The latest public furor surrounding the placing of a Christmas tree in the Haifa Technion and discontinuing the Arabic language public address announcements in Be’er Sheva buses, join the political incitement and demonstrate that the State of Israel does not respect the Arab citizens and their symbols. The battle against these appalling messages is a challenge shared by Arabs and Jews.
Ron Gerlitz and Rawnak Natour
A single Christmas tree recently generated a storm in the Technion and in Haifa in general, in light of protests by professors and clerics who were angry at its placement in a cafeteria on campus, at the initiative of the student union and a number of Arab students. The rabbi of the Technion synagogue even forbade students from entering the complex and eating there.
A few weeks earlier, local Be’er Sheva residents began a similar protest against the decision to add public address announcements in Arabic on the local bus lines, as part of the welcome move by the Ministry of Transport to make public transportation services accessible to Arab citizens. The vocal opposition of a number of residents even led to the unfortunate decision to remove the public address system in Arabic.
There is a similarity between the incidents – and the key to understanding the present challenges of the struggle to advance an equal and shared society for Jews and Arabs in Israel lies in understanding the dynamic that gave rise to the opposition.
This counter-reaction did not take place in a vacuum. There is continuous incitement against Palestinians citizens of Israel. The education minister accused them of setting this country on fire, claiming that it doesn’t even belong to them. The chairman of the coalition said it would be better if they didn’t go out to vote, and the defense minister recently repeated his disgraceful proposal to redraw the borders and to eject hundreds of thousands of Arab citizens from the country, once and for all.
The furor surrounding the Christmas tree and the announcements in Arabic in the buses, like the crisis surrounding the absence of the Joint List from the funeral of Shimon Peres (an event in which the majority of the minority in Israel vehemently demanded recognition of its narrative and its symbols), demonstrate that as in other national conflicts worldwide, in the Jewish-Arab conflict inside Israel, symbolic issues have unique importance and cannot be ignored.
The Israeli government and society don’t respect the Arab citizens and their narrative as a native national minority that belong to this place, and barely allocate collective and symbolic resources to them. Here are a few examples: Arabic is absent from many public spaces: hospitals, museums, the airport, some of the public transportation systems, and more; Arab students are required to study and take exams even during their holidays; many places of work don’t allow Arab workers to celebrate their holidays with their families. In the national parks the signs are usually in Hebrew only, and the history described in them conceals the Palestinian narrative regarding the site; and in school curricula (both Hebrew and Arabic), there is no presence of Arab poets, writers, intellectuals and leaders, and no mention of the way in which Arabs perceive the conflict.
On the one hand, the government wants the Arab citizens to be part of the economy and the job market – as we saw in the past year with the advancement of the economic program to reduce discrimination in the distribution of budgets. But on the other hand, at the same time their national, collective rights are treated with contempt and denial. Worse, the government questions their connection to the country and treats them like foreigners in their own homeland, as though they have no part in this land, the homeland shared by the two peoples.
These terrible messages, combined with the direct incitement against Arab citizens coming from inside the government, create and exacerbate the push back to the advancement of group rights for Arab citizens, for example when Arabic is newly present in the public space.
But there are those in the Jewish community who understand that a person cannot give up his individual or collective identity. And happily, those who support respecting the identity of Palestinians who are Israeli citizens are a diverse group, and not divided, as we would expect, according to political camps. They include quite a number of decision makers in government ministries, local councils and public institutions.
So although there are those who continue to espouse incitement, separation and exclusion, activities by private citizens and civil society organizations, along with those fair-minded decision makers, have succeeded in recent years in advancing additional arenas of shared society: In most of the buses they have added signs in Arabic, two universities have declared a number of Arab holidays as vacation days, and in the end even the Technion supported the right of Arab students to put up a Christmas trees, and more steps such as those are in the offing.
But we must remember that every such achievement is likely to encounter opposition, just as we saw in the Be’er Sheva buses. And the more we succeed, the greater the opposition may become. Therefore we have to prepare for that already now, to convey the message that this is a shared civic interest and to recruit Jewish and Arab citizens to join these efforts.
To date we have not succeeded in developing an effective solution to that counter-reaction, and that is a huge challenge that we are facing. If we are successful, we will be able to bring about an unprecedented breakthrough in the relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel, and perhaps even to serve as an example to the rest of the world. It’s in our hands.
The writers are the co-executive directors of Sikkuy-the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality