Israel’s Arabs: Dispelling the Apartheid myth

Israel will soon celebrate 68 years of independence. 

Israel will soon celebrate 68 years of independence. At this young age, it is still very much a society in formation, and yet one thing can already be said: far from being perfect and as flawed as it may be, Israel's democracy still offers its minorities rights and liberties that are non-existent in the rest of the Middle East, and rare in many parts of the world. 

While Israel's detractors and critics are quick to label the country an "apartheid state," a racist regime and a host of other terms designed to de-legitimize Israel, an examination of the facts clearly proves that while there is more that can be done, Israel is a very good place for minorities. Examples abound. 

A couple of weeks ago, Jamal Hakroush became the first Muslim Arab to reach the rank of Major General in the Israeli Police-the second-highest rank in our police force. Israel also has a Christian Arab Supreme Court Justice, the Honorable Salim Jubran. Arab Muslims, as well as Arab Christians, Druze, and Circassians abound in all walks of life in Israeli society. They are in the police, in the army (where Druze have reached high ranks including Brigadier General and Muslims have reached the rank of Major), in the judicial system and in every single Government Ministry. Muslims and Druze serve as local authorities in positions of power including mayors and city council members, and serve as diplomats representing Israel abroad, though they still are under-represented in relation to their proportion in society. 

The Declaration of Independence of 1948 promises that the State of Israel "will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions."  By and large, the state has upheld these standards and affords all minorities full freedoms and privileges-along with duties and obligations as required of Jewish citizens. The single duty of Israeli citizens of which Arabs are exempt is the requirement to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. The decision to exempt them was taken by the first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, in order to avoid an identity crisis among Israel's Arabs if faced with a military conflict in which they would have to fight against fellow Arabs. And yet, thousands of them do volunteer to serve in the IDF despite being exempt. 

Our political system, too, affords all minorities the ability to elect and be elected. The present Knesset (Israel's Parliament) has a coalition of four Arab parties comprising together 13 members, making it the third largest party in the Knesset, after Likud and the Labor Party. Two more Arabs have seats in the Knesset representing other parties, Labor and Meretz.

This is not to say that the Israeli democracy is a perfect one. Certainly, the constant state of conflict that has characterizes our state for the past 70 and more, has put much strain on the fabric of Israeli society and has influenced attitudes towards minorities-primarily the Arab one. In seven decades, there have been many demonstrations, protests and strikes by the Arab sector demanding more rights and better treatment. It is interesting to note that these demonstrations are part of the freedom of speech and freedom of congregation afforded by Israeli law-and denied in most countries surrounding Israel. But one cannot ignore the fact that many Arabs still feel marginalized in Israeli society and it is incumbent upon the majority to change that situation.

It is in this context that a Haifa University survey, "The Index of Arab-Jewish Relations 2015" had some interesting findings. Sixty-two percent of Arab Israelis defined themselves as ethnically Palestinian and a third of them deny the right of the State of Israel to exist as an independent state. And yet, 64.7 percent of Arabs polled say that Israel is a good place to live and 54 perceent-over half of Israeli Arabs -say that despite its flaws, the Israeli regime is a democracy for the Arabs as well as for the Jews. That may seem incompatible with the fact that 67 percent  of those polled still feel that they suffer discrimination. 

Striving toward the goal of true equality may be a lofty ideal, especially for a society under constant threat from within and without, a society which sometimes finds it difficult to differentiate between an Arab regime waging war against it and Arab citizens who deny Israel's right to exist. The Zionist ideal of creating a society where all citizens are equal may not be fulfilled in the near future, but the fact that Arab Israelis do not participate in violence against Israel, and the fact that the vast majority of them would rather live in Israel than anywhere else, does prove one thing: Israel is not, as some would claim, an apartheid state.

Ofer Bavly is the director general of the JUF Israel Office. 

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