Israeli Arabs and Jews Drive Past Another Turning Point

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- “The Arabs,” Abba Eban, the eloquent Israeli diplomat, said almost half a century ago, “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” The pithy line was classic Eban — slightly funny, obviously memorable and, sadly, true. The tendency to which Eban pointed was once again on display this month when thousands of Israeli Arabs, joined by many Jews, gathered in Tel Aviv to protest Israel’s recently passed “Jewish nation-state law.”

The law, which asserts that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people — not a new idea, as the 1917 Balfour Declaration, Israel’s Declaration of Independence and other Israeli laws made that claim decades ago — has infuriated groups of all sorts for gratuitous additions, which many find dismissive.

American Jewish leaders have assailed the legislation for its ostensibly anti-democratic nature and for its assertion that Israel will work to build a positive relationship with Diaspora Jews “in the Diaspora” (implying that inside Israel, the views of Diaspora Jew will be given no heed). But most Israelis have turned a deaf ear to that message. The law also ends Arabic’s status as an official language of the state. That step, alongside the not surprising but still discomfiting reminder of Israel’s central Jewish commitments, have infuriated Israeli Arabs and Druze, among others. Unlike the Diaspora resentments, protests by the Druze, have struck a chord.

The Druze, an Arabic-speaking but non-Muslim minority, serve in the military and, like Israeli Jews, have buried many of their young lost in battle. In fact, so respected are the Druze in Israeli society that even Naftali Bennet, the hard-right and personally religious minister of education, said that the enactment of the nation-state law was very damaging to the Druze, and that “we, the government of Israel, have a responsibility to find a way to heal the rift.”

There was thus some reason to hope that when Israeli Arabs gathered in Tel Aviv to protest the law, their objections would evoke a similarly sympathetic reaction from Israel’s Jewish majority. It could have been, if not a turning point, a moment of solidarity between Israel’s Arabs, who make up about 20 percent of Israeli society, and its many center- and left-leaning Jews.

But Eban’s quip proved true once again. Unlike the Druze, whose protests stressed their devotion to Israel, some of the Israeli Arabs protesters showed their attachment to the Palestinian cause. Some waved not Israeli flags, but Palestinian flags. Instead of chanting the slogan chosen by the protest’s organizing committee, “No to the nation-state law, yes to equality,” they shouted classic Palestinian anti-Israel phrases, “With blood and fire, we will redeem Palestine” and “Millions of martyrs are marching to Jerusalem.”

To the Jews who would like to believe that Israel’s Arabs are loyal to the state like the Druze and not a fifth column, the off-script chants were proof of the difference between the two minority groups. Even Avi Gabbai, the leader of Israel’s largest left-leaning party, announced that he could not attend the demonstration. He had heard that there would be Palestinian flags flying, and no mainstream Israeli politician could afford to be seen in such a setting. The opportunity to evoke sympathy for Israel’s Arabs, as the Druze protests had done with Bennett, thus went up in smoke.

A coming-together of Arabs and Jews was from the outset an unlikely outcome. If to Israel’s Jewish majority, there is a clear difference between Israeli Arabs and Palestinians — the Palestinians at are war with Israel, while Israel’s Arabs are full citizens of the state — that distinction has never been so clear to the Arabs. After all, during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, when some 700,000 Arabs were displaced, fled or forced out of Israel, who became a Palestinian refugee and who became an Israeli citizen was often a matter of luck. Some people fled early, and their families now live in refugee camps in Arab countries ruled by despots; their siblings or cousins who did not act so quickly ended up “stuck” in Israel, and are now citizens of a democracy. That creates a profound sense of unease, even guilt, among Israeli Arabs, who are loath to be seen by their Palestinian brothers as disloyal to the cause.

At times, Israeli policy has exacerbated Israeli Arab discomfort. At the conclusion of the war in 1949, Israelis understood that many of the Arabs who remained in the Jewish state were as hostile to the state as were those on the other side of the border. Israel thus placed its Arabs under a military administration, which lasted until 1966. It was Menachem Begin, the founder of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-leaning Likud party, who argued in the early 1960s (when he was head of the opposition) that a true democracy could not have some citizens under civil rule and other citizens under military rule. Yet as odious as the military administration was, it was not instituted (by Israel’s left-leaning, socialist government) out of thin air. The security concerns in Israel’s early years were real.

As agonizing as their predicament is today, Israel’s Arabs have to decide where they stand. Unlike the Druze, they just played right into the hands of Netanyahu, who has pushed for the nation-state law. The virulent anti-Israel chants of some afforded him an opportunity to note that there was “no better testament to the need” for it.

If Israel’s Arabs assume a position akin to that of the Druze, there are many Israeli Jews eager to embrace them as partners in the building of Israeli society and the strengthening of its democracy. Should they continue to protest alongside enemies sworn on Israel’s destruction, however, the Jewish majority will remain suspicious of them at best, and quite possibly, determined to marginalize them, no matter what the costs to Israel’s democracy. That would be a disaster for all, but especially for the Israeli Arabs with the power to determine their own fate.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. Author of 11 books, his latest is "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn."

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