January 22, 2007

How do you explain that many of Israel’s Arab citizens actually like the country where they live?Here’s something about Israel that will surprise you. After last summer’s war between Israel and Hizbullah militias in Lebanon, researchers asked Israeli citizens – Arabs and Jews – if they would rather be citizens of another country. As one might expect after a war, patriotism was the order of the day. A huge proportion, almost 88.5 percent of Israeli Jews, said yes, Israel is the one country whose citizenship they preferred. But listen to this: Among Arab citizens of Israel, an astounding 73 percent agreed with the statement that they would rather be citizens of Israel than of any other country in the world.

That number is even more astounding because many Arabs in Israel admit they feel pressure to deny they like being Israelis. That, in fact, was the finding of a different survey. The first results came as part of a highly respected project called the Peace Index at Tel Aviv University. The second survey came from the Joint Israeli-Palestinian Public Opinion Poll. There, a majority – 52 percent – of Israeli Arabs agreed that, “many of the Arab citizens of Israel identify with Israel in private but refrain from expressing it in public due to social pressures.”

After all we hear about Israel, these findings can boggle the mind. Isn’t Israel that awful ”apartheid” state, as Jimmy Carter implies with the title of his peculiar new book?

I must confess, I agree with those arguing, as Carter does, that much of the world has an inaccurate image of what goes on in Israel. Just about everything about that minuscule piece of land, a fraction of 1 percent of the Middle East, inflames passions practically no other stretch of hills, rocks and sand does. The world’s attention had focused obsessively on the territory long before this second incarnation of Israel came into being in 1948, and even before Middle Eastern oil became the holy grail of international politics less than one century ago.

For devotees of the anti-Israel position now espoused by Carter, Israel must look like a hellish bastion of anti-Arab racism. And yet, how to explain that many of Israel’s Arab citizens actually like the country where they live? As a matter of fact, I would wager that millions of people don’t even realize that Israel has Arab citizens – more than a million of them – with full rights under Israeli law.

When we do hear about Israeli Arabs in the press, we usually hear complaints about discrimination and prejudice. Is there discrimination and prejudice? No question about it. Israeli Arabs, like minorities in many other countries, face obstacles in their path to equality. In this case, the obstacles are made greater by the political and security situation that touches everyday life. With every suicide bombing by a Palestinian, many Israelis feel a little more nervous around Arabs. The fact that a few Arab Israelis aided their Palestinian brethren in their terrorist operations hasn’t helped.

There’s more of course. There are bigots in Israel. And there is a small percentage of Israel’s population that qualifies as extremists. And there’s the fact that Israel was founded as a Jewish state, although one committed to respecting the rights of all its citizens.

Israeli Arabs participate in just about every aspect of the country’s life. There are Arab political parties and Arab members of parliament. And don’t think the Arabs in parliament behave as docile lackeys of the government. They are as at least as critical of government policies as any party in the opposition. Israel’s Arab citizens participate in their country’s democracy more freely and actively than the citizens of just about any Arab country.

Salim Jubran, an Arab Christian, holds a permanent seat on Israel’s Supreme Court. Arabs play major roles in other areas. The chairman of Tel Aviv University’s Political Science Department is a Druze, and Arabs – though underrepresented – occupy positions in business, government and academia.

If Israel truly resembled the horrifying picture painted by its enemies, Israeli Arabs would feel much differently about the country. That, of course, explains the pressure to deny that they identify with their country. And it explains why surveys about those sentiments receive so little attention from those who would blame all the problems of the region on the actions of a handful of Israeli Jews.

(Originally appeared in the Miami Herald – Reprinted with permission of the author)

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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