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Monday, January 04, 2010

The Enemy Within

Israelis are used to fretting about the threats from without: Syria and Egypt in the past, Iran in the present, a possible Palestinian state in the future. But Israelis tend to suppress their fears from the real threat to the country’s existence, the threat from within: the so-called “Arab-Israelis”. (Arabs who were here when Israel achieved independence in 1948 and were granted Israeli citizenship). Mostly this burying-one’s-head-in-the-sand attitude comes from wishful thinking (“they prefer to live with us so they’ll behave”) or political correctness (“they are Israeli citizens, like you and me”).

Ignoring the problem will not make it go away. The allegiance of many Arab-Israelis to the State of Israel is an impossibility. Israel Jews cannot ask Israeli Arabs to declare full and unconditional loyalty, simply because such loyalty is not something they can give. Would you ask an American Jew to declare full and unconditional loyalty to the US if the US were an enemy of the Jewish State? Those politicians asking Arab-Israelis to declare unconditional allegiance do so because they want to promote their own agenda, possibly legitimising a future deportation or a “population swap” deal.

So what we are left with is an intractable problem: a huge minority (around one fifth) that cannot be integrated fully. So long as they are a minority, the problem is more or less manageable. But demographics being what they are, the problem will not go away; it will become only bigger. And Israel will find itself managing an apartheid regime to contain the problem, pretty much like it’s been doing with the Palestinians in the occupied territories for the past four decades.

A recent loud and clear reminder to this problem was the “interview” of MK Jamal Zahalka, an Arab member of parliament, to one of the TV shows earlier this week. Putting aside, with sadness, the lack of any vestige of civilised debate, the views expressed by Zahalka are such that will exasperate almost any Israeli Jew. Like calling the Defence Minister a murderer of children who then listens to classical music (the not-so-subtle reference to Nazi commanders of death camps is clear). Or labelling Ramat Aviv (a suburb of Tel Aviv) Sheikh Munis, the name of the Arab village that was there before 1948. Or asking Israelis to listen to what Haniyeh (head of Hamas in Gaza, an advocate of the destruction of Israel) has to say. Instead of helping Israeli Jews understand the plight of Palestinians in Gaza, these declarations achieve exactly the opposite: they raise an impenetrable barrier between Jews and Arabs and preclude any reasonable debate.

By the way, I’d love to see Zahalka express similar views against Arab political leaders on Arab television networks, or even on Palestinian television. Arab-Israelis take the freedom of speech granted to all Israeli citizens as granted (and so they should) but all too often they forget there are 21 Arab countries, and not one of them is a democracy.

I’m sure most Arab-Israelis are honest, hard-working citizens who care much about the same things I care about. But they are stuck impossibly between a rock and a hard place and a future of living peacefully together currently looks like an impossible dream.

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