Make Room for Israeli Arabs

As long as every political, religious and ethnic subgroup in Israel may assert its presence in the public sphere, the Arab sector must be allowed to do so, too

By AVI SAGI

 
In the more than seven years since the deadly October 2000 riots , Israel has witnessed an increasing alienation of its Arab populace. The Or Commission , charged with investigating the death of 13 Israeli Arabs in the riots, issued severe warnings against the continued exclusion of the Arab sector from the public sphere and called on the country’s leaders “to find ways to reinforce Arab citizens’ sense of belonging to the state without adversely affecting their belonging to their culture and community.”
 
No longer content with equality in the private sphere, Israeli Arabs today are claiming their share of the common cultural space. Israel, they contend, must make room for the public expression of their national identity; it must become a multicultural state.
 
Objections to this demand are perhaps understandable. Israel is, after all, a Jewish state, founded as a homeland for the Jewish People. It is only right that its ethos, language and national symbols reflect its Jewish character. However, all those who zealously wave Israel’s Declaration of Independence would do well to understand that Israel is, in effect, a multicultural state – and has been so for years.
 
The political upheaval of 1977 was far more than a change in Israel’s ruling party. It signified the first wedge driven in Israel’s hegemony: the Ashkenazi, secular left. For the first time, a sector on the periphery of Israeli society refused to take a back seat to the dominant culture and demanded full partnership in the country’s leadership, resources and political discourse.
 
In the three decades since, the gradual maturation of Israeli society has led to the emancipation of several additional subgroups, all vying for control over Israel’s public sphere. Israel today is a multicultural state, de facto if not de jure, its character determined in an open marketplace comprising all Israeli citizens – be they hawks or doves, religious or secular, Mizrahi or Ashkenazi . Or Arab.  

Israeli Arab women, Shalom Hartman Institute, Jerusalem, Israel

As long as every political, religious and ethnic subgroup in Israel may assert its presence in the public sphere, the Arab sector must be allowed to do so, too. True, Israeli Arabs cannot expect to dominate Israel’s cultural space; they are a minority, and nowhere is a majority required to suppress its identity in face of a minority. Yet they must not be entirely excluded from it, either. We must come up with ways to incorporate expressions of the Arab identity into our public sphere, alongside the dominant Jewish one. I, for one, would not rule out the addition of certain national symbols – such as a secondary national anthem – which would give Israeli Arabs a voice and enhance their sense of identification with the state. This is only one of many possible solutions. All it takes is the will; the ways shall be found.
 
It is the hallmark of a mature, confident society that it relinquishes its hold over the public sphere, allowing it to be freely shaped by its different subgroups. The Jewish majority need not be afraid of losing its primacy to the Arab sector; the Jewish foundations of Israel run far deeper than any flag or anthem. With a 3,000-year history, a common heritage and a deep-rooted sense of brotherhood, we ought to be secure enough in our identity. It is time to allow Israeli Arabs to express theirs.
 
Written with Gila Fine  

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