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Jewish World Review March 16, 2001 /21 Adar, 5761

Jonathan Tobin

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A good deed that will not go unpunished

Should American Jews aid Israeli Arabs? -- WHEN reports began to circulate last fall that some high-ranking Israeli officials and some prominent folks in the United Jewish Communities were considering raising funds for Israel’s Arab citizens, many Jews reacted with shock and consternation.

They shouldn’t have been surprised. The issue of the anomalous status of Israeli Arabs has been festering for decades.

Israel’s 1.2 million Arab citizens currently make up 18 percent of the population of the state. Though they have full civil rights under Israeli law, their position as a national minority inside the Jewish state is a difficult one. Do we really expect Arabs to feel comfortable about swearing allegiance to a country whose flag and national anthem are clearly Jewish?

"They are a minority in a Jewish state that is surrounded by an Arab majority," said Professor Moti Zakem of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in a recent interview here in Philadelphia.

Zakem’s expertise on this issue stems from the two years he served (1997-99) as former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official advisor on Arab affairs. In that post, Zakem was the premier’s point man in efforts to foster peaceful coexistence, as well as to head off explosions such as the riots that took place last October during the term of Netanyahu’s successor, Ehud Barak.

During those riots, which spread across the mostly Arab-inhabited Galilee, "peaceful protests" in sympathy with the Palestinian intifada in Judea and Samaria soon turned violent. According to wire-service and eyewitness reports, mobs vandalized banks and government buildings inside Arab towns, chanting "Kill the Jews" and "With blood and fire, we will redeem Palestine." The rioters also set forest fires and sought to block traffic on highways, in some cases pulling Jewish drivers out of their cars and beating them up.

Israeli policemen killed 13 Arabs while they were attempting to put down the violence.

The violence horrified Israelis, especially those who were most sympathetic to Israeli Arab claims of discrimination and unequal funding for Arab municipalities. Those who hoped that the peace process would help further coexistence between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens are now facing the fact that Israel’s Arab population is becoming more and more radicalized.

Israeli Arabs were so angry about the 13 fatalities that they punished Barak at the polls in January. The Arab boycott, combined with Ariel Sharon’s landslide victory among Jewish voters, resulted in Israel’s most one-sided election in the nation’s history.

The irony in Israeli Arabs torpedoing a Labor Party government that was supposed to be more in tune with their desires than the Likud is not lost on Zakem. Though he wouldn’t criticize his Labor successors in the prime minister’s office, Zakem said during his own time in office, such blowups were avoided by hands-on attention to the concerns of Israeli Arabs by high-ranking government officials who reported directly to the prime minister. But the Labor government seems to have taken the Arabs for granted. The loyalty, or at least the quiescence of Israeli Arabs, was once a given. But not anymore. The fact that most Arab citizens of Israelis now call themselves "Palestinians with Israeli citizenship," rather than "Arab Israelis," speaks volumes about this problem. Indeed, with Arab birthrates far outstripping those of Jews, some fear that within a few generations, Israeli Arabs will outnumber Jews in Israel.

That Israeli Arab members of the Knesset openly support Yasser Arafat and that Israeli Arab parties openly call for the end of the Jewish state as we know it should serve to remind us that Arabs born on the right side of the "green line" are no more likely to be Zionists than those living in Hebron or Nablus.

The twin forces of what Zakem calls "Palestinization" and Islamism are making Israeli Arabs look more and more like a fifth column within Israel, rather than an aggrieved minority.

Zakem believes it is possible for another force, "Israelization," to counteract these influences. But, he admits, "assimilation" of Israeli Arabs into society is "not working."

In the wake of last year’s riots, many in Israel believed that redressing Arab complaints about inequality in Israeli society could help calm things down. That will take money. And, as always, whenever Israelis find a financial need, they turn to their American cousins for cash to throw at the problem. This was the origin of the plan for the UJC to start directly funding some Israeli Arab projects. But UJC is not the first American Jewish group to suggest this. In fact, left-wing Jewish organizations such as the New Israel Fund, Givat Haviva and the Abraham Fund have long been aiding Israeli Arabs.

Many Jews seem comfortable expressing their Jewish identity by aiding non-Jewish causes. Though I have yet to read of any Arab group funding Jewish causes, this phenomenon can best be understood by writer Edward Alexander’s immortal quip that "universalism is the parochialism of the Jews."

But how realistic is the hope that Jewish funding of Arab projects will help create internal peace between Israeli Arabs and Jews?

According to Zakem, after 52 years, Arab citizens have significantly "narrowed the gap" between their living standards and those of Jewish Israelis. Indeed, much of the controversy over unequal funding of municipalities stems, he says, from corruption and mismanagement on the part of Israeli Arab political elites who run Arab town halls. He hopes that as living standards and education levels improve, Arabs will value the benefits of being part of Israeli society.

Zakem agrees that Israel must do even more for its Arab citizens, but he points out that such efforts, along with any American Jewish aid projects, must be carried out strategically.

For instance, rather than sending aid to Arabs who have already demonstrated fanatical hatred for Israel, if American Jews really want to give money to this cause, he thinks they should earmark their aid for those Arabs "who support Israel." Those groups include Druze and Bedouin minorities who are loyal to Israel and whose young men are drafted into the Israel Defense Forces along with their Jewish counterparts.

That makes sense, but I wonder whether such well-intentioned efforts are ultimately futile. Ironically, just last week, Israeli Arabs should have been celebrating a milestone in their efforts to achieve equality within Israel: the appointment of Labor Knesset Member Sallah Tarif to be the first Arab minister in an Israeli government. Tarif is a Druze and a former major in the IDF.

But this was spoiled by the open hostility for a Druze Cabinet member on the part of most Israeli Arabs. Tarif’s own published statements condemning those Druze who volunteered for IDF service and falsely accusing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of "defiling" the Al-Aksa mosque also diminished Jewish pride in the breakthrough.

If a Druze IDF veteran feels this way, what hope is there that Israeli Arab Muslims will ever make their peace with being citizens of a Jewish-majority state?

The desire of American Jews to help Israeli Arabs is laudable. But it is doubtful that this is the best use of scarce Jewish resources. At a time when there isn’t enough money raised to help pay for the absorption of Jews into Israel or to fund Jewish day-school education in the United States, the diversion of funds to Israel’s Arab sector seems a mad, if altruistic, decision.

Nor, I imagine, will it win much gratitude from the recipients of our largesse. Such an allocation may be characteristically Jewish, but not very smart.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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