September 21, 2006
Lebanon war underscores inequality of Arab Israelis
The fact that Israel after the war is in a better strategic position than the prewar situation doesn't seem to sweeten the pill.
People here vocally demanded a commission of inquiry, wishing to see heads rolling.
Hurricane Katrina shed light on flaws both in the preparations for such disasters and in the U.S. government response to it. Likewise, in Israel, the recent war has triggered great controversy.
Another common aspect is that the war and the hurricane mainly hit the weaker elements of both societies. In Israel, where half of the north is populated by Arabs, they became -- like their Jewish neighbors -- victims of Katyusha rockets launched by Arabs from over the Lebanese border. Yet, they don't enjoy the same shelter system as the Jewish residents, and once the rockets hit them, further lack of past adequate investments in infrastructure were exposed. In short, the war has reminded us once again of the issue of inequality of Arabs in Israel.
Not that the Israeli Arabs make things easy for anyone. Last week, Arab members of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, stretched the Israeli democracy to its limits. Three of the Balad Arab Party went to Damascus -- defying the Israeli law that forbids visits to enemy countries -- and one of them, the vocal Azmi Bishara, went as far as warning his Syrian host of an impending Israeli attack.
I thought this was outrageous. That's like Jane Fonda visiting a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun crew at the height of the Vietnam War or former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark offering his services to the enemies of America.
I took out my frustration on my good friend and taxi driver Zachariah, an Israeli Arab living in Abu Gosh, near Jerusalem. There is nothing like a ride with your favorite taxi driver to have a good and heated discussion on the important issues of the day. With Zachariah expertly maneuvering through the crazy Israeli traffic, we always get straight to the point.
"What's the matter with you Arabs?" I asked him. "Must you bite the hand that feeds you?"
"We learnt it from you Jews," he retorts. "It's called chutzpah."
"Gimme a break. What kind of people would vote for such a shmuck like Bishara?"
He grinned in that special way, reserved only for an Arab in a Jewish state who had just outwitted a Jew.
"Not you, Zacharia!"
"Me and many in my village," he announced triumphantly.
"But why? He is a communist and a Christian, and you are a bourgeois and a Muslim. What on Earth do you have in common?"
"Nothing," Zachariah said, not smiling anymore. "He just knows how to annoy you. That's the only way to make you Jews think about us Arabs."
Do we really need a war or an outrage like Bishara's visit to Damascus to remind us that one of every five citizens in Israel is an Arab, and that the Arab does not enjoy the same equality promised by our Declaration of Independence? Prime Minister Ehud Olmert toured the Israeli north, which had been badly hit by the Hezbollah rockets, and promised that in the reconstruction ahead, Arab villages and townships would get the same treatment as the Jewish ones.
However, if we were smart, we would use some affirmative action here to compensate the Israeli Arabs for past neglect. The news of Arabs living as equals in a Jewish state will spread like brush fire in this region and would be the best outcome of this war.
In the meantime, an American Jew sent a donation to the people of the Israeli north, with the proviso that the money go to Jews only. I hope that the check was duly returned to the sender.
However, I didn't hear an outcry from the American Jewish leaders, who would raise hell if someone dared contribute to Hurricane Katrina refugees only if they were not Jewish. When will Jews who care about Israel understand that enhancing Arab equality in Israel is the best way to support the Jewish state? Once the inequality of the Israeli Arabs becomes a nonissue, my taxi rides might become boring. But then I trust good old Zachariah and the Bisharas to keep us busy with other things.
Uri Dromi is international outreach director at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem.