly promised to support Benjamin Netanyahu for prime minister won 65 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. In other words, a clear majority of voters seemingly cast their ballots for a rightist, Netanyahu-led government. But after the election, Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman refused to join such a government.

Thus even if an alternative government could have been formed—whether a unity government or one led by Netanyahu’s rival, Benny Gantz—it would have undermined rightists’ faith in the democratic process. Any such government would have looked like a product not of the majority’s will, but of the whims of a single individual who “stole” right-wing votes and gave them to the left.

The do-over election showed this wasn’t the case. Lieberman’s party not only maintained its strength, but increased it, thereby proving him right that his voters cared more about curbing ultra-Orthodox power than about keeping Netanyahu in office. Moreover, the pro-Netanyahu bloc shrank even further—from 60 seats (excluding Lieberman) in April to 55 in September—due entirely to Netanyahu’s own appalling behavior in the intervening months, which prompted a nontrivial number of center-right voters to either switch sides or stay home and a massive increase in Arab turnout.

That doesn’t mean Gantz won; the bloc he heads can’t form a government on its own. But neither can Netanyahu’s bloc. Any possible solution—a unity government, a Netanyahu government with leftist partners or a Gantz government with rightist partners—will require compromise between the blocs. And nobody will be able to claim the election was stolen when that happens.

This matters greatly because the democratic process has been subverted far too often over the past 25 years, usually in the left’s favor, with enthusiastic applause from the left’s self-proclaimed democrats.

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