Corona and Arab-Israeli Integration

An opportunity for closer cooperation between Arabs and Jews in Israel?

In times of crisis, when all are threatened by a killer enemy, one expects to find across the board solidarity. Arab-Israelis are no different in that respect. The coronavirus pandemic has not discriminated between Arab and Jewish Israelis. Unfortunately for the Arab community in Israel, their Knesset (Israeli Parliament) representative (the Joint Arab List) had been a barrier for Arab-Israeli full integration into Israeli society. They have been more focused on promoting and defending the Islamist terrorist group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, and seeking to dismantle Israel’s Zionist character, than seeking to bring about Arab integration into the Jewish state, as full and equal citizens.

The coronavirus shook the Arab community in Israel and made them cognizant of the fact that they share a common destiny with their fellow Jewish citizens. They have come to realize that the coronavirus doesn’t distinguish between Arab and Jew, or between those who abide by the Koran and Sharia, and those following the Halacha and the Torah. This common destiny was illustrated once before, during the 2006 Second Lebanon War between Israel and the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah. The Shiite Hezbollah terrorist missiles did not distinguish between Arab and Jew. Over 40% of those killed by Hezbollah’s missiles were Arab-Israelis. For the Arab community, that was a bitter revelation, and a shocking realization.

The Arab-Israeli community, which accounts for about 20% of Israel’s population, has experienced significant changes in recent decades that altered its traditional structures. It has been particularly noticeable in the weakening of the patriarchal authority. It has brought changes in the intra-clan relations, inside the family structure and in inter-personal relationships. Arab women are out of the house and working in the marketplace in increasing numbers, and similarly in institutions of higher education. The challenge to the patriarchal authority however, carried with it increasing levels of crime in the Arab-Israeli society.

Yet, religion and tradition are still the primary expressions of Arab-Israeli society identity. The Islamic movement in Israel established in 1972, followed a trend throughout the Arab world. It strengthened the Muslim identity of Israeli Arabs. The Islamic movement rejects integration and doesn’t accept Israeli sovereignty over any part of historic Palestine, considering the whole land belonging to the waqf, or the Islamic charitable endowment.

The Arab-Israeli nationalist camp, for its part, has raised the concept of “a state for all its citizens,” which aims to erode the Jewish character of the state. It also demands “cultural autonomy” and pushes the notion of being an “indigenous minority.” Those concepts enjoy widespread support among the Arab public. The weakest camp in Israel’s Arab Street is the Arab-Israeli political camp, which has virtually disappeared. In the past, it advocated integration. They are the “moderates” within the Arab-Israeli society and the least influential.

The Arab community in Israel (predominately Sunni-Muslim) has also shown heterogeneous tendencies, at least politically. A diverse group of Arab communists, Islamists, and nationalists were able to come together and form the Joint Arab List, which captured 15 seats in the March 2, 2020 Israeli election, the largest ever for an Arab party. These elected politicians militate against the Jewish state while benefiting from its largesse. In the meantime, individual Arab-Israeli doctors, nurses, and pharmacists are on the front line along with their Jewish colleagues in combatting the coronavirus.

Professor Raphael Israeli is a Middle East scholar and one of the preeminent researchers on the Arabs in Israel, who teaches at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Haifa University. His is a different view on Arab integration. In an interview with Nadav Shragai of the daily Israel Hayom (3/23/20), Professor Israeli contended that unlike some Israeli policymakers who hope for greater solidarity among Arab-Israelis with the State of Israel, he sees “a serious decline.” Solidarity, he mentioned, is “not increasing,” but rather “Arab-Israelis pulling away from Israeli-ness.” Professor Israeli debunks claims that the extremist, anti-Zionist Arab leadership in Israel doesn’t actually represent the views of their constituency.

Questioned on whether he (Prof. Israeli) may be wrong, since Arab-Israelis talk about integration into Israeli society, and government officials publish statistics that show a process of integration, Prof. Israeli responded in saying that “The question is, ‘what does integration mean’? If we're talking about economic integration, then yes  they are more involved. They own businesses, they trade with us and we trade with them, but unfortunately, their national attitude is to not integrate into the State of Israel. Nationally, they are gathering around an extremist leadership. Past talk about the birth of a different kind of leadership has not come to pass. When I talk to them about it, and I have done so extensively, I find a few who are willing to whisper different things in terms of nationality, but it's always a whisper. I'm waiting for a brave Arab leader who will say different things to his people. Right now, the way I understand it, the Arab-Israeli political leadership is pulling its public away from Israel, and the public is following."  

Yet, unlike the social networks from the neighboring Arab states, who, throughout last month engaged in conspiracy theories including that the coronavirus was an attempt to unleash a virus by both China and the U.S. to weaken each other’s economy; the Palestinian Authority (PA) officialdom balanced Arab disinformation with warning of the seriousness of the coronavirus. In fact, the PA has cooperated closely with Israel on stemming the spread of the coronavirus. They have asked the Israeli military to help in quarantining certain Palestinian areas in Judea and Samaria (West Bank).

Arab-Israeli communities, like the rest of Israel, have for the first time ever closed their mosques, public worship, and other religious and secular institutions to prevent social gatherings. This move was called for and endorsed by local leaders, including imams, without orders from Israeli authorities.

The Jerusalem Post (April 6, 2020) reported that, “About 60% of Jewish and Arab Israelis believe that the State of Israel has been dealing effectively with the coronavirus outbreak, according to a Tel Aviv University, March, 2020 Peace Index.”

Palestinian Arab Journalist Ramzy Baroud, editor of the Palestine Chronicle, in an opinion piece he wrote for the Jordan Times (April 7, 2020) pointed out that, “Times of crisis (referring to the coronavirus crisis), especially the kind that targets all of us regardless of race, religion or geography often constitute a wake-up call, present an opportunity for a new beginning, a new social contract so that we may resurrect from the ashes of our collective pain to build a better world.”

When the coronavirus crisis ends, hopefully in the near future, reality is likely to appear somewhat different to say the least. The destruction and disruption of life the crisis has caused may also offer an opportunity for closer cooperation between Arabs and Jews in Israel. Hopefully, it will be translated into greater integration of the Arab-Israeli community in line with Israel’s national agenda.

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