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The 25% of non-Jewish Israelis are often overlooked

Israel's citizens of Arab origin face severe discrimination, but can take action to make their lives better. Britons can also help them, and there is much the Israeli government should also be doing. Success would also advance Israeli / Palestinian peace.


22 May 2016

Ever since I visited Israel and the West Bank at the end of 2009 / beginning of 2010, I have trained myself to never use the word "Israeli" to mean "Israel Jew". Such usage ignores the 25% of Israeli citizens who are not Jewish.

I briefly wrote about them in my 2011 piece "An Israel for all Israelis." I regard improving the lives of Israelis who are Arabs as an important goal in its own right; one that is independent of the question of peace between Israel and Palestine.

At the same time, improving the status of Israel's Arab citizens also has the potential for increasing the prospects of Israeli / Palestinian peace, since it would alter the internal political dynamics of Israel.

I wrote a short piece published on Conservative Home on 16 May 2016 which is reproduced below. Due to space constraints, the Conservative Home article focused only on:

  1. What Israel's Arab citizens can do for themselves.
  2. What Britons can do to help them.

As my website does not have the same space constraints, I have included an addendum with some suggestions for what the Israeli government should itself do.

Mohammed Amin: Remember the forgotten Israelis

Mohammed Amin is Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum. and Co-Chair of the Muslim Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester. He is writing in a personal capacity.

The real world is a complicated and often messy place. Sadly, all too often people ignore the complexity and prefer to look for inaccurate oversimplifications. The Israel / Palestine conflict is a good example, with many having strong views based on the sketchiest of knowledge.

From talking with many people, I am acutely aware of the widespread ignorance about the 17 per cent of Israeli citizens who are Muslims of Palestinian ethnicity. (In comparison the UK is only about five per cent Muslim.) For example, I have met highly educated British Muslims who did not know that Israeli Muslims are allowed to vote in Knesset elections.

For extra background, I recommend reading the Jewish Virtual Library page “Latest Population Statistics for Israel.” To summarise, of Israel’s 8.5 million citizens, 74.8 per cent are Jewish, 20.8 per cent are of Arab ethnicity, and 4.4 per cent are “other.” The ethnic Arabs are detailed on the page “Minority Communities in Israel”; 85.6 per cent of them are Muslims, almost all Sunni, about 7.2 per cent Christian and about 7.2 per cent are of the Druze religion.

Positives about the lives of Israel’s citizens of Arab ethnicity

Like all other Israeli citizens, they have full political rights and have the privilege, like Britons, of living in a free democratic society. This compares very favourably with the 22 countries of the Arab League where my reckoning is that only the Comoros Islands, Lebanon and Tunisia can make any real claims to be democracies.

The Fathom article “Israel’s Arab citizens and the struggle for equality” shows:

Negatives faced by Israel’s citizens of Arab ethnicity

The first sentence of this paragraph originally said "On average, Israeli Arabs earn about 40 per cent of what Israeli Jews earn." That was an error by me, due to reading the reference sources too quickly. I had carelessly picked up the figure from the sentence "Roughly, therefore, Arab income per person in Israel is only about 40 per cent of that of Jews." in the Fathom article linked above, without noticing that it was based on family incomes which are affected by labour force participation.

I am grateful to the commenter lancelot for pointing this out.

On average, Israeli Arabs earn about 70 per cent of what Israeli Jews earn. How much of this is attributable to discrimination (which is real) and how much to lower quality education would need much more detailed analysis. Furthermore, the state has historically spent noticeably less per capita on Arab education than on Jewish education.

In terms of family incomes, inequality is exacerbated by Arab women having a much lower labour force participation rate than Jewish women.

As an illustration of the extent of both discrimination and the scope for legal rectification (Israel is a country which is ruled by law) read the history of land discrimination associated with the Jewish National Fund.

Perhaps most fundamental, as discussed in my 2011 piece “An Israel for all Israelis” is the difficulty of living as a citizen in a state where all the symbols of the state are associated with only one racial group despite it comprising only 75 per cent of the citizenry.

What Israel’s Arabs should do

Every individual has agency, and every individual is responsible for taking personal decisions that will improve his or her life.

Accordingly, no matter what discrimination they may encounter, individual Israeli Arabs should remind themselves that their main responsibility is to themselves, and not to other Arabs who live in Gaza or the West Bank. (Paradoxically, because what I propose will also help to advance the cause of peace, there will be indirect benefits for Gazan and West Bank residents.) Some of the actions individuals can take include:

As Israel’s Arab citizens successfully integrate themselves into Israeli society, as well as improving their individual lives they will also influence the dynamics of the state with regard to its external and internal policies. For example, they can add their voice to those of other Israelis who are campaigning for the state to introduce a civil marriage system, something taken for granted in most states but absent in Israel.

What Britons can do to help

The most important thing is to learn about the complexities of Israel’s society and to work at building up personal connections (both real and virtual) with Israelis from all parts of society, Jewish and Arab. That is something I personally have been able to do much more of since I started living in London.

Last year, I was delighted to attend an iftar at the home of the Israeli ambassador, and this year for the first time I will be attending Israel’s Independence Day celebration in London.

Ultimately peace depends upon both sides understanding each other’s historical narratives. I despair of “anti-Zionists” in Britain who fail to understand that for Jews the existence of Israel is fundamentally about survival and who ignore the implications of historical experiences such as the SS St Louis. Only when you think about the experience of no country in the world being willing to take you in do you understand why it is a matter of life or death for Jews to have at least one country that is always guaranteed to take them in.

I also despair of ultra-Zionists who dismiss the Palestinians as squatters to be expelled from land which the ultra-Zionists regard as theirs by divine right.

There are many charities which work to reduce inequality inside Israel and to help integrate Israeli Arabs into wider society. To name but a few with which I have some connection: The Abraham Fund Initiatives, The New Israel Fund, the UK Task Force on issues relating to Arab citizens of Israel, Merchavim and Oasis of Peace UK which helps support the unique village of Neve Shalom / Wahat al-Salam, an equally mixed Jewish and Arab village in Israel which I visited in 2009. Such charities need as much financial and non-financial support as possible from Britons. The more successful Israel is at building an internally cohesive shared society, the greater the prospects for wider peace.

Readers comments

The piece attracted a relatively small number of comments. These have since been deleted as part of the site's housekeeping.

Several readers incorrectly assumed that I was proposing a one-state solution. I have explained elsewhere on my website why this is not acceptable to most Jews.

Addendum: What the Israeli government should be doing

In December 2015, the Israeli government announced a five year programme to spend more government money to redress decades of budgetary discrimination against Israeli Arabs. See the Bloomberg report "Israel Faces Up to Arab Inequality as Its Growth Stalls."

While this is a step forward, far more needs to be done. I have three very radical proposals which would make a dramatic change to all Israelis' perception of their country.

Adopt a new inclusive national anthem

As explained in "An Israel for All Israelis" the Star of David is a symbol that Muslim and Christian Arabs should be able to identify with, since David is a key figure for Muslims and Christians, as much as he is to Jews. However the lyrics of the Hatikva (Israel's current national anthem) exclude all citizens who are not Jewish. I regard this as fundamentally divisive.

Renationalise all Israeli state land

As the article linked above about the Jewish National Fund explains, the past transfer of Israeli government land to the Jewish National Fund serves to discriminate against Israel's non-Jewish citizens. This needs to be reversed.

Adopt English as a third official language

At present, Israel has two official languages, Modern Hebrew and Arabic. As each of those languages is associated with one of Israel's two largest communities, this is fundamentally divisive. Legalising the use of English for all official purposes would make it easier for Israel's Jews and Arabs to communicate with each other on linguistic neutral ground. While the revival of Modern Hebrew did much to bring together Jews from multiple countries in one society, Modern Hebrew is in no danger of disappearing, and Israel now has a vital need to unite its Jewish and Arab citizens.


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