Israel: We, Too, Are the People!

Israel: We, Too, Are the People!

by Joseph Croitoru

At the end of last year, Arab intellectuals in Israel published a document in which they did not only insist on equal status for the Arab-Palestinian minority, but they also list an extensive series of demands on the Israeli state. Joseph Croitoru reports

Arab intellectuals in Israel are causing a stir. The declaration they published last year was signed by over forty leading Israeli Palestinian intellectuals and extracts have been published in Israeli newspapers. It carries the title “A Vision for the Future of Palestinian Arabs in Israel,” and the title itself is a statement that the Jewish state’s attempt to create “Israeli Arabs” – Arabs who do not identify themselves as being part of the Palestinian people – has failed.

Prominent among the signatories are teachers at universities and independent research institutes. Among them are the historian Aziz Haider of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who has researched into discrimination against Arabs in the Israeli economy, as well as other Arab academics and university teachers specialising in the history and culture of Palestinians in Israel.

In addition there are human rights activists and representatives of Arab Israeli NGOs, as well as the mayors of Arab towns, such as Sheikh Hashem Abdelrahman of Umelfachem or Avni Touma of Kefar Yasif.

Systematic discrimination

The signatories define themselves first and foremost as Arab Palestinians, as, in their words, “part of the Arab nation and the Arab cultural world.” Following the defeat of the Arabs in the Israeli-Palestinian war of 1948, Israeli citizenship was forced on them by the Jewish state. As a result they became the minority rather than the majority in their homeland, the historic Palestine.

In a detailed passage, the declaration criticises the way the state of Israel deals with the Palestinian minority. It speaks of systematic discrimination, of the confiscation of land, and of disadvantages in the distribution of state money and other state resources.

But the intellectuals emphasise that, in spite of its attempts to carry out a “colonialist-style Judaisation,” with enforced assimilation and Israeli citizenship, the Jewish state has not succeeded in getting Palestinians to give up their national and cultural identity.

At the same time, the authors insist that Palestinians living in Israel must remain part of Israeli society and full citizens of the country.

The demand for real, equal participation

But they put forward a series of demands. They want real, equal participation in the processes of democratic decision-making, allowing the Palestinians in the country, like the Jews, to ensure their national and cultural identity. They speak of the start of a “new era,” in which the right to Palestinian identity will be guaranteed by law according to current international standards of minority rights.

But they see no future for themselves in the country unless there is a thoroughgoing revision of the exclusively Jewish character of the state, which they describe in the declaration as “ethnocracy.” They call on the state to define itself anew: no longer as the “homeland of the Jews,” but as the “common homeland” of Jews and Palestinian Arabs.

A complete reform of the education system, which currently alienates Arabs from their culture and history, is necessary. State symbols would have to be changed. For example, one of the authors, the sociologist Asad Ghanem of Haifa, is prepared to allow the Jewish majority to continue to use its Zionist symbols, but he is opposed to their being forced on the Arabs in the country.

And the Israeli-Arab poet, Suliman Massalha, has already written an alternative national anthem called “Song for the Country,” instead of “Hatikva” (“The Hope”). The poem recalls the bloodletting of the past and looks forward to the peace of the future between the “sons of Arabia, Nazareth and Abraham.” There is no mention of Jews.

The state body bringing together Israeli Arab organisations has adopted the document. It contains no explicit mention of autonomy, but many Jewish observers consider that this is one of its aims. The Jewish Israeli majority has long feared the so-called Palestinianisation of the Israeli Arab population as a side-effect of the establishment of a state entity in the Palestinian territories, and now, it seems to many, it has come to pass.

It is no surprise that the political right in Israel is alarmed. They see the declaration as a sign that Israeli Arabs represent a fifth column and are on the point of rejecting their loyalty to the Jewish state. Those on the left rather welcome the initiative, even if they are worried about possible Arab Israeli separatism, and the risk that they might be faced with an alternative “Arab parliament.”

Ghaida Rinawie-Zuabi, responsible for development in the organisation of Arab local councils in Israel and the driving force behind the declaration, is trying to lay such fears to rest with an intensive publicity campaign. He told the Israeli Ha’aretz newspaper that what was new about this initiative was that this time the Arabs had made themselves heard on their own.

They would have to learn how to do this in a sensitive way, but Jewish Israelis would also have to work on their readiness to listen to their Arab fellow-citizens.

originally published on

© 2007

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton