CAMERA Op-Ed: Israeli Arab Rights and Wrongs

As Israel went to the polls in January, a surge of news stories appeared about the lives, attitudes and voting patterns of its Arab citizens. All too many were boiler-plate recitations of charges that Israeli Arabs are understandably aggrieved and deeply alienated from their country because of its alleged discriminatory policies.

The pre-election controversy in which an Israeli election commission sought to disqualify two Arab candidates because of their incendiary statements (a move reversed by the Supreme Court) was generally treated as one more proof of Jewish abuse of the Arab minority.

USA Today’s Ellen Hale offered a round-up of platitudes on the subject (“Israeli Arabs say elections won’t change anything,” January 27). She related examples of “perceived neglect,” including lower average income among Israeli Arabs than among Jewish Israelis, higher unemployment and “water, electric and phone services [that] are inferior.” She further said the Arab candidates under fire by the commission, Ahmed Tibi and “charismatic” Azmi Bishara, “were accused of inciting anti-Israel sentiment.”

She didn’t bother to get a counter-view regarding the charges of discriminatory social policies—as though there is no dispute about them—and she omitted examples of incendiary statements by the Arab candidates in question.

Haifa University economist Professor Steven Plaut has recently surveyed income distribution in Israel, and finds the claims of income gaps between “ethnic” groups to be false. He identifies other factors applying to all of Israel’s ethnic groups as key to income differences, concluding that “a person of a certain gender, education and age is in the same income bracket whether he is an Arab, Sephardi or Ashkenazi.”

A major determinant of income is age. Older people in every group make more money than younger ones. The Arab sector has more children per capita and, accordingly, the average age of Israeli Arabs is 10 years younger than Israeli Jews. In this respect Israeli Arabs resemble haredi Jews, who also have large families and therefore lower per-capita incomes.

Plaut observes that while the individual choice to have large families may result in income disparities, this cannot be attributed to discrimination.

If there are inferior municipal services in the Arab sector, this can also be seen in the context of the Arabs’ own choices and conduct. According to Plaut, “while in the Jewish sector the average percentage of residents who pay their property taxes per town approximates 80%, with property tax exemptions going mostly to the elderly and the poor,” in the Arab city of Umm el-Fahm, for example, 72.9% do not pay property taxes. Even owners of the many large, luxury homes proliferating in Arab towns may pay negligible property taxes.

How different Hale’s story would have been if she’d mentioned the failure of Arab municipalities themselves to collect taxes and provide services for their residents. Americans well understand the endless efforts of their own cities and towns to balance property tax income against the costs of education, water, road and sewage services for residents.

Nor did Hale mention other information relevant to the status, views and interests of Israeli Arabs. A survey of residents of Umm el-Fahm published in the Israeli Arab weekly Kul Al-Arab in the summer of 2000 asked whether they would like to include their city in a potential Palestinian state.

The question elicited resounding opposition from 83% of respondents. Among those opposed, 54% cited as explanation for their position the desire to continue living under democratic rule, and the fact that they enjoy a good standard of living.

Such attitudes are all the more striking in light of the fact that Umm El-Fahm is a center of radical Muslim activity in the Israeli Arab sector, and the scene of events such as a June 2000 celebration of “Hizbullah’s victory” after Israel’s withdrawal from south Lebanon. Members of Knesset Azmi Bishara and Ahmed Tibi participated, and Bishara went on a year later to even more blatant anti-Israel actions. Speaking in Syria at a memorial for Hafez Al-Assad, he called on the Arab world “to unite against the warmongering Sharon government,” and to adopt “the path of resistance.” A number of analysts have speculated as to how closely such extreme statements reflect the sentiments of the Israeli Arab community as a whole. Writing in the journal Azure, Dan Schueftan described an increasingly widespread radicalization and rejection of the Jewish state’s legitimacy–a trend dramatically evident among Israeli Arab students. He quoted, for instance, the head of the Haifa University Arab students’ committee rhetorically informing Theodor Herzl that “You do not have, nor did you ever have, a place here. This is my country. It was and still is. It will never belong to anyone else.” A fellow committee member declared: “As far as I am concerned, Israel is the occupied Palestinian state.”

The many “news” stories that mindlessly repeat distorted and one-sided allegations against Israeli policy toward its Arab citizens not only misrepresent a complex issue and tar Israel unfairly, but also help give a pass to those Israeli Arabs who have adopted as their own the radical Palestinian agenda of eliminating Israel.

Originally appeared in Jerusalem Post on February 14, 2003.

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