Saturday, February 23, 2008

Equal But Separate


There can be no question of the good faith behind Interior Minister Meir Shitreet’s announcement this week that Israel would establish a new city for its Arab population in the Galilee. There can also be no question of its weirdness.

The city’s mandate, if that’s the word for it, is to compensate Israeli Arabs in some measure for the way they have been boxed in during the past 60 years. The plan is particularly aimed at providing affordable housing for young Arab couples.


“It will be a modern city,” Shitreet said, “where young couples can afford to buy property and live just like in any other city in the world.” And the matter of residency is particularly fraught. Arab citizens make up about 20 percent of Israel’s population (and are still disproportionately engaged in agriculture), but they live on perhaps 5 percent of the land. As a rule of thumb—and while being mindful of the exceptions—you may assume that the state has spent on Arab citizens, per capita, less than half of what it’s spent on Jews.

Public lands of all kinds, managed by the Israel Lands Administration, are over 90 percent of Israel’s territory within the Green Line. Management, according to the ILA’s charter, is meant to recognize “the special relationship between the People of Israel and the Land of Israel and its redemption.” Israeli Arabs have successfully, if fitfully, sued the state to be able to live on land once belonging to the Jewish National Fund (upon which most veteran Israeli towns were established).

Still, the state has not actively enforced these judgments and most public land is, in effect, closed to non-Jews. (I explore this subject in depth in my forthcoming book, The Hebrew Republic.) It is hardly any wonder, then, that the idea for a new city for Arabs originated with an Arab politician, Hadash MK Hanna Swaid, and that Israel’s only Arab member of the government, Sports, Science, and Culture Minister, Ghaleb Majadele, strongly endorses the plan. Many Jews do too. The proposal was endorsed by “18 left-wing members of Knesset as well as right-wing MKs.”

I presume that left-wing, in this case, means Israeli MKs from former socialist parties who, like (now fugitive) Azmi Bishara think there is a material gap to be closed, an Arab bourgeoisie to be reconstituted, and a separatist Arab culture to be surrendered to. There is also, among Israeli Jews, a measure of what Arthur Koestler once called “claustrophilia.”

THE PROBLEM HERE is that when you actually ask Israeli Arabs what they want, you are reminded of the liberal freedoms and hybridized identities that, come to think of it, cities were created to engender. You also wonder how—given the knowledge economy we live in—anyone could possibly think Israeli Arab professionals or entrepreneurs could thrive without integrating into Israeli cities, enterprises, and communities of practice. And the person who, for many years, has asked Israeli Arabs what they want is Professor Sammy Smooha, the Dean of Social Sciences at Haifa University, who threatens to give empirical sociology a good name. Here are some of his findings:
  • 75 percent of Israeli Arabs between the ages of 16 and 22 support voluntary national service;68 percent would be willing to live in a Jewish neighborhood, and 80 percent would like Arabs to enjoy parks and share swimming pools with Jews;
  • Over 53 percent feel rejected as citizens of Israel;
  • Almost 75 percent of Arabs support the return of refugees only to a Palestinian state; 45 percent said that they feel closer to Jews in Israel than to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza;
  • Almost half support “comprehensive integration into the Western world.”
  • Only 13 percent would be willing to move to a Palestinian state, from which one may infer that they would also be unwilling to move to an Israeli Arab city.As for Israeli Jews, over 75 percent said they would hesitate to enter an Arab town.
THESE FINDINGS GIVE reason for hope. Also dread. My Israeli Arab friends leave no doubt about how they cherish democracy, which has come to them in Israel's Hebrew version. Israeli cities have given them the language, broadly, to speak of individual freedoms, sexual desire, the foibles of fathers, scientific doubt. In many courses of study at Haifa University, Arab students make up more than half the class. Tel-Aviv means you can be a part of the global thing. South Tel-Aviv means you can be bad. Yet to promise equality to young Arabs, teach them Hebrew, introduce them to classical arts, give them broadband, unhinge them from traditional families, dangle Intel and Google workplaces before their eyes—and then tell them they are not really wanted in the Jewish state—is to invite what Smooha calls, with characteristic tact, alienation. The polls show only about 3 percent would entertain the use of violence. That is 35,000 people; the Islamists are biding their time.

Jews, by the way, might well remember the violent feelings prompted by an impulse to modernize that was thwarted by a civil society only half-open to them. They might remember, that is, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Radek—remember that in the first Soviet Central Committee, only Lenin and Stalin were not Jews? If Czar Nicholas had turned around and promised Odessa’s maskilim a city of their own, what do you think most would have called it?

A footnote: Last night, a Shabbat evening when Jewish Jerusalem goes quiet, my (step-) granddaughter had high fever and I drove her and her anxious parents to the Magen David Adom emergency clinic. An Arab doctor healed her. Today, my master fuse shorted. An Arab electrician fixed it. In both cases, the diagnoses and blessings were given in Hebrew; the professionalism was palpable. The city, today at least, seems promising.

(Photo Credit: Lisa Katz, Israeli Arab town of Mashad)