News & Media Articles

The Stranger Among You

24 March 2009 By New Israel Fund

Last week, we announced NIF’s Pesach Salon initiative, which is designed to expand celebration of the Passover holiday while enriching our collective knowledge of the challenges facing contemporary Israel.  The response to date has been enthusiastic – more than 25 individuals have expressed interest in hosting or facilitating salons.  Information about the dates and locations of the specific events will be posted on our website.

The Haggadah, which we read at the Passover Seder, recounts the story of the Jewish people’s sojourn in Egypt, and constantly reminds us of the lessons that we should draw from this experience in dealing with the “the stranger among us.”  Consequently, we have chosen this as our theme for discussions at the pre-Pesach salons, which will focus on two specific populations in Israel, the Arab minority and migrant workers.   Next week, I will comment on the latter issue, but this week I want to draw attention to several points relating to Israel’s Arab minority.

As we are well aware, the use of the term “stranger” to the Arab population is problematic.  Palestinians have lived in what is now the state of Israel for centuries.  However, since the UN partition and the 1948 war, the Arab population, while recognized as citizens of the state, has been a minority living in the Jewish majority homeland.  As such, they have suffered discrimination at the hands of the authorities and have been treated as “strangers” within their own land.  

Today, Arabs constitute almost 20 percent of Israel’s population, yet local Arab authorities have jurisdiction over only 3 percent of the land, leading to overcrowding and poverty.   Indeed, forty-eight of the 61 poorest towns in Israel are Arab towns, and the vast majority of the 160,000 Negev Bedouin live in extreme poverty, including 35,000 who reside in “unrecognized” villages lacking such basic services as water, sewage, electricity and health clinics.  Arab schools are allotted half the funding, per capita, of Jewish schools; not surprisingly, Arab students have the highest dropout rates and lowest achievement levels in the country.

Efforts to ensure equal treatment for Israel’s Arab citizens have utilized three strategies: advocacy directed at the Government and legislature to redress the inequities and discrimination; legal actions challenging the Government’s failure provide equal treatment for all citizens; and civic education directed at students and adults, which have sought to reinforce the fundamental values of equality and inclusion set forth in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.  

During the past decades, these strategies have yielded successes, but an objective analysis of the current situation is troubling.  While successive Israeli governments have acknowledged the inequities and discrimination, no comprehensive steps have been taken to remedy the situation.  The Israeli High Court has issued a number of far-reaching decisions designed to rectify the discrimination faced by Israeli Arabs, but too often the Government has responded with an extreme version of the “all deliberate speed” tactic made famous by Southern opponents of civil rights in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s. 

Most worrisome is the growing antagonism among segments of the Jewish population toward their fellow citizens.  Manifestations of these attitudes include the racist chants at the soccer stadiums and public opinion polls showing a majority of Jews unwilling to live in the same building as an Arab.  The electoral success of Avigdor Lieberman, who used blatantly anti-Arab provocations during the recent electoral campaign, only highlights the severity of the situation.

Leaders of the Arab community in Israel face profound dilemmas in the current circumstances.  They must set forth a coherent vision for how they see the future of the Arab population in Israel, while combating the discrimination that their constituents face on a daily basis.  They also must avoid projecting an image of radicalization and antagonism toward the state of Israel, which will only further contribute to the polarization between majority and minority populations, in a context where the broader issues of Israeli-Palestinian peace have not yet been resolved. 

This year, as you prepare for your Seder, I hope you will incorporate the theme of the “stranger among us,” and contemplate its relevance both for Jews living as minorities in nations around the world, today and in the past, and for Israel’s Arab minority.  And for those seeking suggestions on how best to integrate this discussion into their Seder, I strongly recommend David Arnow’s Creating Lively Passover Seders: A Sourcebook of Engaging Tales, Texts & Activities (2004), pp 129-136.