In Israel this week, on the day that Jews celebrate as Israeli Independence Day and the country’s Arabs mourn as “the catastrophe,” thousands of Israeli Arabs gathered in the western Galilee for a “March of Return,” an annual event that protests the Jewish state’s creation.
Two days before, a new survey revealed that Israeli Arabs are satisfied with their lives in Israel — more satisfied than Israel’s Jewish citizens, in fact.
According to the study by Tel Aviv University’s Israel Democracy Institute, Israeli Arabs are more likely than Jewish Israelis to describe the country’s “overall situation” as good or very good, by 66 percent to 43.9 percent.
Israeli Arabs were also more likely than Jews to positively describe Israel’s record in many areas – including medicine and health, education and science, and the government’s attentiveness to the needs of its citizens – the study found.
Who speaks for Israel’s Arabs – the marchers who want an end to a Jewish state, or the poll participants who said they are relatively satisfied there?
Both, a little, said an Israeli-born academic who studies the status of Israeli Arabs.
“There are contradictory trends,” said Elie Rekhess, associate director of Northwestern University’s Jewish and Israel studies center, and former head of the Konrad Adenauer Program for Jewish-Arab Cooperation. “On one hand, you definitely have a growing sense of alienation towards the state, particularly within the elite. On the other hand,” Rekhess said in a telephone interview from Chicago, there is a parallel increase in “a new middle class that does a compartmentalization between the ideological level and practical, day-to-day life.”
In other words, there is a cohort of affluent Israeli Arabs who are increasingly comfortable in Israel that is growing alongside the discontented segment of the Arab Israeli community from which many of this week’s anti-Israel marchers came from.
The survey’s figures “indicate a trend — apparently,” with “far-reaching repercussions” that may point to a lessening of hostilities between Israel’s majority and minority populations, Rekhess said. “The findings are very hopeful and optimistic.”
In recent years, he said, “The government has embarked on a wide-scale effort to invest in the Arab sector,” especially among unemployed Arab women. “Money has been pouring in for intensive development projects. There is an ongoing process of integration, a gradual rise in the standard of living.”
But Rekhess added a caveat to this positive outlook. “Surveys in the Arab sector are problematic.” Particularly ones conducted over the phone, as was Tel Aviv University’s. When he was involved in conducting similar surveys several years ago, he said, he and his colleagues “took precautionary steps to build confidence between the interviewer and the interviewees.”
Rekhess said defenders of Israel who cite the living standard gap for Arabs who live there, and in Arab countries, are missing the point. “I always thought these arguments are patronizing,” he said. “The Arabs in Israel assess their lot not by comparisons to refugees in Lebanon” or other Arab lands, or the citizens of various countries. “Their yardstick is society in Israel — when they compare the two, the gaps are evident.”