Analysis from Israel

If you believe the media, “human-rights” organizations, the Israeli left, and many American Jews, Jewish-Arab relations in Israel have never been so bad. And given the past year’s events, this conclusion certainly has legs to stand on: Jewish thugs have repeatedly beaten up Arabs and even horrifically murdered an East Jerusalem teenager; Arab residents of Jerusalem have committed several deadly terror attacks, including a horrific murder of worshippers at a synagogue; last summer’s war in Gaza sparked vicious social media outbursts in which Arabs and Jews openly called for killing members of the other group. Yet three new polls published over the last three weeks show that, like many popular narratives about Israel, this one seriously distorts the true picture.

The first poll, published last month, unsurprisingly shows that 77 percent of Israeli Jews and 68 percent of Israeli Arabs also believe last summer’s events worsened Jewish-Arab relations, and that negative stereotypes still abound. What it also shows, however, is that neither side considers this situation irreversible, and both are seriously interested in changing it.

For instance, a whopping 87 percent of Arab respondents said they still believe Jewish-Arab coexistence is possible. Even more astonishingly, the proportion of Arabs who said they identify with the Israeli flag shot up to 55 percent, from 37 percent last year, while the proportion that identifies with the Palestinian flag plunged from 34 percent to 8 percent.

Among Jews, the proportion who said they’d like to know the Arab population better shot up to 52 percent, from 38 percent last year. And this isn’t just talk: As Haaretz reported last month, both Jewish and Arab Jerusalemites are studying the other’s language in record numbers. New classes are filling “almost as fast as the courses can open”; waiting lists are long; and both sides say they could easily fill many more classes were it not for the shortage of qualified teachers.

The other two polls–conducted independently by Tel Aviv University and the Abraham Fund Initiatives, and released this week–show that Arab turnout in next week’s election is expected to hit a 16-year high. This is noteworthy, because the last time Jewish-Arab relations nosedived, following the Arab riots of October 2000, Arabs responded with a symbolic bill of divorce: boycotting the 2001 election. This time, they’re responding by turning out to vote in record numbers. As Thabet Abu Ras, co-executive director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, told the Times of Israel, “Arabs are now taking their citizenship more seriously than any time in the past.”

Moreover, many of them now want to use this citizenship not to push a separatist Palestinian identity, but to improve Arab integration. According to the TAU poll, 44 percent of Arab respondents think their Knesset members’ top priority “should be dealing with the ailments of Arab society: unemployment, violence, women’s status, education and health.” Another 28 percent said the most important issue was “government treatment of the Arab population,” while only 19 percent prioritized the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A Haaretz poll last month similarly found that 70 percent of Israeli Arabs want their MKs to focus on their own community’s socioeconomic problems rather than the Palestinian problem.

In part, as I explained in detail in my article for COMMENTARY this month, this change in Arab attitudes stems from the fact that successive Israeli governments have invested heavily in trying to reduce anti-Arab discrimination and increase Arab integration, and though the job is far from done, the progress has been noteworthy. But another significant factor, as Abu Ras correctly noted, has been the events of the Arab Spring, which gave Israeli Arabs a new appreciation of Israeli democracy.

“Despite the discrimination that exists in Israel, which should be combated, people now tend to see the cup as half full,” he told the Times of Israel. “Arab political discourse used to emphasize the cup as half empty, but no longer.”

This clearly bodes well for Israel’s future. Yet if even Israeli Arabs now see the cup as half full rather than half empty, isn’t it time for the rest of the world to do the same?

Originally published in Commentary on March 12, 2015

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Evelyn’s Mailing List

Your ‘Historical Detail,’ Our Real Life

A review of a comedy of manners set in England in the 1920s wouldn’t seem the obvious place to look to understand why the average Westerner really has no business trying to tell Israelis how to run their country. But two sentences in this New York Times book review encapsulate the problem perfectly: “Historical details, which abound, are often fascinating. (Who knew that beards interfere with gas masks?)”

I’m sure most New York Times readers don’t know that. But virtually every adult Israeli does, other than a few recent immigrants. That’s because almost every adult Israeli either has a gas mask or did at one time (mine still lives in my closet), and many of us have actually worn them. They were distributed nationwide before the 1991 Gulf War, out of fear that Saddam Hussein would put chemical warheads on the missiles he launched at Israel during the war. Israel, incidentally, was one of only two countries Saddam launched missiles at, even though it wasn’t one of the 39 countries actually waging war on Iraq at the time.

Since then, Israel has run several nationwide campaigns to get people to exchange their old gas masks for new ones. That gas masks have an expiration date is another fascinating “historical” detail most Westerners probably don’t know (the campaigns ended a few years ago, after the implosion of both Iraq and Syria reduced the risk of a chemical attack). Israel also passed a law requiring every new house to include a bomb shelter capable of doubling as a sealed room, since ordinary bomb shelters offer no protection against chemical attacks (yet another little-known “historical” detail). That’s one of many factors contributing to the country’s sky-high housing costs, but not one Israelis complain about. In-house bomb shelters are even more necessary today, given the thousands of rockets launched at Israel by both Hezbollah and Hamas over the last 10 to 15 years.

Even Israelis who were children in 1991 undoubtedly remember being woken by sirens in the middle of the night, rushing to makeshift sealed rooms (heavy-duty plastic wrap, tape and damp towels), putting on their masks and sitting for hours waiting for the all-clear. The adults also remember being unable to fall asleep at night while awaiting that siren. The chronic sleep deprivation experienced by people under missile bombardment is another little-known historical detail (somehow, it never seems to interest human rights organizations as much as the sleep deprivation of captured terrorists during interrogations).

As for beards, this being Israel, a public battle raged for months in 1990-91 over whether Haredi men, who normally don’t shave for religious reasons, should be given special, more expensive masks that can accommodate beards, or whether they could reasonably be expected to shave, given that in Jewish law, saving a life trumps most other religious precepts. There was even a high-profile court case by a secular bearded man charging discrimination because Haredim got the special masks while he did not (he won).

Of course, there’s no reason why reviewer Susan Coll or any other Westerner should know any of these “historical details.” Thankfully, no Western country has faced the threat of bombardment with chemical warheads, or even conventional rockets, in more than 70 years. The problem is that so many Westerners who share her ignorance feel fully qualified to tell Israel what it should do, despite not knowing the most basic facts about the security challenges it faces.

Read more
Archives