We met them on campus, in classes and dorms, and they seemed like reasonable people, eager like the rest of us to graduate and make the most of themselves. A day will come, we thought listening to their fluent Hebrew, when they will serve as a bridge between us and the rest of the Middle East. For as Toufiq Toubi, the longtime Knesset member from Nazareth once said of himself, theirs was the tragedy of those whose people were at war with their country. We were sure that to them, it was not we the Jews who were the anathema but the conflict itself -- a dispute that had to be resolved rather than won.
Until September 2000.
That month, in my case a mere several weeks after I gullibly and publicly called for a compromise even on Jerusalem, an Israeli Arab mob stoned passing cars and torched cars, trucks, bus stops, banks, post offices and traffic lights across the Galilee. Not only was all that carnage accompanied by the most virulently anti-Israeli rhetoric, it happened as Palestinians in the territories were launching an uprising that would later climax in half a decade of suicide bombings not seen since the thick of pre-1967 Israel. It was at least reminiscent of Israel's worst strategic nightmare: war from within and without.
Israel's response to that Israeli Arab violence was harsh -- excessively harsh, according to a government commission of inquiry. Yet that's exactly where the debate concerning Israel's Arab minority becomes so frustrating, because this is where Israel's detractors conveniently change the subject from "why" to "how," from the Israeli Arab plot against the Jewish state to its consequent treatment by Israel.
The crux of the debate is what Israel's Arabs make of the very idea of a Jewish state in the ancestral land of the Jews. And our conclusion since the fall of 2000 has been -- as the famously dovish TV journalist Amnon Abramowitz put it at the time -- that while we pro-Oslo Israelis were devising two states for two peoples, our Arab counterparts, on both sides of the Green Line, were contemplating two states for one people: the Palestinians.
Down in the field, a small but increasing number of Israeli Arabs have participated in terror attacks, including driving suicide bombers to their destinations and, in some cases, performing the bombings themselves. At the same time, the Israeli Arab community's elected leaders are attempting to hammer away at the idea of a Jewish state: They demand the abolition of the Law of Return, seek the alteration of the national anthem and hide behind a seemingly innocent apron, like the quest for a country of all its citizens.
The tactics deployed in this well-crafted assault are as simple as they are cunning: diversion and deceit. The diversion is in the systematic changing of the subject from the real aim, which is Israel's extinction, to issues that Jews care deeply about, like freedom of expression, right of ownership or equality before the law. The deceit is in the fact that all this crusading energy disappears once one leaves Israel's borders. They fail to demand rights and freedoms for those living under Arab rule throughout the Middle East.
In other words, Israeli Arab leaders hail Western values only when it helps undermine the Jewish state but otherwise do not believe in them.
This is the context in which the attack on the Jewish National Fund (JNF) comes.
Established in 1901 as the Zionist organization's arm for purchasing real estate in the Promised Land, the JNF epitomized Zionism's unique blending of vision, pragmatism and diligence. The respect with which it treated even a toddler's penny has unified Jews, the enthusiasm with which it embraced even the most forlorn acre of wasteland impressed Arabs and the resourcefulness with which it forested barren mountains and irrigated parched deserts has inspired environmentalists worldwide.
Portraying the JNF as part of the problem is so absurd that this portrayal itself indeed is part of the problem. Never mind that the JNF doesn't focus on land distribution -- it focuses on development -- while the Israel Land Authority deals with leasing. Yet the JNF is a voluntary organization whose raison d'etre is indeed to make the land of Israel available for Jews. As long as Israel's right to be Jewish is threatened the way it is by the Israeli Arab community's current leadership, the JNF's mission statement remains morally valid and strategically vital.
There was a time when Israelis like me honestly believed in the imminent emergence of a new Middle East, one where people, goods, capital and ideas would transcend borders as naturally as they do in North America and Western Europe. We have since been disillusioned -- by Middle Eastern despotism, Palestinian violence and Israeli Arab deceit.
The day when we Israeli Jews can roam the Middle East as freely as Italians roam Europe and purchase real estate in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia or Syria as freely as New Yorkers do in Ontario, Canada, has yet to arrive. Worse, the effort to deprive us of what land we have has yet to abate.
Now one can say, "But Israeli Arabs are Israeli citizens," and I so much want to say, "Gosh, that's so true." But the truth is that Israeli Arab leaders are for now identifying with and actively assisting Israel's enemies, and we Jews have yet to consolidate our grip on the country our parents have built, so that in the future, no Jew will be landless.
Amotz Asa-El is a lecturer at the Shalem Center's Institute for Philosophy, Politics and Religion. He is the author of the "Diaspora and the Lost Tribes of Israel" and former executive editor of the Jerusalem Post.