It’s a vital war, it’s happening now, and many of our national leaders are helping the wrong side
Former National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror offered an interesting analysis of last week’s incident in which Israeli Arabs nearly lynched an Israeli Jew in the Galilee town of Taibe. On one hand, he wrote, it’s worrisome that the assailants had no qualms about perpetrating such an attack “in broad daylight in the heart of their city.” On the other hand, the Jew’s life was saved by another Arab resident of Taibe, who “is not afraid to appear in public and take pride in his action, and none of his neighbors has condemned him.” What this means, Amidror concluded, is that “we are witnessing a struggle within Arab society,” between those who want to build a life together with the Jewish majority and those who want only to destroy what has been built.
Nor is the Taibe incident the only evidence of this struggle. Also last week, vandals firebombed an 18th-century synagogue in the northern town of Shfaram. Just a few months earlier, that same synagogue had been lovingly restored by young Arabs and Jews seeking to set “a model for coexistence between our two peoples.” Its very status as an emblem of coexistence made it a natural target for the destroyers.
In this struggle, the destroyers have some obvious advantages. First, as I’ve noted before, longstanding police neglect has ceded control of many Arab communities to the thugs. Second, most national-level Israeli Arab leaders, whether political or religious, are on the thugs’ side: Arab MKs routinely spew incitement from the Knesset, while clerics like the Islamic Movement’s Sheikh Raed Saleh do the same from the mosque. Third, the leaderships of both Hamas and Fatah in the territories are equally inflammatory (on incitement, the two are indistinguishable). Finally, as Amos Harel noted in Haaretz last week, pictures of the slaughter perpetrated by the Islamic State and other groups in Syria and Iraq have recently been flooding local social media networks, thereby encouraging copycat attacks.
But in one of the most encouraging developments of the past few months, a local-level Arab leadership has emerged that openly opposes the destroyers. This has been evident in numerous episodes.
During the demonstrations that followed the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir in July, for instance, some two dozen Arab and Jewish mayors in the Galilee and the Negev banded together to publicly urge calm and restraint, while in Acre, “Arab public officials and community activists stood as a barrier between the demonstrators and the police, pushing back the demonstrators in order to avoid a confrontation,” Haaretz reported. In September, Arab mayors and other community leaders protested in Jerusalem to demand that police crack down on illegal arms in Arab communities – a far cry from the one-time norm of Arab leaders stormily demanding that police stay out of their towns. In June, the Aman Center, an organization that combats violence in Arab society, ran a conference together with the national forum of Arab mayors and other groups on how to improve relations between the police and the Arab community; the center’s head, Sheikh Kamil Ahmad Rayan, said inter alia that Israeli Arabs must start treating police with respect. Last month, when Yom Kippur coincided with the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, the chief imam of Acre’s Al-Jazaar Mosque teamed up with the city’s chief rabbi to pay joint visits to both Jewish and Arab schools the week before and urge students to show respect for each other’s holiday.
In short, an emerging Arab leadership of builders is challenging the veteran Arab leadership, which has long been on the destroyers’ side. Thus Jewish leaders have an obvious interest in supporting the former while combating the latter.
Some local-level Jewish leaders, as the above examples show, are trying to do exactly that. But at the national level, Jewish leaders across the political spectrum are largely doing the opposite.
On the left, Knesset members and civil-society activists often prefer to blame all problems on the government, thereby absolving arsonists like the Arab MKs and the rioters of responsibility, while treating the arsonists as the authentic and legitimate voice of the Arab public. By so doing, they are bolstering the destroyers rather than the builders. On the right, Knesset members and religious leaders too often lash out at all Arabs indiscriminately. By so doing, they are undermining the builders, who need to be able to show their community that a constructive approach will be reciprocated by the Jewish majority.
This isn’t just bad for Israel as a whole; ironically, it’s also bad for each side’s stated political goals. The left claims to champion equality, yet anti-Arab discrimination will never be eradicated as long as many Arabs, including the community’s most visible and vocal representatives, openly oppose the Jewish state’s very existence or publicly support terror; if Israeli Arabs act like enemies, most Jews will inevitably treat them accordingly. The right claims to oppose territorial concessions, yet more territory inevitably means more Arab citizens, and the larger the Arab minority, the more important integrating it becomes.
And if all this weren’t enough, one of the few national leaders who genuinely understands the issue’s importance – President Reuven Rivlin – has managed, in his few short months in office, to so antagonize the very people who need to hear his message most that he’s become useless. True, the left adores him. But as a veteran center-right politician, he was uniquely placed to bring his message of coexistence to the right as well. Instead, judging by the complaints I’ve heard personally from friends and neighbors, he has alienated even the non-extreme right by hurling sweeping insults of the very kind he claims to condemn: Israel is a “sick society”; thuggishness has “permeated the national dialogue”; etc.
So we have a war going on for the soul of Israeli Arab society – one of the most important Israel may ever fight – and our national leadership is at best sitting on the sidelines, and at worst actively abetting the destroyers while undermining the builders. It’s a sad day for a country when its best hope is for people to simply ignore their ostensible leaders.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post