A Free People in Our Land: The Status of the Arab Sector in Israel

A Free People in Our Land: The Status of the Arab Sector in Israel



The Status of the Arab Sector in Israel

How a society treats its minorities is another reflection of its democratic values. Committed to providing equality for every citizen is an integral part of Israel's principles and the country strives hard to meet the tough standards that it has set for itself in this regard. Although forced into a constant state of conflict with the Palestinians and much of the Arab world, Israel remains committed to its original promise in the Declaration of Independence that the state would "have equal social and political rights for all of its citizens without differentiating between religion, race and gender."

Israel, as envisioned by the founder of modern political Zionism, Theodore Herzl, was established as a homeland for the Jewish people, and Jews do in fact make up the majority of the population. Nevertheless, Israeli society consists of a multiplicity of cultures, nationalities and religions. Upon its establishment in 1948, Israel, in recognition of this reality, declared its aspiration to be a free and equal society and formally extended a hand in peace to the minorities found within its borders, as well as to its Arab neighbors.

The nascent state also adopted a democratic way of life from the onset and chose to define itself not just as a Jewish state, but as a "Jewish and democratic state". Thus, while dedicated to the implementation of the objective endorsed by the United Nations, to provide a national homeland for the Jewish people, Israel is just as committed to the fulfillment of its other adopted goal, to serve as a progressive democracy with full equality for all of its citizens.

Arabs constitute approximately 20% of Israel's population. In recognition of the fact that its land would be shared by many different inhabitants, Israel, on its first day of independence, proclaimed that:

"(The State of Israel), will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations." (From Israel's Declaration of Independence)

The founders of the state, despite the war initiated against them, called out to the Arabs in Israel: "We appeal, in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months - to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the building of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions." (From the Declaration of Independence)

By sending this message to its Arab inhabitants, Israel made a deliberate choice to uphold the principles of equality and the protection of the rights of all individuals within its borders. Accordingly, every citizen of Israel is entitled by law to vote and be elected, every person has the right, by law, to follow and maintain his own religion, culture and language and each person is free to live his life as his conscience so directs him.

The majority of Israel's Arab population live in self-contained towns and villages in the Galilee and the Negev, and in mixed urban centers. Israel's Arab community constitutes mainly a working-class sector in a middle-class society, and an Arabic-speaking minority alongside a Hebrew-speaking majority. Essentially non-assimilating, the community's separate existence is facilitated through the use of Arabic, Israel's second official language; a separate Arab school system; Arabic mass media, literature and theater; and maintenance of independent Muslim, Druze and Christian denominational courts that adjudicate matters of personal status.

While customs of the past are still part of daily life, a gradual weakening of tribal and patriarchal authority, the effects of compulsory education and participation in Israel's democratic process are rapidly affecting traditional outlooks and lifestyles. Concurrently, the status of Israeli Arab women has been significantly liberalized by legislation stipulating equal rights for women and prohibition of polygamy and child marriage.

The political involvement of the Arab sector is manifested in national and municipal elections. Arab citizens run the political and administrative affairs of their own municipalities and represent Arab interests through their elected representatives in the Knesset, who operate in the political arena to promote the status of minority groups and their share of national benefits.

Israeli Arab village of Furadis
(Photo: Israel Government Press Office / Ya'acov Sa'ar)

Housing in the Israeli Arab village of Ara
(Photo: Israel Government Press Office / Moshe Milner)

Israel made a deliberate choice to uphold the principles of equality and the protection of the rights of all individuals within its borders

The Arab sector has become more politically prominent in recent years. For the first time, an Arab Justice was appointed to the Supreme Court and Arab deputy ministers have served in Israel's Government. Arab citizens serve in Israel's foreign service as diplomats and ambassadors on behalf of the country.

As in the country's other ethnic sectors, Arab cultural activities and preservation of the Arab cultural heritage are encouraged by various government and voluntary agencies that offer assistance, ranging from grants to writers and artists to providing support for museums and cultural centers.

Nonetheless, considering the basic rights of equality guaranteed to all of its citizens under the law and pursuant to the principles set out by the Declaration of Independence, there is recognition of the need to overcome disparities in various aspects of society. Arab and Jewish organizations and activists meet weekly to address issues of inequality. The judiciary also plays an important role in promoting equality in Israeli society. The courts accept applications and cases from all petitioners, independent of the petitioner's nationality, religion or race. Any perception of discrimination or wrongful conduct in this area is also carefully investigated by the relevant Israeli bodies and care is taken not to repeat any mistakes that may have been made.

In the findings of a commission established to investigate the deaths of a number of Arab citizens during violent disturbances that occurred in the Arab sector in October 2000, it was noted that:

"The treatment of the Arab population is a very important and sensitive internal issue high on the state's agenda... It requires immediate, interim and long term attention. A principal goal of the state must be to attain true equality for the Arab citizens of the state. The rights of Arab citizens to equality derive from the democratic nature of the State of Israel, and equality is one of the basic rights accorded every citizen of the state. Discrimination contradicts the basic right to equality which is embedded, in the opinion of many, in the right of all persons to human dignity. This is all the more important when faced with discrimination on the basis of race or nationality. Therefore, it is in the interest of the state to act to erase the blemish of discrimination of its Arab citizens in all forms and expressions." (Orr Commission, September 2003)

Former Justice Minister Yosef Lapid, the chairman of the ministerial committee set up as a result of the Orr Commission, upon presenting the findings of the committee, declared that:

"The government of Israel is obligated to effect a normative change in the mutual relationship between Arabs and Jews, by recognizing the right of all sectors to be different from each other. This means that Arab citizens cannot be prevented from expressing their culture and identity. The polity of the government is to reach true equality in the rights and duties of the citizens of the State, Jews and Arabs alike, in as quick a manner as possible."

The ministerial committee resolved, inter alia, to set up a governmental authority for the advancement of minorities in Israel, to prepare a master plan for the Arab population and to prepare building planning schemes for Arab communities. Moreover, it recommended the observance of an annual "day of tolerance" which would give expression to the many faceted cultures of Israeli society.

Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran
Israel Supreme Court

Senior diplomat Ali Yahya, the first Israeli Arab ambassador
Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Mohammed Abu El Haija is an activist and resident of Ein Hod, an Arab village located in the Carmel region. In 1982, together with Arab and Jewish members, he formed the "Association of Forty", an organization dedicated to peaceful co-existence between Jews and Arabs, the advancement of equality for all sectors of Israeli society, and the achievement of official recognition of unrecognized Arab villages. Mohammed currently serves as the head of the village of Ein Hod and is a member of the Carmel Regional Council.

For many years, Mohammed fought for official state recognition of the village of Ein Hod and in 1992, the Israeli government granted Ein Hod official status. As a result, the lives of its villagers are now undergoing a radical change for the better. Previously living in poor conditions under fear of eviction, they are now part of a village being transformed into a modern town like all other towns in Israel. Recently, a city planning scheme was approved for the village which has since joined the Carmel Regional Council as a regular member. When asked his opinion of the existence of equality in Israel and what he thinks of the future in this respect, Mohammed responded as follows:

"After struggling for recognition for so long, I now recognize, how a group of people, a village, can finally obtain official status of their home, recognition of their right to live lawfully in their own village after so many years. It is true that many years have gone by, but this is a great achievement for everyone, a big step forward. The State of Israel has finally applied a policy of equality to us and I am hopeful that this will prove to be the case for other villages that are in similar situations as well. This step shows that there is hope for additional changes for the better as well. It helps to convince me that equality is attainable, no matter how difficult it may seem."

In order to achieve equality in a dynamic country, a strong foundation must first be laid to ensure the stability of the structure after its completion. The State of Israel is a young country still under construction. The foundations that have been laid help build an equal and progressive society despite all of the difficulties that are involved. Most importantly, these strong foundations guarantee that despite any difficulty, the structure will not collapse on its inhabitants and Israeli society will continue to advance in its commitment to full equality.

Ilan Jonas is a lecturer at a law school and an attorney who specializes in citizens rights. He is active in and serves as legal advisor to organizations dealing with the rights of minorities in Israel.

Mohammed Abu El Haija
(Photo: Amar Abu El-Haija)

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