JERUSALEM — Hopes were high among Israel’s supporters when the United Nations General Assembly debated the Palestine issue 63 years ago that the proposed Jewish state would be “a light unto the Gentiles” insofar as the treatment of its Arab minority was concerned.
Unfortunately, this great expectation did not materialize.
Although 20 percent of Israel’s citizens are Arabs and despite their entitlement to full equality in accordance with the Declaration of Independence, there are embarrassing instances here of discrimination — overt and covert — as well as prejudice, suspicion and, in all too many cases, outright hostility.
One of the latest instances is the attempt to enact a law allowing ostensibly homogeneous communities comprising at least 500 families to bar prospective newcomers if they are deemed unsuitable or unassimilable.
This highly controversial concept is meant to keep Arabs out. It was used several years ago when an Arab family consisting of a physician, his wife and children, was denied permission to buy a house in a Jewish village in the Wadi Ara (Emek Iron) region.
Although Israeli Arabs (referred to lately as Israeli Palestinians) are educated in schools supervised by the Ministry of Education and are fluent in Hebrew as well as Arabic, they do not get their proportionate share of government jobs. Barely 2 percent of Israel’s diplomats are Arabs and their representation on the boards of state-owned corporations or public institutions is minimal.
Those who dismiss these findings as inaccurate or irrelevant often argue that Israel’s Arab citizens have a substantial representation in the Knesset (parliament).
On average, they say, barely 10 percent of the Knesset’s 120 deputies are Arabs by arguing (correctly) that many Arabs vote for national political parties rather than parties that are Arab-dominated or that are concerned primarily with issues that relate exclusively to Arabs.
Even so, the Central Bureau of Statistics consistently finds that Israeli Arabs are at the lower end of the economic ladder and that unemployment among them is at the higher end.
One handicap young Arab men and women face is that most of them do not serve in the Israel Defense Force and therefore are ineligible for jobs in the country’s relatively large defense industries. The decision to exclude them from conscription at age 18 was made by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who, for humanitarian reasons, contended that it would be wrong to compel them to go to war against their own brethren.
The consequences of the discouraging status quo extend far beyond such matters as Israel’s international image or its evaluation as a genuine democracy. (The current right-wing coalition government wants all immigrants to declare loyalty to Israel as a “Jewish democratic state.”)
They affect the prospects, however dim, of an accommodation with the Palestinians of the West Bank, not to mention the hopes that the Gaza Strip’s Islamic extremist Hamas regime may eventually be overthrown.
Former Defense Minister Moshe Arens, who has been considering an alternative to the “two-state solution” that the United States has been promoting and to which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pays lip service, prefers a one-state solution that would include all the Arabs west of the River Jordan — Palestinian and Israeli — in one truly democratic country.
Arens believes that if the Israeli Arabs were able to emerge from the discriminatory conditions that afflict them and if the Palestinian Arabs bore witness to this his one-state solution would become an attraction rather than a deterrent.
Actually, an end to discrimination is a worthy goal regardless of its prospective effect on the regional dispute. It would vindicate the idealistic belief harbored by Israel’s most ardent supporters back in 1947 that if indeed the Jewish people’s dream of national independence were realized the treatment of the state’s non-Jewish minority would be exemplary. The Jews suffering as a minority in Europe made this seem axiomatic and inevitable.
(Jay Bushinsky, an Israel-based political columnist, can be reached at Jay@actcom.co.il.)