How Much Homeland Do We Need?

In order for Israel to successfully realize its potential and celebrate its 100th birthday, the Jewish population must understand that the Arab population in Israel is not its enemy. On the contrary, it is a friend who shares a broad number of mutual interests.

In his essay, “How Much Home Does a Person Need?”, Jewish writer Jean Améry explains that while money may sometimes be a temporary substitute for a homeland, enough to turn the Latin expression ubi bene ibi patria (”where you feel good, there is your home”) into one that makes a person’s money his homeland – ubi dollar ibi patria (”where your dollar is, there is your home”) – it is clearly a pale substitute, easily replaced and incapable of providing security like a homeland can. Indeed, Jews throughout history enjoyed economic prosperity in many of their host countries, but never felt secure as they do today in the State of Israel.

And yet, the State of Israel today somehow believes that its Arab public will give up its aspiration for the security that a homeland enables, in exchange for economic development. There is an unstated – and sometimes stated – assumption that generously budgeted programs showered upon the Arab population, providing partial and initial responses to the socio-economic gaps accumulated after decades of discrimination, would blur the feeling of foreignness. But when the powers that be, that (belatedly) offer budgets in one open hand, clench the other into a fist threatening the existence and identity of Arabs in Israel, they cannot accept the money or the blow with equanimity. A government that approves unprecedented economic development programs for Arab society while simultaneously running delegitimization campaigns on the backs of its “beneficiaries” cannot establish a political alliance of true partnership.

Over the past 15 years, Arab society in Israel has received unprecedented governmental budgets of nearly NIS 50 billion for socio-economic advancement. And yet, the same politicians approving these decisions forcefully pushed Israel’s “Nation-State Law” – and not through broad consensus, as Basic Laws composing the constitutional corpus should pass, but with a heavy hand and completely ignoring the collective aspirations of Arabs in Israel. They failed to mention the Arab public as a group sharing this homeland too, deliberately omitted the element of equality and demoted Arabic from an “official” language to a “special” one.

The civil and national inequality promoted by Israel’s governments permeates to additional state bodies and to Jewish citizens, diminishing the very goal of economic development, even if it enables a certain level of well-being. For example, budgets can promote the acquisition of quality higher education, but when young Arabs completing their studies have trouble entering the labor market because being “a released soldier” is a threshold precondition, funds invested in their education might lose all value. Or, when a family sets aside a large sum of money to purchase a home but is denied the ability to do so in a Jewish locality on the basis of “incompatibility with the community fabric,” and even faces protests on its doorstep led by senior officials in their chosen municipality. What is the value of granting pool entrance to Arabs wishing to take their children to a nearby swimming pool only to hear that “the pool is for residents of that [Jewish] community only”? The list goes on.

Civics Education

Economic development for the Arab population in Israel is doomed to failure as long as it is always contingent on a demand or a precondition that Palestinian Arabs in the state sacrifice a central element of their belonging. From the state’s early years, after it became clear that expelling the Arabs remaining within its borders at the end of the war would not succeed, repeated attempts were made to forge a kind of unwritten barter deal with the Arab population. For its part, the state would allocate resources to advance individual rights, economic development, and civil equality for the Arabs. Arab localities would flourish; Arab schools (under the strict supervision of the Ministry of Defense) would educate for “Israeliness”, preventing “extreme nationalist” voices, and while paving the path to higher education and employment for young men and women to earn the title “educated Arabs”; health services would respond to various needs; and there would be full civil equality between Jews and Arabs. And in exchange for all this goodness, the Arab population need only shed its Palestinian identity.

This deal didn’t go well for several reasons. First, the state didn’t hold up its end of the bargain as, from the outset, it distributed public goods primarily to Jews and, in doing so, failed the Arab population’s economic development and created unimaginable gaps between Jews and Arabs. Second, is the ongoing failure to ensure civil equality that continues until today. Third, most of the Arab population, even had the state kept its end of the deal, has been unwilling to ignore or be alienated from its Palestinian identity, not for all the money in the world. It has admittedly adopted additional affiliations and identity-components – thus periodically finding itself, in the words of Nazia Khair, “going to sleep with Israeli identity and waking up with Palestinian sorrow,” but it never abandoned its deep, primal attachment to its native language, childhood landscape, or collective memories. Moreover, it did not abandon solidarity with its rights-deprived brothers living under military rule. Why did they remain Palestinian? Zionist intellectual Ahad Ha’am’s words regarding Jews are similarly apt here: “Ask the fire why it burns! Ask the sun why it shines! Ask the tree why it grows!… So too, ask the Jew why he is a Jew. We cannot not be that which we are.” We too cannot abandon the important elements that shape us, nor uproot them from our hearts.

Proposed paradigm shift

The current situation, in which the state’s national symbols, anthem, holidays, national days, street names, and public sphere generally reflect and preserve the ancient traditions of the Jewish people while pushing the Palestinian story into a corner, is a reality that cannot continue. It is, however, possible for a country to have several stories told about it from the various perspectives of its population groups. There’s no reason why Arab citizens in Israel shouldn’t see their collective story expressed in the public sphere, and even in the state’s symbols and institutions.

Just as the state allocates a budget to commemorate its Jewish leaders and heritage sites, so too should budgets be allocated to commemorate leaders and important heritage sites of its Arab citizens. Furthermore, Arab leadership in Israel must have oversight of these budgets and how they are distributed. Expression of the Palestinian story must also be ensured within the framework of the Government Naming Committee. One way to reach this aim is ensuring adequate representation in the committee, so that Arab members have an effective voice in its discussions.

Adequate representation should also be guaranteed within the government and its ministries, which throughout the years have been composed of Jewish representatives who mainly protect the interests of various Jewish groups. Decision-making roles are mainly held by Jews, even when experience shows their limited ability to respond to the unique needs of Arabs citizens. This situation must change. It’s possible to appoint an Arab Minister of Agriculture, an Arab Minister of Social Equality, an Arab Minister of Health, and an Arab Minister of Culture without fearing destruction of the Zionist dream. Arabs civil servants must also be appointed to senior positions, not only for roles pertaining to Arab society, but in determining overall policy for the State of Israel. There are enough Arab men and women possessing the necessary skills for these tasks.

Beyond symbolic and physical representation, and representation in the government and its offices, additional important actions must be taken:

  1. First, the Nation-State Law must be repealed and replaced by a Basic Law founded on broad consensus reached following respectful dialogue.
  2. Second, it is necessary to enable, protect, and foster autonomy for Arab citizens in areas such as education, culture, and language. Just as the National Religious and ultra-Orthodox have autonomy over their children’s values/identity education, it is the right of Israel’s Arab citizens to use the education system to instill in our children the Palestinian narrative, as well as our right to mourn and remember our tragedy (the Nakba).
  3. Third, political leaders from all sides of the political map must denounce any attempt to delegitimize the Arab public: from allegations against Arab members of Knesset –repeatedly portrayed as “a firth column,” to racist stereotypes applied to Arabs in the media and elsewhere.
  4. Fourth, and most important, ending the occupation must be seen as a critical goal with constant efforts made to achieve it. The occupation must not be viewed as an obstacle easily jumped over so as to only engage with Arab citizens regarding “internal affairs of the State of Israel.”

In order for Israel to successfully realize its potential and celebrate its 100th birthday, the Jewish population must understand that the Arab population in Israel is not its enemy. On the contrary, it is a friend who shares a broad number of mutual interests. In parallel, the Jewish population must understand the price it has to pay for cooperation with the Arab population –not an economic price, but rather, as I have shown here, the price of recognizing the right of Arabs to be Palestinian in their home as well as in Israel’s public sphere without demanding they sacrifice this important element of belonging.

Nasreen Hadad Haj-Yahya is the Co-Founder of NAS Consulting, Partner at The Portland Trust