For Arab citizens, Israeli government suffers from split personality

Ten years after the Or Commission was formed to investigate the deaths of 13 Arabs protesters at the hands of Israeli police, the government is taking contradictory steps toward implementing its findings.

By Ron Gerlitz

Protest against decision on killings during Oct. 2000 riots. (photo: Activestills)
Protest against decision on killings during Oct. 2000 riots. (photo: Activestills)

“The earth shook during the events of October 2000.”

These are the words that introduced the Or Commission recommendations, published exactly ten years ago. The commission was formed to investigate the violent clashes between the police and Israeli Arabs during October 2000, the most violent between the government and Israel’s Arab citizens since the establishment of the state. The events lead to the death of 13 young Arabs at the hands of the police, as well as the death of a Jewish civilian who was killed after a rock was thrown at his car. The Or Commission stated firmly that “Israel’s Arab citizens live in a situation in which they are discriminated against as Arabs” and that “the state must work to wipe out the stain of discrimination against its Arab citizens, in its various forms and expressions.”

But ten years on, has the stain been erased? Has it faded or become smaller? Has the state even tried to erase it? Based on an ongoing monitoring of government policy towards Arab citizens, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that when it comes to implementing the commission’s recommendations, the government has taken contradictory steps, as if it suffered from split personality disorder.

The Or Commission found that the events were the result of deeply rooted factors, among them the systematic and structural discrimination against Israel’s Arab citizens. It stated unequivocally that the state has not “done enough to grant equality to its Arab citizens and do away with occurrences of discrimination and deprivation,” and recommended that one of the government’s main goals must be “achieving real equality for Arab citizens.” The commission went further, asserting that inequality could not be rectified only by affirmative action in the allocation of new budgets, adding that existing resources should be redistributed equally in cases where budget limitations did not previously permit doing so. The commission even stated, in so many words, that this form of equality must also apply to the sensitive issue of land allocation.

The statements and recommendations were impressive and important. But has anything been done?

In terms of material resources and decreased discrimination in the allocation of budgets, the government has taken several significant steps. The realization that the discrimination is, indeed, a stain, seems to have trickled into the minds of many government bureaucrats. I am always surprised when I encounter officials who not only admit the existence of discriminatory policy, but even work to increase the resources given to Arab localities and to close the gaps between Arab and Jewish municipalities. The government uses several policy tools to promote the employment of the Arab citizens, including the aggressive and costly mechanism of subsidizing the wages of Arab workers in several sectors. We should also note the establishment of the Authority for the Economic Development of the Arab Sector in the Prime Minister’s Office, and the fact that, for several years now, it has been tenaciously and successfully running programs to improve the situation of Arab citizens. My intention is not to whitewash the picture: there is indeed severe, deep-seated, and structural inequality between Jews and Arabs, which is the direct result of discriminatory policies that continue to the present day. However, if the positive steps are expanded, they can lead to a significant change in the Arab citizens’ socioeconomic situation and move us ahead towards implementation of the Or Commission’s recommendations.

So what do I mean by “split personality?” The Or Commission did not address material discrimination alone; it also noted the need to recognize Arab citizens’ special status as an indigenous minority. Hence it adds that “the Jewish majority must respect Arab citizens’ identity, culture, and language,” that “the government must find ways that will allow Arab citizens to express their culture and identity in public life in an appropriate and dignified manner,” and that “perhaps the time has come to give public expression to the elements common to the entire population by adding national events and symbols with which all citizens can identify.” These are important and unprecedented statements—all the more so when they appear in an official document. But not only has there been no progress in this regard, precisely the opposite has happened.

In recent years, a dangerous political trend has gathered speed: extreme right-wing elements in the coalition (and even in the ruling party) are waging a political campaign against the rights of Arab citizens. Legislative initiatives directed against Arab citizens are submitted frequently, and some even gain government support. Many discriminatory bills have been proposed and some have even been enacted. A number of these laws would also infringe individual and economic rights. For instance, the “Contributors to the State Law,” which would provide legal authorization for discrimination against Arabs in hiring practices, passed a preliminary Knesset reading and is now is advancing through the legislative process.

However, in the context of the Or Commission recommendations, the most blatant example of the corrosion of respect for the identity of Arab citizens identity relates directly to their right to remember and commemorate their tragedy. In the introduction to its report, the Or Commission wrote that “the establishment of the State of Israel, which the Jewish people celebrated as the fulfillment of a generations-old dream, is enshrined in their [the Arabs’] collective memory as the most severe collective trauma in their history—the Nakba.” At the end of the report, the Committee stated explicitly that “the Arabs view the events that made them a minority in this country as a national catastrophe.” And what did the government do? The last Knesset passed the Nakba Law, one of the most delusional and shameful pieces of legislation on the books, which grants the finance minister the right to reduce government funding to a public institution that marks the day of the State’s founding as a day of mourning. This means that if an local Arab council wants to mark Independence Day by reading and studying the Or Commission report—a worthy and educational activity—it would be wise to skip over the aforementioned sentence that links the founding of the State with the Nakba, lest the finance minister find out and cut its budget. (It is important to note that Jewish local authorities may use their budgets to commemorate Jewish national traumas.) Is there a better example of the fact that the government has retreated completely from the commission’s recommendations regarding respect for the identity of the country’s Arab citizens?

The government is implementing the commission’s recommendations and working to close gaps on the one hand, while promoting laws that harm the Arab public on the other. While the prime minister himself supports the economic steps, he has also allied himself with Liberman, who based an entire political campaign on attacking Arab citizens.

The extreme right’s influence on the government sabotages the latter’s efforts to improve relations between Israel’s Arab and Jewish citizens. Ten years after the publication of the Or Commission recommendations, the time has come for the government of Israel to implement its recommendations, which are more relevant today that ever. A dramatic intensification of the efforts to narrow economic gaps, an immediate halt to the moves to enact discriminatory legislation, and a repeal of the Nakba Law should be the first steps in the process.

Ron Gerlitz is the co‑executive director of Sikkuy: The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality. The original op-ed was published in Hebrew on the Molad website.

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For Palestinians, the Nakba is not history