Israel's Arab citizens have had a difficult history. Although living in the Middle East's most advanced society economically and technologically, they suffer discrimination in housing and job opportunities, and their political representatives have never truly had a share in national power. It was not until late in 1993 that Arab Members of Knesset played a critical role in keeping a government in power, supporting Yitzhak Rabin from outside of the official coalition, following the withdrawal of the Haredi Shas party.
In return, Rabin delivered a more equitable share of the national budget to Arab municipalities and schools. But when Arab voters overwhelmingly supported Ehud Barak in his victory over Benjamin Netanyahu in 1999, they went unrewarded. For example, instead of possibly elevating one or two of the three Arab parties into his governing coalition—which would have broken precedent — Barak chose the pro-settler National Religious Party, which proceeded to undermine prospects for peace by working to expand construction in West Bank settlements. And when Israeli Arabs demonstrated angrily in support of Palestinians killed in the West Bank and Gaza, during the start of the Second Intifada, a dozen were gunned down by police.
Things have tended to go downhill from there, with recriminations after Operation Cast Lead in 2009 and the more recent Gaza war, questioning their loyalty and threatening to curtail their rights as citizens. For example, a legislative attempt was made to outlaw commemorations of the Nakba, the “catastrophe” suffered by Palestinian Arabs in 1948, with the permanent exile of about 750,000, and the destruction of 400 of their villages. Israel's Arabs have reacted with alarm, alienation and outrage, including a substantial boycott of national elections, with approximately half their votes no longer going to Zionist political parties.
Still, Israel officially defines itself as “Jewish and democratic.” A proposed new bill to declare itself the “Jewish nation-state” and demote Arabic from its current status as an official language was approved last week by a vote of governing cabinet ministers from the three right-leaning coalition parties — Likud, Yisrael Beitenu and Bayit Yehudi — over the opposition of the two centrist components, Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid and Tzipi Livni's Hatenua.
Its prospects for passage into law by the Knesset were unclear at best, but the government's official endorsement of such legislation has damaged the country both internationally and internally, and it's now shattered the Netanyahu coalition.
By counterposing its Jewishness against its democratic character, Israel would have undermined its status as part of the Western democratic world. And this would constitute a further slap at its 20 percent Arab minority, already under frequent verbal assault and increasingly threatened physically in the wake of this past summer's war and related tensions.
The now ex-Finance Minister Lapid wondered what can be said with this legislation to the family of the Druze policeman killed resisting the terror attack on a Jerusalem Haredi synagogue. Ex-Justice Minister Livni responded to the bill by posting Israel's Declaration of Independence (with its provision guaranteeing the rights of all its citizens) on her Facebook page.
It should be clear to anyone that Israel is the Jewish nation-state; shouldn't this fact be secure enough — as long as Israel remains overwhelmingly Jewish — without having to enshrine it in law? At its best, Israel is all the more special as the home to substantial non-Jewish minorities who enjoy democratic protections. Shouldn't Israelis pride themselves for being virtually unique in this regard, in today's Middle East, given that so many of its neighbors are increasingly intolerant and violent?
I'm sensitive about unfairly subjecting Israel to a double standard. Israel should continue to stand as a beacon for its liberal and democratic values — even if imperfect in some ways. By way of contrast, Kurds are a large minority in several countries which has endured discrimination or worse at the hands of the majority ethnic group — whether Turkish, Persian or Arab. Christians, Yazidis, Ba'hai and Jews have suffered grievously in Egypt, Iran and Iraq (to name but a few) from measures that privilege Islam.
Similar to the bill's intent to enshrine Hebrew religious texts as a source for legislation is the common practice in majority Muslim countries to cite the Koran. But how would such a parallel measure help Israel, especially now at this tense time?
All the more reason for Israel not to lower itself to the abysmal regional norms for treating minorities. It's obvious to me that Israel's interest lies in working to make its 20 percent Arab population feel more fully connected to the country they share with their Jewish fellow citizens.
Ralph Seliger is a long-time editor and writer, mostly on Israeli and Jewish political and cultural issues, from a left-Zionist perspective. He is currently administrator of the Partners for Progressive Israel Blog.