British Labor party shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry, speaking at the British House of Commons (May 13, 2019), accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of taking steps that pushed Israel “away from democracy, and away from the rule of law while also attacking the freedoms of Israeli Arabs…” It is apparent that Ms. Thornberry’s accusations against Prime Minister Netanyahu have to do with the Jeremy Corbin led Labor party policies rather than with reality on the ground. I just traveled throughout Israel and experienced a different reality. Ms. Thornberry should do likewise and travel throughout Israel before making a judgement about Arab freedoms in Israel.
In the last Israeli parliamentary elections on April 9, 2019, the combined Arab parties, Hadash-Ta’al and Ra’am-Balad lost 3 seats (mandates) in the Knesset. Ahmed Tibi and Ayman Odeh decided to run on an independent list and garnered six seats while the more radical and Islamist Ra’am-Balad party, led by Mansour Abbas received four (it barely passed the threshold of 3.25% of the vote), down from 13 in the previous 2015 elections when the two parties ran on a combined list. These results reflect the disenchantment of younger Arab-Israelis with their Knesset representatives. The Arab Knesset members, in the words of many young Arab voters, care more about the welfare of Palestinian Arabs than about their own constituents, who seek to integrate into Israeli society and partake in Israel’s prosperous economy.
The New York Times, with its anti-Netanyahu bias, reported (by David Halbfinger) on March 20, 2019 that according to a new poll from the University of Maryland, Mr. Netanyahu’s racial provocations may spur turnout among Arab voters motivated to usher him out of office. Exactly the opposite has happened. The Arab turnout dropped by 15% from 64% in 2015 to 49% in the recent election. Netanyahu and his Likud party garnered the most votes, and he is more than likely to continue serving as Prime Minister. According to the same New York Times story, the number of Arabs identifying themselves as Israeli first, rather than Arab, Palestinian, or Muslim has been steadily ticking up to 17% up from 12% in 2011, but this does not account for those young Arabs who find it socially dangerous to identify themselves as Israeli first.
Whether at the Jaffa Port or at the Dead Sea Resorts, while traveling throughout the country, I witnessed Arab families freely mixing with Israeli families and looking indistinguishable were it not for their speaking Arabic. At the Jaffa Port on a Friday night (the Muslim Shabbat), restaurants were packed with Arab dinners along with Israelis. At the long boardwalk, Arab women paraded their finest dresses, and fashionable jeans worn by younger Arab women. The ice cream parlor owned by Arabs was a mecca for Jewish Israeli customers as was the famed Abulafia restaurant. In the very Jewish northern Tel Aviv boardwalk, Arab-Israeli women with strollers sat at the outdoor tables of the expensive restaurants, exhibiting their middle-class status, and their independence.
Along the resort town of Eilat’s long and attractive boardwalk, sandwiched between luxury hotels and the Red Sea, Arab families vacationing in town, walked along with Israelis during Israel’s Independence Day celebration. Not even a single incident or a frown, nasty look, or an insult was levelled at the Arab vacationers. Some (women) who stood out by their head cover, proudly identifying themselves as Muslim, were treated with respect, and it was clear that the Arab families enjoyed their time as much as the Israelis. What struck me most is the fact that many Arabs managed the catering at the hotels both in the Dead Sea and Eilat, as they were supervising Jewish-Israeli employees. I never heard a complaint from Israelis about that. It is now so common that nobody cares about the religious or ethnic identity of a person. Israeli Jews and Arabs young, urban, and educated, share the same westernized culture. They attend the same clubs and show up at the same concerts. Israeli universities give preference to Arab students in their admission policies. Like the U.S., Israel’s affirmative action is designed to benefit the Arab minority. Arab professors teach in virtually all major Israeli universities.
Should you wander into a pharmacy, almost anywhere in Israel, you are likely to be serviced by an Arab pharmacist, in hospitals Arab physicians abound. Arab-Israelis have a head-start over Jewish-Israeli youth in that they are not obligated to serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). They can however volunteer, and more and more Arab youth are doing so, realizing that it is a clear path into Israeli society and economy. I encountered Arab-Israelis as well as Palestinian-Arabs as workers, managers, and employers throughout Israel, and no one I spoke to complained about discrimination.
As Tel Aviv is gripped by the Eurovision Song Contest it is hosting this year, cameras focus on Lucy Ayoub, an Israeli Arab born in Haifa, who proudly enlisted in the IDF, and served two years as a flight simulator instructor in the Air Force. Lucy graduated from Tel Aviv University and joined the Israel Broadcasting Corporation (IBC). She hosts a weekly cultural program on the radio, and the Culture Club on Kan 11 TV channel, an IBC station. The media however, would rather cover a Muslim-Arab agitator like former Knesset Member Hanin Zoabi, who leads Israeli-Arabs in demonstrations against recruitment of Arabs into the IDF, including Arabs from the Christian community.
Politically, Israeli Arabs are the only Arab community in the Middle East that can influence the make-up of the nation’s government with their votes. By way of contrast, in neighboring Arab states, public opinion, not to mention their votes, holds little sway over government decisions. While Arab-Israelis may be quite unhappy with their current Knesset representatives, they are nevertheless aware of the fact that in the State of Israel they, and other minorities have a paradise of democracy, a delightful exception among Middle East and Palestinian dictatorships.
Ms. Thornberry’s unsubstantiated allegation that PM Netanyahu is “attacking the freedoms of Israeli Arabs” is negated by the realities visible to everyone visiting Israel without a political agenda who cares to speak the truth. Arab-Israelis enjoy the same freedoms Israeli Jews have. Arab-Israelis relish their religious freedom, equality under the law, and human and civil rights Israeli democracy affords them.
While they may resent the fact that Israel enshrines Jewish symbols, they must be cognizant of the fact that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. And yet, given a choice, every poll has shown that the most Arab-Israelis prefer to live in a Jewish democratic state rather than in the neighboring Arab- Muslim states, including being subjects of the Palestinian Authority.
Joseph Punder, a freelance journalist, is the founder and executive director of the Interfaith Taskforce for America and Israel (ITAI) and contributor to PJ Media and Frontpage Mag.