A silent Arab Spring is sprouting … in Israel

“Apartheid” is probably the last word you’d want to use to describe this place.

The Mamilla Mall in Jerusalem, July 19, 2021. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
The Mamilla Mall in Jerusalem, July 19, 2021. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
DAVID SUISSA Editor-in-Chief Tribe Media/Jewish Journal (Israeli American Council)
David Suissa
David Suissa is editor-in-chief and publisher of Tribe Media Corp and Jewish Journal. He can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Good news is never that exciting. It’s always more dramatic to ring the alarm about one problem or another. Calling Israel an “apartheid” state, as Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) did recently, is a good example. It’s so inflammatory that it’s guaranteed to attract maximum attention, both from critics and supporters of the Jewish state.

I was thinking about Tlaib’s accusation last week as I was strolling through the streets of Jerusalem. At a cafe in the trendy Mamilla mall, a young Muslim woman wearing hip jeans and an elegant headscarf sat next to my table, ordering lunch and working on her laptop.

“Are you living in an apartheid state?” I felt like asking her. I wondered if she even knew, or cared about, the brouhaha that routinely goes on in America around Israel.

Here’s the thing about Israel: You can read a thousand tweets and media commentaries spouting one opinion or another, but it really helps to actually walk the streets. And when you do, “apartheid” is probably the last word you’d want to use to describe this place.

If anything, the opposite is starting to happen—more and more Arab Israelis are pushing back against the accusation. A prominent example is Yoseph Haddad, an Arab Israeli who defends Israel on social media and abroad in both English and Arabic.

“Despite all of its deficiencies,” he wrote recently on Ynet, “Israel is not an apartheid state. Not even close.”

Haddad, who visited the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg and met with black residents who lived under the regime, says that using the apartheid label for Israel “diminished and cheapened the suffering of black South Africans who had been subjected to the ills of apartheid for many years.”

Just as I wondered about the Muslim woman sitting next to me at the cafe, Haddad asks:

“Is Samer Haj Yehia, the chairman of Israel’s largest bank, Leumi, living under an apartheid regime? And what of Dr. Masad Barhoum, the director general of Galilee Medical Center, or George Karra, the Supreme Court justice? Are they living in an apartheid state, too? And what of the Arab doctors, lawyers and police officers and the Arab members of Knesset and the ministers—are they living under this form of oppression as well?”

The Arab grocer who schmoozes in Hebrew with Jewish shoppers; the Arab manager at a Jerusalem hotel who put his kids through college; the Arabs who mingle naturally with Jews of all colors in the Mahane Yehudah market—none of those moments I’ve experienced make for exciting news. They lack the drama of confrontation.

But it is precisely this prosaic reality that has a chance to ameliorate Arab-Jewish relations. Those relations are driven not by grand statements or geopolitical strategy, but by answers to simple questions, such as: Am I allowed to have a coffee here, to get a university degree there, to hang out at this park, to get a job in this hotel, to vote for this candidate, to take my kids to this hospital? Those answers, as much as any argument, are the sharpest rebuttal to the apartheid charge.

As Haddad reminds us regarding the real Apartheid: “Black South Africans were not even allowed on park swings used by white children.”

Of course, just like imperfect America, imperfect Israel still has a long way to go to bring equality and justice to all its residents, including its minorities. Animosity between Jews and Arabs continues. Many Arab citizens are still bitter about Israel’s very existence, which they commemorate as the “Nakba,” or catastrophe.

But if the country aims to be a work in progress, at least it is putting its money where its mouth is. For the first time in Israel’s history, an Arab-Muslim party is part of its governing coalition. (That’s like having MAGA and the Squad in the same party.) This is a hopeful sign that pragmatic needs in the Arab sector, like infrastructure, crime reduction and health care are superseding the ideological toxins that feed passions but leave stomachs empty. That would be in keeping with the new spirit of the Abraham Accords, which are reshaping Israel-Arab relations around mutual interests.

Feeding passions, though, is what feeds the three-second narrative wars. That’s why you’re not likely to hear about this Silent Spring through social media or sexy headlines. The story is too slow, too multi-layered, too positive.

It’s also real.

“The tides seem to be turning as Israeli Arabs are increasingly speaking out in support of the State of Israel,” author and political expert Ben-Dror Yemini wrote this week on Ynet. Yemini cites a slew of Arab-Israeli advocates, among them:

“Mohammad Kabiya—a Bedouin from northern Israel who served in an IDF combat unit; Jonathan Elkhoury—the son of a former officer in the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army who was resettled in Israel after its 2000 withdrawal and dedicates his life to coexistence between Arabs and Jews … Shadi Khaloull—a Maronite Christian who served as an officer in the Paratroopers Brigade; Dima Tayeh—a Muslim woman from northern Israel and a stalwart Israel supporter who ran in the Likud primaries for a spot on the party’s list for Knesset; and Liana Khatib—a member of the Druze community who works part-time for the Foreign Ministry.”

Yemini, who has met many of these advocates, writes that “More and more young Israeli Arabs choose to present an alternative to the animosity. Israel is not perfect, many of them have told me, but it provides more equal rights and opportunities not only compared to its Middle Eastern neighbors but also other advanced Western nations.”

The Arab advocates realize that recognizing their rights in Israel is “the best way to both strengthen Israeli Arabs and promote reconciliation and peace.”

Needless to say, these brave activists are meeting opposition from those with a vested interest in maintaining a narrative of animosity. When your cause—and your fundraising– depends on depicting Israel as oppressor and Arabs as oppressed, the last thing you need is a shift in narrative.

But on the promenades and cafes and hospitals and markets and universities and voting booths and beaches and children’s playgrounds of the world’s only Jewish state, the narrative is quite the opposite of apartheid.

Those benefiting most from this reality don’t really care whether Rashida Tlaib hears about it or not. They just want their almond cappuccino extra hot.

David Suissa is editor-in-chief and publisher of Tribe Media Corp, and “Jewish Journal.” He can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

This article was first published by the Jewish Journal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
You have read 3 articles this month.
Register to receive full access to JNS.

Just before you scroll on...

Israel is at war.

JNS is combating the stream of misinformation on Israel with real, honest and factual reporting. In order to deliver this in-depth, unbiased coverage of Israel and the Jewish world, we rely on readers like you.

The support you provide allows our journalists to deliver the truth, free from bias and hidden agendas. Can we count on your support?

Every contribution, big or small, helps JNS.org remain a trusted source of news you can rely on.

Become a part of our mission by donating today
Thank you. You are a loyal JNS Reader.
You have read more than 10 articles this month.
Please register for full access to continue reading and post comments.
Never miss a thing
Get the best stories faster with JNS breaking news updates