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University of Basel

Israeli Arabs as bridge builders.

Text: Alfred Bodenheimer

From segregation to participation: Israel’s Arab citizens could have a key role to play as mediators.

Prof. Dr. Alfred Bodenheimer. (Illustration: Studio Nippoldt)
Prof. Dr. Alfred Bodenheimer. (Illustration: Studio Nippoldt)

When, in late 2018, a story made the media rounds that Liverpool FC was considering enlisting the services of Israel international Moanes Dabour, at first only those who follow soccer took any notice. A few days later, however, the story gained a political dimension: Egyptian world star and Liverpool striker Mohamed Salah was rumored to have announced that he would leave the club if Dabour was signed. Almost 40 years on from the Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty, Salah apparently refused to play on the same team as an Israeli because of a fundamental aversion to Israel, despite the fact that Dabour is a fellow Arab Muslim.

Contempt for “collaboration”

A few days later, an open letter to Salah from Jerusalem-based lawyer Jawad Boulos, who is also Arab, appeared in a London Arabic newspaper. An abridged version was published in Hebrew and English by Israeli newspaper Haaretz. In it, Boulos, who fights for the rights of Palestinians both in Israeli courts and in the public arena, expresses his belief that Salah would have reacted differently if he had been more aware of the fate and role of those Arabs who remained in Israel when that state was founded in 1948. According to Boulos, their presence in the country thwarted an Israeli plan “to empty the homeland completely of its native Arab residents.” The fact that their “collaboration” with the Zionist government is widely disdained in Arab countries, he says, is therefore even harder to bear than the “siege” imposed by Israel.

Besides, Boulos adds, Egypt has always been a special haven of stability for Israeli Arabs. He cites Cairo-based radio station Voice of the Arabs as having provided support in times of need and shored up faith in eventual victory, claiming that his generation used to melt listening to the voice of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser (who in 1967 declared that he would drive the Jews into the sea).

“Everybody’s equal”

Presumably, Dabour, who is from Nazareth, would hardly have agreed with this open letter any more than with Salah’s discriminatory reaction. In an interview given to Israeli news website Ynet in August 2018, he explicitly distanced himself from attempts to draw a dividing line between ethnic groups. Asked about Israel’s recently-passed “nation-state law”, which among other things demoted Arabic from one of Israel’s official languages to a special-status language, he said: “I don’t pay attention to politics. As far as I’m concerned, everybody’s equal, but unfortunately certain people have now decided to discriminate among people in Israel. We should all be united, but unfortunately that isn’t how things are in our country. I’m sure the nation-state law hasn’t affected the national team and isn’t going to, either. The nation-state law doesn’t exist for us; we’re all equal and everybody likes each other.”

For Israel’s Arabs, who make up 21 percent of its more than 8 million inhabitants, the reality lies somewhere between Boulos’ militant discourse of victimization and Dabour’s harmonizing portrayal of the national team. Clearly, Arabs continue to be economically underprivileged, accounting for only 8 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. A number of recent news stories and statistics on the education system paint a surprisingly different picture, however. One example comes from schools, which with few exceptions continue to be segregated based on religious affiliation and observance.

Economic potential of Arabs

In 2018, of the ten high schools with the best gradepoint averages, four were Arab, including two of the top four. (Admittedly, there were seven Arab or Beduin schools among the bottom ten.) In the professions, especially in medicine and pharmaceutics, the prevalence of highly skilled Arabs has increased dramatically over the past few years (as a visit to an Israeli hospital or pharmacy will only confirm). By contrast, Arabs are seriously underrepresented among highly skilled workers in the particularly thriving high-tech sector, where in 2018 they made  up only 1.4 percent of the workforce. Of this proportion, a mere 7 percent were women.

Both domestic investors and the government are interested in changing this, a fact that Israeli media has long since focused on. It is often remarked that the potential of the Arab intelligentsia should be better harnessed to benefit Israel’s economy and help reduce the economic imbalance between sectors. However, a recent article in Israeli financial newspaper Globes speculated that there is a mostly secret hope among the Jewish public that increased cooperation between Jewish and Arab experts in the globalized high-tech sector will help westernize this still very conservative part of the population.

Mixed signals

Indeed, a certain amount of internal inhibiting influence seems to be having an effect. This would appear to contradict the findings of an academic study on the entrance of Arab Israelis into the high-tech sector conducted by accountant Abdallah Zoabi. His conclusion cited in Globes was that working in a global environment alongside people from highly diverse cultural areas may challenge personal religious beliefs and observances, but not necessarily weaken them.

The Arab population, however, receives mixed messages from the policies of the Israeli government. Scholarship programs for Arab students are in sharp contrast to low points such as Benjamin Netanyahu’s warning that “Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves,” which was part of a 17 March, 2015, election day video message aimed at countermobilizing his right-wing voters and is now the subject of an extensive dedicated article in Hebrew Wikipedia. While the above-mentioned 2018 nation-state law can justifiably be read as an indication of a Jewish identity crisis, it caused a great deal of resentment among left-liberal Jews as well as among Arabs.

Still, there are signs that both Jews and Arabs in Israel have now grasped that full participation of Arab citizens in Israeli society will ultimately benefit all. Rather than being misunderstood fighters for the Arab cause, as Boulos views them, Israel’s Arab citizens could be instrumental in building bridges between the peoples of the Middle East.

More articles in the current issue of UNI NOVA.

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