Essay about Arabs in the Jewish State

We thought it might be useful for us to summarize some basic information for people who are not local residents and who may be curious about life here. Jewish-Arab relations and what it means to be a non-Jewish citizen in Israel is of course a very complicated and controversial topic, and cannot be summarized in just a few pages. But we have tried to be as balanced as possible, and have included some links to further information. Hopefully this introduction will stimulate readers' curiosity to explore the topic further in the many books and internet sources that are available.

Approximately 21% of the population of Israel, over 1.7 million people, are part of the general cultural or ethnic group defined as “Arabs,” and another 4-5% are from other non-Arab ethnic groups. Most of these citizens (or their parents or grandparents) were living in their present communities before 1948, and became citizens of the new state of Israel when it was formed. Needless to say, their status as non-Jews in the Jewish state is complicated, and raises difficult questions of identity and morality for them and for the Jewish majority. They are unlikely to emigrate, nor can a moral case be made for their expulsion. They are also unlikely to assimilate and become Jewish. Therefore, if Israel is to continue to exist as a stable, moral society, the Jewish majority and the Arab minority will have to find a way to live together harmoniously.

a. Identity

As indicated above, the definition of the “Arab minority” in Israel is not simple. The population in question is composed of a number of different religious and ethnic groups, some of which are not ethnically Arab, yet are sometimes not recognised as such within common terminology.   The groups are largely united by the Arabic language and certain cultural common denominators.

Among the Arabs of Israel:

  • 83% are Sunni Muslim (there are almost no Shia Muslims in Israel).
  • About 13% of these Sunni Muslims belong to the Bedouin ethnic group, who were originally nomads from Saudi Arabia, but increasingly live mostly in permanent communities in Israel today.
  • 7% of the Arab minority are Arab Christians – divided mainly between Catholic and Greek Orthodox, with some small Protestant communities.  
  • 8% of the Arab minority are Druze – a religion that split off from Islam in the middle ages.

Among the non-Arab minority groups:

  • There are some 9,000 so-called Syriac Christians, often Aramaic-speaking, divided between Arameans (including Maronites) and Assyrians.   A number of the former have taken advantage of a recent change in the law to register their ethnicity as Aramean rather than Arab.
  • Some 1,000 Israeli citizens belong to the Coptic community, which originated in Egypt.
  • There are around 4,000 Armenian Christians in Israel.
  • There are two villages of Sunni Muslims from the Caucasus region who migrated to the area in the 1800s; these Circassians number about 3,000.
  • There are fewer than 1,000 Samaritans, an ethnoreligious group closely related to Judaism which claims descent from the Israelites of ancient Samaria.  Some half of them live inside Israel proper.
  • There are small communities of Ahmadiyya Muslims and Bahá’í, as well as many other small ethno-religious groups.

Remember that we are talking about the Arab citizens of Israel, not the many thousands of Arabs who live in the areas occupied by Israel in 1967 (West Bank and Gaza). These areas are not officially part of Israel, and the Arabs there are not Israeli citizens. These Arabs mainly regard themselves as Palestinians or Palestinian Arabs, but many of the Arab citizens of Israel also define themselves this way.

Arabs who are citizens of Israel vote in elections, pay income tax, carry Israeli passports, serve in the Knesset and the cabinet, can serve in the army (Druze are drafted; others may volunteer); they are full citizens.

b. A quick history

1. The Torah describes the promise of the land of Israel to Abraham and his descendants; later, after the exodus from Egypt, it says:

When the Lord your God brings you to the land that your are about to enter and possess, and He dislodges many nations before you – the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, seven nations much larger than you – and the Lord your God delivers them to you and you defeat them, you must doom them to destruction… (Deuteronomy 7:1-2).

And the book of Joshua starts out describing the beginning of such a sweeping conquest. However, before long, according to the simple text of the Bible, the process stalls, and the first chapter of Judges presents a whole catalogue of peoples and tribes we did not conquer or expel. Finally, in Judges 2, God expresses displeasure with the people's religious compromises, and sends an angel to tell them: ''I have resolved not to drive them out before you…'' (Judges 2:3).

And so it came to pass that the Jews had to share their land with others, from the very beginning; it seems that there never was a time when the population of the land was 100% Jewish. This was often difficult. Sometimes the Jews had the upper hand, and sometimes they were a minority. In any case the land was never ''just Jewish.''

2. In 586 BCE the Babylonians conquered Israel, and exiled the upper classes to Babylonia (later Iraq), where they formed a strong and prosperous and culturally rich community that lasted until the 20th century. Those left behind, and some who returned when the Persians conquered Babylonia and allowed Jews to return to Israel, achieved a degree of independence and rebuilt the Temple, but in 70 CE the Romans put down a revolt, destroyed the Temple, and many Jews left the country for North Africa and Europe, later moving on to North and South America.

For centuries, the Jews prayed to return and re-build a kingdom in Israel, but believed that this could only happen when God was ready – God would send a ''messiah'' who would lead the return. This situation stayed constant until, at the end of the 19th century, the Jewish memory/hope of Israel combined with secular humanism and modern nationalism to produce a new idea, Zionism. Zionism was a revolution in Judaism, for it said that Jews should not wait for God, but should take matters in their own hands to return and rebuild their state; it also taught that Jews should be a nation like all the others, and that Judaism was a nationality, not a religion.

3. Zionism had two major forms:

Political Zionism (led by Theodore Herzl) worked to convince the nations of the world to give the Jews a land of their own. In 1917 the British government issued the Balfour Declaration, saying it supported a ''national home'' for the Jewish people in the land of Palestine; this was later confirmed by the United Nations in the Partition resolution of 1947.

Practical Zionism believed that the way to re-create the Jewish state was for Jews simply to go to Israel and settle, farm the land, build the economy, create institutions and businesses and a culture – even before the official creation of a Jewish government. Jews began settling in Israel, among the Palestinian Arabs living there, starting in the early 1880s.

The Jewish settlers didn't really have a clear plan as to how they would relate to the Arabs. Many hoped that somehow the Arabs would welcome the improvements in technology and prosperity and quality of life brought by the settlers from Europe, and would be happy to cooperate. And the Arabs also had mixed feelings: on the one hand they didn't want to be ruled by people they saw as ''colonists'' from Europe – even if those colonists believed that they were actually returning to their historical home; on the other hand, life really was better for everyone in Palestine than it had been before, and many Arabs moved in from other countries round about.

4. As Jewish immigration increased, and Jewish self-government got more organized, the Arabs became more resistant, and developed their own sense of Palestinian nationalism; they tried to convince the British, who ruled Palestine under a League of Nations mandate from 1918 to 1948, to prevent Jewish immigration. Meanwhile, with the rise of Nazism in Europe, and then the Holocaust, the Jews needed a place more than ever. The Arabs resorted to violence, and the British realized that they couldn't keep the situation under control any more, so in 1937 they proposed dividing Palestine into two countries, one for the Jews and one for the Arabs. The Jews, after some debate, accepted the plan; the Arabs rejected it outright. On November 29, 1947, the UN voted to accept partition.

The Jews declared independence on May 15 1948, in the territory granted them in the partition. The Arabs declared war on this new state, rejecting its right to exist on land they said was theirs. The Jews call this war the War of Independence, and the Arabs call the Nakba – literally: the catastrophe. The gulf between the sides is brought into high relief by this difference of terminology – for the Jews, it marked the culmination of their 2000-year-old dream to build an independent Jewish state. For the Arabs – it marked the dashing of their hopes.

The Jews and the Arabs of Palestine fought it out, the Arabs joined by armies from neighboring Arab countries. When the war ended, an armistice was declared, and the map had changed, with the Jewish portion growing significantly. The Jewish state of Israel was declared, and all who were found to be within its borders were granted full citizenship. As for the regions that had been designated as parts of the proposed Arab state – the West Bank was taken over by neighboring Jordan, and the Gaza Strip – by Egypt.

5. And the people? When the war broke out, there were about 600,000 Jews in Palestine, and about a million Arabs (all the numbers in this paragraph are somewhat controversial). After the war, the Jews remained, soon to be joined by massive numbers of immigrants – Holocaust survivors from Europe, and Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Many of the Arabs (around 750,000) fled or were banished by the Israeli Army, mostly ending up as refugees in neighboring Arab countries. However, around 180,000 Arabs stayed, and when the war was over, became Israeli citizens; it is their descendants who constitute the million Arab citizens today.

6. Fast-forward to 1967, when the Six Day War broke out, between Israel and Egypt, Syria and Jordan. After those six days, the map had changed yet again - Israel was now in control of much more land, and also a sizable number of Arabs who lived in the conquered areas. These were not granted citizenship – and it is important to note this crucial difference. Whereas the ''1948 Arabs'', as they're called – the ones who lived in Israel after the War of Independence, and their descendants – are full Israeli citizens, the ''1967 Arabs'' – the ones who came under Israeli rule after the Six Days War – are not citizens. The former have all the rights and almost all the obligations of Israeli citizens (except for Army service), including voting and being elected to the Knesset; the latter may not vote or be elected, and cannot cross the Green Line into Israel proper. The Palestinians you hear about on the news reports, engaging (or not) in peace talks with Israel, launching terrorist attacks and rockets at Israel, besieged by Israel in the Gaza strip – are not Israeli citizens.

c. Some aspects of life for Israel's Arab citizens

The Arab Israelis have strong ties to the Palestinians who live in Gaza and the West Bank (or elsewhere) – indeed, some of them may define themselves as Palestinian. They share history, culture, language, religion, family ties, and in some cases national aspirations. But they have lived as citizens of the State of Israel for more than 60 years, and that means that they are linked to the State as well.

So what is life like for Arab Israelis? Mostly, Arabs and Jews in Israel are segregated – often by choice, sometimes by government design. Small communities are either Arab or Jewish. Towns may be mixed, but usually there are separate neighborhoods. In mixed neighborhoods, tension may run high, and riots may erupt occasionally.

The school systems are separate, with Arab schools catering for Arabs and teaching in Arabic, and Jewish schools catering for Jews and teaching in Hebrew. However, it is important to note that the Arabic schools are run by the Israeli government ministry of education, so for the most part, Arabs and Jews learn the same curriculum, and learn that they are equal citizens of Israel. Only four schools in the whole of the state are mixed. Most Arabs are not required to serve in the Army, so that great melting pot of Israeli society is missing the Arab ingredient. Most Jews will meet an Arab only when they go to university, after their army service. Arguably, this segregation results in mistrust and suspicion, on both sides.

Arabs in Israel, as a group, are worse-off than Jews on virtually any socio-economic scale measured (though they are still better-off than most citizens of neighboring Arab states). There is more poverty, unemployment, illiteracy and infant mortality in the Arab sector. To a certain extent, this stems from discrimination. Although it is illegal in the State of Israel to discriminate on the basis of nationality, religion or creed - discrimination does occur: less state funding is allotted per Arab student than per Jewish student, few Arabs are hired by Government-owned companies, and Arabs may encounter prejudice when seeking jobs, apartments or kindergarten slots. However, the gaps between Arabs and Jews are also caused by the fact that Arab society is making a fast transition from traditional to modern – a transition that is much further along in most of Jewish society. To give one example, up until quite recently Arab women did not go on to higher education and often did not work outside their village (or indeed, outside the home). This meant lower family income, less parental support for children's education, etc.

Arabs in Israel participate in the political process. There are several Arab parties, and also Arab members of mainstream parties. Arab parties have generally not been invited to join the coalition that makes up the government, and so are effectively barred from the executive branch. The first Arab to be appointed as a minister in the government was Raleb Majadla, a member of the Kadima party and Minister of Culture and Sport 2007-2008.

d. The basic concerns

In looking over the whole picture of the life of the Arabs in the state of Israel, there seem to be several major areas that need to be addressed in order for Israel to become a just and harmonious society for everyone who lives here:

1. What is a democratic Jewish state? Israel wants to be both Jewish and democratic. However, after 60 years, the Jews can't even agree among themselves how to define a ''Jewish state,'' which makes it hard for the Arabs to figure out just what is expected of them and what they can expect from their country. Consider, for example, the flag and the national anthem…

2. Security: Israel has been in conflict or even war for most of its existence, with Arab countries or groups. That makes the situation of the Arab citizens difficult – they have mixed feelings and loyalties – and the Jews tend to look at them with suspicion. Consider the treatment of the Japanese-Americans in California in World War II.

3. Culture: Israel has not gone the American route of the ''melting pot.'' The government funds separate school systems to allow the Arabs to maintain their language and culture. Segregated living is mostly taken for granted. Jews and Arabs often don’t get to know each other, and see the other's culture as foreign.

4. Racism, ethnocentrism, prejudice: Like everywhere else in the world, in Israel different groups tend to be suspicious of ''outsiders,'' fearing the ''other.'' Here too, the majority (Jews) tends both to fear and to look down on the minority (Arabs). The fact that in many areas of the country Jews and Arabs have almost no social contact with each other probably makes this worse.

Despite all the daunting factors described above, it is interesting to note that for the past century the Jews of Israel have been fascinated by the Palestinian Arabs, and strongly attracted to many aspects of their culture. Significant elements of Israeli Jewish culture were assimilated from the Palestinian environment, in a process that began with the first Zionist settlers and continues to the present. This borrowing runs through many spheres, e.g., slang, music, foods, design... Perhaps there has always been a feeling among the Jews that the Palestinian Arabs are in some way a role model for us, rooted in the land as we wish to be - but alas, rooted in the same land we wish to be. There can be room for both of us to live here together, rooted securely. But the experiment can only work if we make room for each other.