Overcoming discrimination in Israel

The Arab Association for Human Rights (AAHR) is an NGO founded in 1988 by lawyers and community activists, working to promote and protect the rights of the Palestinian Arab minority in Israel, which constitutes around 20% of the population of the state. The meeting with AAHR was the last on my trip and they painted a very coherent and informative overview of the discrimination and injustice embedded in Israeli law.

The central theme of the meeting was exploring the meaning of citizenship. While Israel’s Declaration of Independence asserts equal citizenship for all its citizens without discrimination on the basis of nationality, religion or gender, Israel explicitly identifies itself as a Jewish state. This is where the difficulties for equality start to unfold for the 20% of the population that are non-Jewish and face discrimination and regular violations of their human rights as defined under International Law.

AAHR collect vast amounts of evidence to log this discrimination, and highlight unjust laws through reports, fact sheets and in-depth testimonies. AAHR summarise the discrimination that exists into four categories:

  1. Legal – Direct – Discrimination: for example, “The Citizenship and Entry into Israel” law: for Jewish citizens, marrying a foreign person means that the spouse gets a temporary residence permit and full citizenship automatically – but this is prohibited to the Arab citizen. For exploring the legal discrimination further, the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel keeps a detailed database of discriminatory laws.
  2. Indirect – Covert – Discrimination: for example: whilst military service is technically compulsory for all citizens, by discretion the vast majority of Palestinian Arabs (90%) are not required to serve; whereas the majority of people who identify as Jewish do. As a consequence, Palestinian Arabs do not receive the wide range of benefits that service provides, including larger mortgages, partial exemptions from course fees, and preferences for public employment and housing.
  3. Institutional – Policy – Discrimination: this is expressed through disproportionate Budgets & Resource Allocation and Uneven Implementation of the Law. For example, although land confiscation laws apply to both Jewish and Arab people, they are predominately implemented on Arab families as shown by the vast number of housing demolitions. With the Budget Law, which governs state funds, it does not specify what proportion should be earmarked for minorities. Due to their lack of representation in government offices, Palestinian Arabs receive substantially less funding for services, such as local government budgets (usually 50% less), and have less resources allocated for welfare budgets, school facilities or other education programmes.
  4. Discrimination in the Public Sphere: this refers to the discrimination on the ground, such as name calling, sneering and spitting. It’s acknowledged that this type of detestable discrimination exists for all groups, regardless of whether they are a minority or majority.

The legal and institutionalised evidence of discrimination calls into question Israel’s commonly cited status as a democracy. Definitions of democracy typically refer to a form of government in which all eligible citizens participate equally — either directly or indirectly through elected representatives — in the proposal, development, and creation of laws. The key word here is “equally”. There are many “eligible citizens” in Israel, but many that are unable to participate equally, because of having a non-Jewish status. The legal and institutional discrimination can be fixed with amendments to law. But what about indirect discrimination and that in the public sphere?

I’ve spent the last 10 days listening to endless stories of this discrimination. It’s been upsetting and frustrating. Where does one begin in exploring what can be done about it? Understanding public opinion is an interesting place to start. In September 2012 the Dialog polling centre took a poll of 503 Jewish Israelis in Tel Aviv. Some of the findings found:

  • 33% of Israeli Jews favor legally blocking Israeli Arab citizens from voting for the Knesset (59% against)
  • 59% are for official preference to be given to Jews for government positions (34% against)
  • 42% do not want an Arab family as neighbors in their building (53% do not care)
  • 58% of Jewish Israelis accepts the application of the term ‘apartheid’ to the current state of affairs in Israel (11% don’t know).

I’m told this survey generated some level of introspection for people in Israel. It demonstrates that we aren’t dealing with a political elite that lacks compassion. Discrimination has become deeply embedded into parts of society and is somehow being rationalised.

Without many Israeli reference points on my journey, I kept thinking back to the meeting I had with settler, Ardie Geldman. Geldman didn’t deny the existence of discrimination, but he downplayed it and tried to cast doubt in my mind of its existence, particularly through his “points of light” (positive stories of relations between Israeli Jews and Palestinians). You also witness this sort of discourse in far-right journalists such as Earl Cox, who characterise Israel as the compassionate, conscientious givers, and Palestinians as the ungrateful, violent oppressors; an aside observation in his writing is that Palestinians and Hamas seem to be equal, interchangeable words. I don’t think that’s fair.

Let’s go back to Ardie Geldman. From our meeting, it felt that he views discrimination as an unfortunate but necessary consequence to the formation of Israel and he will therefore not only tolerate it, but support it. Islamic extremism coupled with retaliation through direct protests only serve to solidify Israel’s position, fuelling more arms, tighter security and justification of big separation walls.

I write only about what I observe and I understand how sensitive people are over this topic. A common knee-jerk and defensive reaction involves the justification of discrimination or unjust actions by pointing a finger to the other side and saying: “but they do it too, and worse!” A mature viewpoint must move on from this point scoring and blame game. Retribution by conflict and punishment fuels the fire. We need a new language of compassion and a genuine desire for peace. Might this be bubbling under the surface? Perhaps that’s a naive thing to hope for. But surely another way is possible.

As I write, particularly about Israel, I feel it’s worth making clear that any criticisms are against the policies and actions of the state or particular individuals, and not ethnic or religious groups, whether they be Jewish or non-Jewish. In searching for understanding and positive ways to respond to discrimination, I have been inspired by so many groups such as AAHR, Tent of Nations and the Holy Land Trust. Through them, I have learnt that on each side of the walls there are good people – elderly folks, mothers, fathers, teachers, nurses, engineers, farmers and children – who just want to get on with their lives, without these conflicts. They crave peace, yet conflicts run deep and are normalised. Sometimes I feel like peace could be so close, so easy to implement, if only we could grasp the threads that connect us together as humans; threads of community, kinship, belonging and solidarity. Yet this has often felt so distant.

For many, the history of Israel has been defined by a spiral of discrimination, violence, that only fuels more discrimination, more violence. This can end in two ways. One ending is ugly where nobody wins. The other ending is a celebration of how love overcame conflict and fear. It’s only love that can break the cycle, giving freedom and allowing everybody to win. We can only start this journey to peace when we have the audacity to come to the table, ready to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to be honest and ready for a peaceful revolution.