I was honored to be one of a number of scholars taking part in the University of Judaism's Day of Learning on March 18. The excitement of the 500-plus participants was high as they heard the frank, open and stimulating dialogue among the three panelists. Rabbis Harvey Fields, Harold Schulweis and Steven Weil, brilliantly moderated by Rabbi Robert Wexler, were provocative, sometimes confrontational, but always honest and respectful of each other.
My topic's title, "Demographics in Israel," was purposely veiled so as not to attract people who might have come prepared to argue rather than learn.
I had every intention of covering that subject but intended to focus on Israeli Arabs (not the Palestinians of the West Bank or Gaza) and their treatment, and I used Jewish ethics as a frame of reference for my remarks.
The group had been limited to 52 by the size of the room, and when I walked in, I was pleased to see every seat filled.
I began by reminding the group that early Jewish teachings had much to say about the ger toshav, the resident alien, in ancient Palestine.
Starting with the early chapters of Genesis, the principle "Every human being is created by God" was established. Abraham is commanded to be a source of blessing for all the families of the earth. Referring to Dr. Leo Jung's interpretation, I noted that although Leviticus 19:18 reads, "Love thy neighbor as thyself," Jung's belief was that a strict translation should be "Love thy neighbor; he is thyself." I went on to quote Leviticus 19:33 -- "The stranger that sojourneth with you shall be unto you as a homeborn among you, and love him as thyself."
According to the tradition, the price for being accepted was that the ger toshav lived by the Noahide laws (relating to the sons of Noah) as a paradigm for all humankind. Requirements included promoting justice, and a prohibition on cruelty to animals, theft or robbery, homicide, idolatry and immorality.
In this tradition, the resident alien was admitted to citizenship, which brought entitlement to social services, drawing on the teaching that the community should support the poor of the non-Jews as it did the poor of the Jews. Our teachings went further: Jews were required to provide free burial and to share in charitable gifts. The Mishnah, I pointed out, notes that the ger toshav has a share in the world to come, and Maimonides, in the 12th chapter of "Hilkhot Metakhim," said he was to be treated as gently, justly and kindly as a fellow Jew.
These and other quotations constituted the background of the issue I wanted to focus on.
Before doing so, I reviewed the present demographic realities of Israel, pointing out that almost one fifth of Israeli citizens are now Israeli Arabs (about one million, many more than the 200,000 who remained in the country after the 1948 war). Another fifth are from the former Soviet Union; between 15 and 20 percent are Orthodox (either Modern Orthodox, Conservative Agudas or Chassidim) and the balance, about 60 percent, are totally secular or observe Jewish practice to varying degrees.
I then presented my thesis: namely, that Israel was not living by Jewish precepts in regard to its Arab citizens.
I went on to quote from various Israeli sources, including the Israeli government, which highlighted the following figures:
Regarding education, nearly twice as much is spent on Israeli Jewish children as on Israeli Arab children. In the Negev, there is only one classroom for every 150 Arab children. Among Jews, 35 percent to 40 percent are enrolled in universities, compared with 5 percent of Israeli Arabs.
The infant mortality rate of Israeli Arab children is nearly twice that of Jews.
In the past 25 years, Israel and the Jewish Agency have built 375,000 housing units for Jews and 1,000 for Arabs.
I noted that one of Israel's great miracles (out of many) was having achieved perhaps the 17th-strongest economy in the world, with a per-capita annual income of $17,000 to $18,000 -- but the figure for Israeli Arabs is half that amount.
I continued with more figures regarding education and other issues, and then pointed out that in many ways, a young, increasingly radicalized Israeli Arab population could not be ignored. This population, by all counts, has been an extremely loyal population in Israel; since 1948, there have been only a few acts of terror from among the population, most of whom have indicated their desire to stay in Israel.
My closing plea was for the new government to break away from the practice of all prior governments and spend the money promised by the previous Israeli administration. I reminded everyone that the money had been allocated after the shooting and killing of 12 Israeli Arabs, the first time Israeli citizens had been killed by their own government since the beginning of the state.
I recount these facts in some detail as a frame for what transpired during the question period. Fortunately, the great majority had learned, I felt, and they responded sympathetically.
Yet my impression is that at least 20 to 25 percent of those present were upset at the thought of treating Israeli Arabs as full citizens, and their responses could be classified as follows:
A small minority, led by one vocal person, maintained that the only solution was to deport Israeli Arabs to one of the existing 22 Arab countries.
A fairly large number of those who voiced opinions openly or to others appeared to view Israeli Arabs as potential terrorists, not to be trusted. Thus, this reasoning went, they did not deserve the same level of concern or services as Jews.
A few saw an analogy to African Americans and ventured that Israeli Arabs would have to be patient. If it took 150 years in America to begin to address the inequalities concerning African Americans, these listeners reasoned, Israeli Arabs could expect no difference.
Some compared the Israeli Arabs' condition to that of Arabs throughout the Middle East, saying the former had no reason to complain because they were so much better off than Arabs elsewhere.
I left the room March 18 with a certain amount of sadness. I don't know how people reconcile the teachings of our people with how this large and growing minority of Israeli citizens is treated by its government.
The facts do not match the fears. Yes, many young Israeli Arabs are no longer docile, as their parents were. Most scholars do not see the bulk of Israeli Arabs as a threat to Israel but cannot deny the possibility of terrorist acts being committed. It is also true that a few Israelis are capable of terrorism, as shown by Baruch Goldstein, who killed 29 Muslims at prayer in 1994, and Yigal Amir, who assassinated Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
The question remains: should the Israeli government continue to leave Israeli Arabs in "a state of relative deprivation and economic and political discrimination," as concluded by one of the most respected scholars on the subject, Victor Assal? Or should ancient Jewish teachings continue to speak to us today?
Although American citizens have no direct role in affecting Israeli government policy, interested readers can contact two organizations that are directly engaged in developing services for Israeli Arabs: the New Israel Fund, (310) 280-0300, firstname.lastname@example.org, and Sikkuy, an Israeli-based organization devoted to the advancement of equal opportunity for Israeli Arabs and Jews, which can be e-mailed at email@example.com.