Wednesday, August 16, 2006

16-Aug-06: For Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs, a moment of truth

An exchange of emails with friends in Australia this morning got us thinking about how the state of relations between Israel's Jews and Israel's Arabs was impacted by the Hezbollah War. It surprised us to know that, from a distance, there's a perception of a "we're all in the same basket" state of mind.

Our Australian friends believed Israel's Arabs had been united with us Israeli Jews by a shared perception of the threat to all of us from the lunatic to the north. Nasrullah's missiles, after all, did not distinguish between victims, and many Israeli Arab families are now freshly bereaved as a result.

It would have been encouraging if this happened, but in truth the public perception here is the opposite, with a lot of angry resentment that is likely to fester for a long while.

There were stand-up shouting matches in the Knesset, with Arab MKs exercising their democratic right to be heard screaming abuse at the IDF and the Israeli leadership. Several MK's and prominent leaders from the Israeli Arab sector took the opportunity to run to the international media (the BBC had its welcoming arms open especially wide for stories like this) with appalling stories of how Israel is deliberately discriminating against the Arab sector, and is placing its armaments near Arab villages in the Galilee in order to draw Hizbollah fire. Inveterate Israel-bashing Israeli Arabs like Ahmed Tibi, Ibrahim Sarsur and especially Azmi Bishara have been on fast-forward for the past four weeks, doing a great deal of damage to good relations between the social segments of Israeli society. Even when Lower Nazareth - the Arab section of town - was bombed by Nasrullah, just about the only media comments to be heard were Arab Israeli voices like this one expressing their understanding of the "resistance" in Lebanon and their hostility to Israel.

If we had to point to a single quote the captures the mood of the past month, it would be like this one from the BBC:
While opinion polls show that the Israeli public overwhelming supports continued military action in Lebanon, many of the Jewish state's approximately one million-strong Israeli Arab community blame Israel for the violence. "We're caught in the middle," says Ms Sheikh. "We are on the wrong side of the battle... Even while suffering a disproportionately high number of casualties in Hezbollah rocket attacks, Dr Azmi Bishara, an Israeli Arab Knesset member and leader of the Balad political party, says that most Israeli Arabs empathise with the Lebanese. "The division between us and the Lebanese is artificial," he says. "They are Arabs, they look like us, laugh like us, and eat the same food." Some Israelis are angered by what they see as Israeli Arab sympathy with their enemy... "
The handful of prominent Arab Israeli journalists have also been singularly out of step with overwhelming Jewish public sentiment. A good example of this is Faiz Abbas, latterly of Yediot - see this report. The Druze sector on the other hand did their customary job of being loyal and patriotic, making a positive contribution above and beyond their numbers.

The picture is not uniformly bleak, of course. Riad Ali who works at Israel Television's Channel One has written a series of opinion pieces for Haaretz in the past four weeks that deserve wide circulation. Here's what he wrote a week ago, in the depths of the suffering on both sides occasioned by the fires of war:
In the name of Allah
By Riad Ali
It tears one's heart and stills one's breath to see the images coming from Lebanon. The same goes for the images in Israel, and this is not added for the sake of balance.
But sorrow and grief over the war's victims shouldn't blur its prime objectives, both in Lebanon and in the Palestinian territories. When the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza adopted suicide bombing as their strategy in fighting Israel, I concluded that their war against the occupation is over, and an indiscriminate war on Jews has begun. I was convinced then, as I am now, that at that moment, the Palestinians lost the war, at least in the moral sense.
In one of my reports from Gaza, I talked to a Palestinian boy by the name of Haled. He was 10 years old at the time. He said he wanted to be a teacher. When we switched to the topic of the intifada, Haled said that he had another dream - to be a shahid. I asked him how could he be a teacher and a shahid at the same time. Ten-year-old Haled had no answer. He was only a child. It was then I realized that the Palestinian people have lost their inner compass. A whole generation of children was born and reared in their midst, and all their hopes and aspirations are to die a holy death.
A Palestinian moral-ethical debate on the status of the suicide bomber never took place. The saboteur was and remained a shahid, with all of the positive attributes that the word carries in Islamic terminology. Palestinians who still opposed the bombings did so on tactical grounds; that is to say, if it had furthered their cause, they would have seen no wrong in it.
A similar process happened with Hezbollah. If before 2000 the organization could have had the benefit of the doubt and claim it is fighting Israeli occupation of Lebanon, today it is clear to see that its war is against Jews wherever they may be. You have to be deaf in order not to hear the voice of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as it emerges from Nasrallah's throat, and naive in order to believe that the purpose of the arsenal Nasrallah has accumulated is the release of prisoners and the liberation of the Shaba Farms.
This is the time to address the Arab citizens of Israel, and tell them that the time has come for them to decide where they stand. And they should do so for their own sake, and not for the sake of the Jews. For the sake of the values they want to instill in their children. For the sake of retaining their intellectual dignity. It is clear to all that a Hamas-led Palestinian government and a Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon will not bring democratic societies with a flourishing political and social pluralism. It is clear that in regimes such as those, the rule of law, human rights, the freedom of religion and worship, women's rights, the freedom of creation, the freedom of movement, the freedom of expression and thought - all will be alien, ridiculed concepts, to say the least.
Ideological Islam has long been master of the Palestinian society's agenda in the West Bank and Gaza. But what worries me is that the same Islamic agenda that rules there rules also here in Israel, and crosses all parties and movements including those who consider themselves to be secular. The spirit of battle has overtaken the believers, and all who consider themselves as part of the Islamic nation also have to take part in its war. If not with guns, then with funds, and if not with funds, then through words, and if not through words, then in heart, as the Muslim preachers tell the masses.
I am not at war with the Jews, nor with the people of Israel. I have an argument with the Jews, and I have an argument with the State of Israel. On one point I do not argue, and that is the right of the Jewish people to their own independent state. To the best of my understanding, this war, as with the intifada, has to be judged from this perspective.
Arab citizens of the state who truly believe in the principle of two states for two peoples and those who believe in a democratic liberal society must ask themselves if the Islamic ideology that is leading the war today against Israel and the West in the guise of a war against the occupation and heathens is representative of their ambitions. We must separate the pain and sorrow for the innocent victims from the purpose of the war, as seen by those who lead it - in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and in any place where people seek to liberate land in the name of Allah.
In today's Haaretz, Riad Ali develops the idea further. Here's a brief extract:
The time has come to admit that the mother of all ills in the Arab world is the absence of a secular alternative that has the power to offer people a different way of thinking. An option that is an alternative to the one offered by political Islam. It is not the Israeli occupation that needs to be ended, but rather the fanatic religious occupation of the Arab-Muslim intellect, which is blocking the masses from the pleasure of thinking. This is an occupation that makes astonishingly effective use of the term "Israel" as a wonder nostrum to neutralize the capacity for critical vision among the many who have frozen the clock of history at the picture of Kfar Kana, and pointed without thinking in the direction of Israel. The cancerous tumor from which the Islamic world is suffering must be initially sought in the bunkers of Al Qaeda and Hezbollah, and not in the maw of the cannon on the Israeli tank. And no - I'm still not saying that Israel is as pure as the driven snow. In one of his brilliant comments, Ra'am-Ta'al MK Ahmed Tibi said that Israel is a country that is "democratic for its Jews and Jewish for it Arabs." You know what? My life's dream is to see one Arab country that is at least "democratic for its Muslims, and Muslim toward its minorities." Amen.
Read the entire piece and share it with your friends.

Now if there were another, say, thousand voices like Riad Ali's emanating from the Arab world, constructive dialogue and co-existence might be a lot more reality, a lot less slogan.

On the whole, this past month has done far, far more harm than good to the sense of shared destiny among Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews. Almost everyone agrees it's better to have the cannons and missiles silenced. But there's strikingly little optimism here right across the political spectrum that the quiet will last long.

1 comment:

David said...

It was part of Arafat's strategy to alienate Israeli Arabs from their Jewish neighbours.

The intifada has put an almost dead stop to trade and employment relationships between the two sectors in Israeli society.

It is sad, but it will take many years of peace before relationships are restored.