Commentary | Locking the doors of the Knesset

Without professing an opinion on whether Israeli society is or is not an “apartheid” society, I need to clarify some of the claims Amelia Schonbek made in her abstention about the place of Arab citizens in Israeli society (“No, it isn’t,” Editorial, March 4). “Israeli Arabs” can be said to enjoy the same “full civil rights” as any other citizen as they are not legally discriminated against – although that assertion obscures the reality of Israeli Arab participation in the state.

Most Israelis would admit that the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) serve as a foundation of Israeli identity. Israeli Arabs are discouraged from serving in the IDF and those that do join are prevented from serving in elite units. The logical response is that most Arabs probably wouldn’t want to serve in an institution that, rightly or wrongly, has killed a large number of Arabs. Regardless, it’s a structural obstacle to Arab civic and economic participation, and it also deprives Arabs of access to important aspects of Israeli identity.

Some might answer with the story of the young Arab woman who got into the Search and Rescue team a few years back due to a filing error, and was allowed to stay. But beyond such admittedly accidental anomalies, relative exclusion from the IDF serves to marginalize Israeli Arabs politically, socially, and economically. In a country where military service is used in hiring decisions, housing allocation, and political careers, it is perhaps unsurprising that Arabs are disproportionately poor and underemployed.

These problems are compounded by the fact that Arabs are disadvantaged in terms of access to the Israeli welfare state. Despite making up roughly 20 per cent of the population, they receive no comparable amount of welfare spending and have a disproportionately limited access to land. An Israeli study found that the government spent an average of $1,100 per year on Jewish students, and only $192 per year on Arab students.

One might imagine that Israeli Arabs – economically and socially disadvantaged as they are – could mobilize to take advantage of their political rights as citizens, as 20 per cent of the population could be a game-changing bloc for any coalition. Furthermore, coalition inclusion would allow Arabs to take part in the horse-trading that results in control of important welfare portfolios, as demonstrated by the cooperation between non-Zionist and Zionist religious parties for a number of years.

But political inclusion seems unlikely. Israel has had 18 governments in its 61 years, and none of the coalitions have included an Israeli Arab party. There has been a disturbing amount of talk from both the Zionist “left” and “right,” suggesting that Arab citizens of Israel should emigrate to a to-be-determined Palestinian state in the West Bank or packed-to-capacity Gaza. In the lead-up to the last election, the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) voted to bar participation by Israeli Arab political parties in the upcoming election. The Supreme Court invalidated the decision – but it’s still a sign of the times in “the Middle East’s only democracy.”

Maybe Israeli Arabs have “full civil rights.” They are nevertheless not in an enviable position. They are not only disproportionately impoverished and economically marginalized, but are also systemically prevented from accessing the levers of power through which their situation could be ameliorated. I refuse to make any parallels to regimes contemporary or historical – or even to make a normative statement regarding the situation – but I do feel that the reality of Israel for Israeli Arabs is much more complicated than Schonbek would have it appear.

Ben Foldy is a U3 History & Political Science (Joint Honours) student. He prefers “human-rights loving” to “self-hating Jew”: benjamin.foldy@mail.mcgill.ca.


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