A dangerous position

Despite the onslaught of discriminatory legislation and racist declarations by public leaders, empirical data suggests that the government of Israel is closing the gaps between its Jewish and Arab citizens in many fields. The refusal to recognize those changes is dangerous and counter-productive.

By Ron Gerlitz and Batya Kallus

The policies of the current government and Knesset in relation to Arab citizens include statements that are divisive, discriminatory and dangerous. The provocations against the Arab leadership and members of Knesset are ongoing, and are strengthened by extremist elements of the government. However, all of the harsh declarations and actions by government ministers have not prevented Arab society from consistently fighting against these difficult trends and promoting progress for the Arab population. This periodically results in a positive response from government officials.

Nonetheless, anyone reading criticism directed toward the government’s policies regarding Arab citizens might think that all of the government activities and those of the government bureaucrats are aimed against Arab citizens, and that all of the efforts to advance equality policies have failed. This is not the case.

A combination of circumstances, among them the pressure brought by Arab society, advocacy by Arab civil society and shared society organizations, efforts by Hadash and the Arab political parties, as well as young people and others, have had an impact. Over the last ten years, the government has begun to initiate significant and innovative processes to close the gaps of inequality, advance economic development, and promote employment for the Arab population.

We are interested in giving some examples. Not because of our enthusiasm from the government’s activities, but rather because of our interest in strengthening these efforts. In 2003, the representation of Arabs in government service was 5 percent.  Since then, there has been a steady increase, and by 2011 it had reached 7.8 percent (an increase of more than 50 percent).  The number of Arabs employed in government civil service rose in the same time period from 2,800 workers in 2003 to 5,000 in 2011- an impressive increase of 78 percent, especially in comparison to a 12 percent increase in the number of Jewish workers during the same period. This represents a dramatic increase that is the result of focused policies to advance fair representation of Arabs in government service. (Contrary to the  popular claim  that the increase in Arab government employees is only the result of an increase in Druze employees.)

After years of neglect, The Ministry of Transportation initiated a process to introduce public buses to Arab communities and has succeeded so far, in Rahat, Kfar Kassem and other communities.

The Ministry of Welfare is systematically closing the gaps in the allocations of welfare budgets between Jewish and Arab communities, and is operating a variety of programs giving clear budgetary priority to funding of Arab municipalities.

The Ministry of Housing and Construction is successfully marketing the development of new housing on state-owned land in Arab communities in Nazareth, Umm Al Fahem as well as other communities.

In the field of employment, the government is running a number of programs to encourage Arab employment and has recently initiated an extensive and comprehensive process leading to the establishment of 22 employment guidance centers in Arab communities. Funds have been budgeted and implementation has begun.

In the larger picture, we should not ignore the relations between the government and Arab citizens that have in recent years also been characterized by racist legislation, attempts to harm the civil rights of Arabs, and racist declarations by public leaders. Of greatest concern to us are the phenomenon of burning and desecrating mosques and other places of worship, the increasing street violence toward Arabs, and more. We, the authors of this article, are working intensively in cooperation with Arab partners against these negative trends and toward advancing equal and shared society.

It is abundantly clear that the increases in the allocation of government resources are insufficient, and are not closing the deep existing gaps. The path is still long. However, for the past several years, we have been intensively analyzing government policies toward Arab citizens and their struggle for equality. On the basis of empirical research and our in-depth acquaintance with the bureaucracy and government policies, we write – taking full responsibility for this statement – that this is not just a matter of forward movement in individual cases or only declarative statements. Rather, it indicates intent to advance policies that aim to close the gaps in the allocation of resources between Arabs citizens and Jews, and this intention has been agreed upon and implemented by significant components of the government’s bureaucracy at the most senior levels.

In addition to the government, philanthropy- Israeli, international and especially the Jewish community in the United States are investing in improving the situation of Arab society. This is especially so in the areas of education and employment. We are talking about significant, long-term investment leading to impressive successes. For example: the expansion of high-tech in Nazareth in the last few years (there are more than 300 Arabs currently working in high tech in Nazareth as compared to 30 in 2008); and the success at the Technion which with the support of philanthropy has reduced  the dropout rate of Arab students from 28 percent to 12 percent. The philanthropic sector is also active in supporting effective pressure on the government, and causing its agencies to expand its activities in the field of economic development.

There are many reasons why the government is investing in advancing Arab society and closing the gaps. Obviously, the advocacy by Arab society (civil society ngo’s, political parties, young people, etc.) has an influence. In addition, many decision makers are driven by the economic interests of the State of Israel to advance Arab society and integrate it into Israel’s economy.  For many it is their professional and ethical commitments that move them to reduce discrimination and advance equality. The criticism of international organizations such as the OECD has an influence (although those who claim that the OECD’s pressure is the main reason for the government’s policies are wrong).

Whatever the reasons and the factors for these changes are, the bottom line is that the government of Israel through its professional staff in government ministries is closing the gaps in many fields. Yet, there are many voices in Arab society who deny this trend, claiming that there is an overall decline in every field and that the advances are marginal at best.

Arab youth, who absorb the message that the totality of the government of Israel in relation to Arab society is aimed at harming Arab citizens, will not make an effort to apply for positions in government service or in high tech companies; and a professional working in Arab local government, who accepts these claims will not find the strength to struggle for government budgets. Claiming that this negative trend also exists in the fields of economic development and the allocation of government resources is not only incorrect, it causes despair. And this is, perhaps, the greatest enemy of Arab society in Israel. This is a dangerous claim which weakens Arab society and binds the hands of those who are trying to do the work—in government ministries and in civil society activism and thus harms the struggle for equality.

Economic development and the advancement of higher education and employment are not minor issues in the national conflict between Jews and Arabs in Israel. A strong Arab society can engage with the Jewish majority on difficult questions such as the definition of the state, national rights and the right of return. The voices which negate the existence of these positive developments damage Arab citizens and their capacity to fight for national issues.

Ron Gerlitz is the co-executive director of Sikkuy, an Arab-Jewish organization working to advance equality. Batya Kallus is the senior grants officer for the Moriah Fund in Israel, and a philanthropic advisor for foundations funding activities that promote equality and shared society in Israel. This op-ed was originally published in Arabic in the Arab press in Israel.