Ari Shavit’s book My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, which I recently finished reading, is undoubtedly one of the most important books to come out of Israel in recent years. It is serious, substantive and sensitive regarding the existential issues facing Israel today as a Jewish liberal democratic state. I found almost every chapter to be riveting and challenging, replete with intensive in-depth interviews with leading figures in Israeli society from across the political spectrum.
One of the most important issues that Shavit deals with in this book is what I call “the invisible Palestinian Arabs,” referring to the fact that so many of our early pioneers did not seem to notice that there were actually Arabs living on the land. In describing the arrival of his great-grandfather to the city of Ramleh in 1897, he writes:
Looking out over the vacant territory of 1897, Bentwich sees the quiet, the emptiness, the promise. Here is the stage upon which the drama will play out… He does not see the Land as it is. Riding in the elegant carriage from Jaffa to Mikveh Yisrael, he did not see the Palestinian village of Abu Kabir. Traveling from Mikveh Yisrael to Rishon LeZion, he did not see the Palestinian village of Yazur… etc. etc… How can this be, I ask myself in another millennium. How is it possible that my great-grandfather does not see? There are more than half a million Arabs, Bedouins and Druze in Palestine in 1897. There are twenty cities and towns, and hundreds of villages. So how can the pedantic Bentwich not notice them?
Indeed, this is still one of the major issues that we face in Israel today. The overwhelming majority of Jews who live in Israel don’t “see” their Israeli Arab neighbors. They don’t talk with them. For the most part, they live totally separate from them, except in a few mixed cities (Haifa, Lod, Jaffa). They hardly know that they exist. They don’t know what they think or feel, since they are not in any real dialogue with them. They don’t know their history or their culture or their current concerns.
And the situation of Diaspora Jews who visit Israel is not much better. The overwhelming majority of Jews who visit Israel never meet an Israeli Arab. They come to the Jewish state — the nation-state of the Jewish people — and they spend all their time meeting fellow Jews and learning about their identity and their dilemmas. But only very few of them have a conversation with Israeli Arabs to learn about their complicated identity as Arabs whose religion is Muslim or Christian or Druze, whose nationality is Palestinian, whose language and culture is Arabic, and whose citizenship is Israeli. It is easier and more convenient to just ignore them and to deny their existence.
Shavit is extremely forthright and candid about this problem in his book. In one of the last chapters of the book, in which he discusses the various threats facing Israel today, he describes this problem succinctly and in a hard-hitting manner:
The State of Israel refused to see its Arab citizens. It has not yet found a way to integrate properly one-fifth of its population. The Arabs who were not driven away in 1948 have been oppressed by Zionism for decades. The Jewish state confiscated much of their land, trampled many of their rights, and did not accord them real equality. In recent years, oppression has lessened, but it was not replaced by a genuine civil covenant which will give Arab Israelis their full rights. To this day, there is no definition of the commitments of the Jewish democratic state to its Arab minority and that of the Arab minority to the Jewish democratic state.
These are not easy sentences to read. But from my ongoing dialogues with Israeli Arabs through my work in the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, I know that they are true. Moreover it is important to state that these sentences come from a Zionist Israeli Jew who loves his country and wants only the best for it, as do I. They are not rantings or ravings from some post-Zionist or anti-Zionist anarchist who has left the country. Indeed, I believe that his words should cry out and urge our leaders to wake up and begin to deal with this situation in a systematic, fair, and equitable fashion.
We Jews just finished reading the book of Exodus in our Torah reading cycle. In our foundational story as a people, we learn what it was like to be “in Egypt,” to have suffered as a minority. Moreover, we are reminded many times in the Torah to “love the stranger,” since we were strangers and sojourners in the land of Egypt.
In my view, our leaders still need to be reminded of this again and again. Not only is this a core Jewish value, to treat our Arab minority fairly — as we would have wanted to be treated when we were a minority throughout our history — but it is in the enlightened self-interest of the state of Israel to honor its commitment to be fair to all of its citizens, as enshrined in our Declaration of Independence.
Ron Kronish is working on a new book on the topic of this blog post, entitled Can Jews and Arabs Live Together in the State of Israel?