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Jewish World Review Nov. 19, 2001 / 4 Kislev, 5762

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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The limits of tolerance

Communal peace is assured in the United States, but not in Israel -- RECENTLY, I took part in a discussion with a group of community leaders about the topic of tolerance here in Philadelphia. The point was there are some who worry that in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Muslims are experiencing a prejudicial backlash.

The concern is appropriate, but the good news is that here, as in most of the United States, the feared rise of anti-Muslim fervor has simply not occurred. The very few local incidents that can be ascribed to such a bias have been roundly and rightly condemned by virtually everyone in town.

Indeed, the real story about this fear is that the entire country has united to make sure such a thing does not happen.

From the president on down, the dominant sentiment has been one of inclusiveness toward Muslims and a refusal to allow our anger over the terror attacks to spill over into hate-filled rhetoric or action. President Bush - and indeed the rest of the country - has been insisting that Islam is a religion of peace that forbids terror and the murder of innocents.

This fervent defense of Islam has even led the White House and some in the media to grant recognition to many Muslim and Arab-American groups that don't deserve it. Islamist extremists like those at the Council on American-Islamic Relations have been given a legitimacy that their support for anti-Israel terrorism should have denied them.

Far from being a repeat of December 1941, when in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor Japanese-Americans were rounded up and sent to detention camps, even radical American Muslims are getting invitations to the White House!

Thus, when some Philadelphians expressed fear that a backlash against Muslims was just around the corner, I expressed skepticism. When one participant in the discussion said that tolerance would suffer if a terrorist set off a small nuclear device, I felt compelled to point out that if a nuclear weapon were set off here, the least of our problems would be whether or not people were being nice to each other.

That said, those who want to promote tolerance are to be applauded, even if some of their fears are exaggerated.

But similar fears for the communal peace of the State of Israel are all too real. The rising tensions between the Israeli Arab minority and the Jewish majority of the country can no longer be ignored.


The latest focal point for this problem is the conduct of Azmi Beshara, an Arab member of Israel's Knesset.

Beshara is the embodiment of the dilemma of the approximately 15 percent of Israeli citizens who are Arabs. He wants all the benefits of citizenship in the Middle East's only democracy, but isn't willing to give any loyalty to the state in return.

Beshara, who was first elected to the Knesset in 1996 on a Communist Party ticket, has made a habit of flaunting his contempt for the democracy in whose parliament he serves.

During a visit to Syria, a country that is in a state of war against Israel, Beshara gave a speech in which praised Hezbollah terrorists who have attacked Israel. That the speech was given to a Damascus audience that included notorious terrorists, including Ahmed Jibril and Sheikh Nassan Nasrallah, was only the icing on the cake.

Beshara has also arranged illegal visits for Israeli-Arabs to Syria in contravention of Israeli law and despite the fact that legal channels are available for family reunions.

In response, Israeli authorities feel enough is enough, and have initiated a prosecution of Beshara for support of a terrorist organization. The Knesset voted 61-30 last week to lift his parliamentary immunity enabling the case to proceed.

Far from exhibiting any diffidence about these acts, Beshara is brazen in his contempt for Israel. He told The New York Times that he is "not an Israeli patriot." He advocates the dismantling of Israel as a Jewish state and wants it to drop its flag, national anthem and the right of Jews to come home to Israel as immigrants.

Even worse, he has the chutzpah to depict himself as a victim of oppression, and has gained sympathetic coverage in American newspapers like The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Others among the Knesset's Arab caucus, including those who despise Beshara as a publicity hound, have expressed the same beliefs. Indeed, Talab El-Sana, a Knesset member from a rival Israeli Arab party, publicly justified a Palestinian terror attack in August on innocent pedestrians outside the Israeli Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv.

Last fall, Israeli-Arab rioting in sympathy with the violence launched by the Palestinian Authority shocked Israel. The nation's answer was to vow that inequities in funding between Jewish and Arab townships would be erased.

But increasingly the problem facing Israel is no longer one of whether or not its Arab minority is given fair treatment in the division of patronage and school funding. Rather, it is a situation where the minority feels itself sufficiently powerful that it can put itself on the side of those who are at w ar with the state.

Ironically, tensions between Jews and Arabs within Israel have grown worse since the signing of the Oslo peace accords.

Far from satisfying Palestinian ambitions, the empowerment of Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority in the territories seemed only to heighten a sense of Palestinian identity among Israeli Arabs. As with international media criticism of the Jewish state, the more concessions Israel has made to Arafat, the greater the spirit of disaffection on the part of Arab citizens of Israel.

This disintegration of loyalty on the part of the Arab minority makes the prospect of any final peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority even more perilous.

It does not take much of an imagination to conjure up the possibility of increased anti-Israel agitation on the part of Arab Israelis, even in the unlikely event of a peace settlement. But the difference then will be that the next "intifada" will no longer take place in those parts of Judea and Samaria where Arafat's rule will be sovereign. Instead, the next "uprising" will be in the Galilee. At that point, Azmi Beshara's current calls for "cultural autonomy" of Israeli Arabs may become a demand for Israel to cede areas inside its pre-1967 borders to the new state of Palestine.


Anyone who thinks this a fantasy should think back just a few years to when it was unimaginable for Israel to even contemplate giving up all of the "West Bank," not to mention parts of Jerusalem as both former prime minister Ehud Barak and former President Bill Clinton advocated last year.

Tolerance is always imperative, but no state or people is required to be tolerant of those who wish to destroy them.

In a country such as the United States, where no minority can conceivably threaten the security of the majority, tolerance of differing cultures - even those that are antithetical to democracy - is possible. Multiculturalism may be a foolish goal that undermines national unity, but the price of such folly here is cheap.

In Israel, there is no such margin of error.

The dilemma is a keen one for Israeli civil libertarians. Israel envisions itself as a mosaic of different cultures with equal rights. Hopefully, it will always be able to live up to the ideals of equality expressed in its declaration of independence.

But if the ultimate agenda of Israeli Arab leaders is not equal rights in a democratic Israel but the end of the Jewish state itself, then what hope is there for tolerance or peace?

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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© 2000, Jonathan Tobin