In marmur, Our Virtual Mishkan

I’ve just heard that the Canadian Jewish News is closing down. This would have been my column in next week’s issue.                           

Israel’s Arab Citizens

Fifteen of Israel’s 120 Members of Knesset represent the Joint List, a coalition of four Arab political parties – liberals, Islamists, progressives and ultra-nationalist – that came together to make sure that the law passed in 2014 raising the electoral threshold from 2% to 3.25% wouldn’t disenfranchise them.

A major impetus to passing the law was probably to exclude as many Arabs as possible from the Israeli legislature. The move misfired. Today, there’re more of them than ever before.

The Joint List had supported Benny Gantz, the leader of the now broken-up Blue and White Party when he hoped to become the next prime minister of Israel. After the election on March 2 he seemed to be able to muster 61 Members of Knesset and was, therefore, given the mandate by Israel’s president to form the next government. The Joint List wouldn’t be part of it, but it expected measures to benefit Israel’s Arab citizens whom previous governments are said to have neglected.

For a few days, I was among those who thought that Ron Kampeas’ observation in the Times of Israel was correct that “an Arab voice at the national table has taken a leap from unimaginable to inevitable.” Unfortunately, Gantz’s taking a section of Blue and White into the coalition with the right-wingers supporting Binyamin Netanyahu has rendered this assessment irrelevant.

Netanyahu, who is likely to remain the prime minister in the foreseeable future, insists that the Joint List lacks legitimacy because its Knesset members oppose the Jewish state and some of them are accused of supporting terrorists.

Responsible and respected public figures in Israel were understandably outraged by the prime minister’s stance. Efraim Halevi, the former head of the Mossad, wrote in Ha’aretz that he who seeks to ignore the Joint List also invalidates those who voted for them, i.e., Israel’s Arab citizens, almost 21 % of the country’s population.

Arabs are productive and some are prominent members of Israeli society. Their role in the country’s health service is particularly notable. Professor Rafi Walden, the deputy director of Tel Aviv’s Sheba Hospital, has put it well: “It is hard to comprehend that a patient can put his life in the hands of a senior cardiac surgeon who is Arab, while the prime minister overwhelmingly defines the Arab citizens of Israel as terrorists.”

At this time of the coronavirus pandemic, Walden’s words are particularly poignant: “The system would collapse without the crucial contribution of the Arab citizens as medical staff.” Professor Bernard Avishai, writing in the New Yorker reported that “seventeen percent of Israel’s physicians, twenty-four percent of its nurses, and nearly half its pharmacists are Arabs.”

An item on Facebook put it succinctly: “I am an Arab doctor. I voted for the Joint List. I am not a terrorist. I keep working to save lives of Jews and Arabs equally. Shared fate, shared government.”

Wishing to share the fate of Israel’s Jewish citizens Arabs were, therefore, outraged by the proposal in President Trump’s so-called peace plan, an idea long advocated by reactionary Jews in Israel, that a region in the North of the country, largely populated by Arabs, should be made part of the Palestinian state. Israel’s Arabs justifiably see themselves as the country’s citizens and wish to remain so, even if many may oppose Zionism.

The coronavirus crisis has also brought to light the gap in available medical and other welfare services between the Arab and Jewish population in Israel. Had Benny Gantz formed a government with the support of the Joint List that gap would no doubt have been narrowed. As things are now, however, Arabs will continue to be marginalized and the Joint List will remain as its foremost advocate.

But it won’t be alone. Soon after the announcement that Gantz wouldn’t form the next government, a statement reflecting the views of many Israelis affirmed solidarity with their Arab fellow-citizens. Perhaps they’ll help to bring about what Gantz failed to do.

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