It turns out that some ultra-Orthodox Jews are not the only ones resisting Israel’s stringent regulations about social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic. There have also been incidents in which residents of Israeli Arab communities are not following rules. In one case, police efforts to enforce social distancing led to a riot in an Arab neighborhood in the city of Jaffa with protesters assaulting police and burning tires and garbage dumpsters in a scene reminiscent of the first intifada.
Critics of Israel are falsely portraying this unfortunate episode as evidence of the country’s mistreatment of Arab citizens. This is nonsense, though at a time when the BDS movement has gained support and leading Democrats, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders, routinely refer to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a “racist,” it can’t be ignored.
Efforts to promote this misleading narrative have gained ground since the March 2 Knesset election, when the Joint Arab List won a record 15 seats. The party’s success was rooted in a strong turnout of Arab voters. But while the Joint Arab List’s success is proof of Israeli democracy, the fact that it will not be part of the next government is being depicted as evidence of racism.
Part of the disappointment being expressed by the Arab population stems from the actions of Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz. Though he eventually decided to throw in with Netanyahu and create a unity government, Gantz spent weeks flirting with the idea of forming a government with the help of the Joint List. He decided against it in part because of resistance from members of his own party, and also because polls showed that Israelis were outraged about the notion. The Joint List is a coalition of advocates for a Communist state, an Islamist state, a Palestinian nationalist state and a pan-Arab state, and has no place in any government of a state that they wish to destroy. But Gantz’s decision is being depicted in Israel’s left-wing media as an insult to all Arab voters, a theme that has been picked up in the international media.
The problem here is not just the distorted coverage of Israeli attitudes towards the Joint List. As unfair as the racism canard being thrown about with respect to opposition to its participation in any Israeli government may be, that debate has unfortunately polarized the discussion about the place of Arab citizens in Israeli society. If the party that Arabs voted for are “terrorists” and supporters of those who wish to tear down the Jewish state, then that undermines efforts to fully integrate Arabs into Israeli society.
The heated rhetoric about the Joint List and its intentions aside, having Israeli Arabs become full partners is an aspiration that all friends of Israel should support. The founding fathers of Zionism—both those on the left like David Ben-Gurion and Ze’ev Jabotinsky on the right—always envisioned a Jewish state as a place where the Arab minority would have full rights and participate in its governance. Despite the BDS movement’s lies about Israel being an “apartheid” state, Israel does grant full rights to the Arab minority. They are equal under the law in the courts and at the ballot box. Arabs not only serve in the Knesset but also in positions throughout the Israeli government.
Yet Israeli Arabs often feel as if they are permanent outsiders while living in a state whose purpose is to provide a national home for the Jewish people. That manifests itself in not just slights to the Joint List, but in inadequate government services for Arab towns and cities. Israel does need to do better in this respect; however, the problem isn’t only the fact that the country’s leaders haven’t prioritized the issue.
The problem is the Joint List.
If Israeli Arabs want to be fully integrated into Israeli society and have their voices not merely heard but heeded, then they need to have political representatives that advocate for that cause. Instead, they have chosen people whose goal isn’t an Israel that is a better place for its Arab minority; instead, they have representatives that want to deny the Jewish majority their right to self-determination in a Jewish state.
One shouldn’t expect Arab voters to be ardent Zionists, yet they can’t expect to be treated as full partners when the people who claim to speak for them want to pull down the state as it is and replace it with something that will disenfranchise Jews.
Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza have settled for being led by groups like Fatah and Hamas, who are only interested in keeping them at war with Zionism, rather than in creating an independent Palestinian state. The same can be said for Israeli Arabs who vote for confrontation with Zionism by electing the Joint Arab List as opposed to a party that would be dedicated to their well-being and interests. Unfortunately, there is no such party competing for Arab votes.
Sadly, the same toxic and destructive political culture that has doomed Palestinian Arabs in the territories to endless conflict rather than constructive solutions has also manifested itself in the voting patterns of Israel’s Arab citizens. If, like their counterparts on the other side of the green line, their Knesset members are only focused on trying to undo the last 100 years of history, then it will foreclose any opportunity for them to reap the full advantages of being citizens of a prosperous democracy. Just as dangerous, it convinces Israeli Jews that their Arab neighbors want to destroy their state, not have equal rights in it.
Seen in that light, the failure of the Joint Arab List is not in their being denied a place in Israel’s government, as critics claim. It’s that it has become the greatest obstacle to mutual coexistence for Jews and Arabs. That isn’t evidence of Israeli racism, but it is a tragedy.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.