Israel’s Arab Moment

In this pandemic, the nation’s citizens face a crisis that is finally bringing us together.

Two medics—one Jewish and one Muslim—praying in Israel.

During the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Islamist militia, I was sitting in a restaurant in the city of Haifa when the siren warning of an incoming rocket interrupted my meal. Arab and Jewish diners found shelter in the narrow kitchen, crowding against one another in awkward silence. “Coexistence,” one woman finally said, with palpable irony.

Today, Israel faces its first national threat that isn’t security related, our first civil emergency that has nothing to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the coronavirus, Israel’s Arab and Jewish citizens are facing a crisis that is finally bringing us together.

Israeli media regularly feature stories of Arab-Jewish intimacy in the quarantine wards. The newspaper Yediot Aharonot published a four-page photo essay of Arab and Jewish nurses—the first time in memory it featured Arabs as Israeli heroes.  A video from the coexistence group Have You Seen the Horizon Lately? showing nurses removing their masks to reveal hijabs drew more than 2 million viewers. Images of Arab-Jewish coexistence have gone viral—like the photograph of an Arab doctor bringing a Torah scroll into an isolation ward, or of two medics pausing before their parked ambulance to pray, one man in a prayer shawl, the other on a prayer rug.

It is hardly coincidental that the trigger for this unprecedented focus on Arabs, who form 20 percent of the population, as exemplary citizens is an epidemic.

Our nationalized health-care system is one of the few areas of Israeli society that is fully integrated. Nearly a fifth of Israel’s doctors, a quarter of its nurses, and almost half its pharmacists are Arabs. Arab doctors head hospital departments and emergency rooms; one heads a hospital in the Galilee. Jews and Arabs encounter one another most intimately in maternity and cancer wards.

Israel’s ability to create a shared identity for its Arab and Jewish citizens is complicated by its relentless security challenges. For Jews, military service is central to their national identity, while Arabs are exempt from the draft, deprived of the unifying experience of Israeliness.

For Arabs, a history of government land confiscation and systemic budgetary discrimination, as well as the seemingly endless occupation of the Palestinians, has left deep wounds and mistrust. The implicit message Arabs take from the country’s Jewish identity—from its national symbols and its ethos of “ingathering the exiles,” granting citizenship to any Jew—is that they don’t quite belong.

For both Jews and Arabs, majority-minority status is a fluctuating state of mind. Jews are acutely aware of belonging to a minority state in an overwhelmingly Arab and Muslim region, largely hostile to its existence; most Arabs are at once an uneasy minority in a Jewish state and part of the region’s ethnic and religious majority.

Many Israeli Jews fear that Arabs can’t be loyal citizens, a suspicion aggravated by Arab Knesset representatives who have expressed support for Palestinian violence.

One Arab member of the Knesset, Heba Yazbak, was nearly disqualified from the recent elections by the Supreme Court for a tweet calling Samir Kuntar, convicted of helping murder an Israeli family, including a 4-year-old, a “martyr.” Another Arab politician, Azmi Bishara, fled the country just before being indicted for aiding Hezbollah during wartime. Although Ayman Odeh, head of the United Arab List, the Knesset’s third-largest party, has reached out to Jewish voters, he alienated Jews with his 2017 statement calling Palestinian attacks on Israeli soldiers legitimate (but he was careful to distinguish between Palestinians under occupation and Palestinian Israelis). The United Arab List rejects the Jewish identity of the state and has opposed every Israeli military action, including acts regarded as self-defense by almost all Jewish Israelis.

The disparity between the Palestinian nationalism of Arab politicians and the integrationist tendencies of Arab voters was revealed in a new poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, in which 77 percent of Arabs said they feel they are a part of the state and share with it a common destiny—the highest percentage ever. Call it the coronavirus effect: When Israeli Arabs feel respected as citizens, they tend to respond in kind.

But respect for Arab citizens is hardly the message being conveyed by the Israeli right. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu based his most recent campaign on fear of the United Arab List, warning that his chief rival, Benny Gantz, was planning to subvert Zionism by bringing a fifth column into government. When he failed to win a parliamentary majority, Netanyahu nevertheless declared his right-wing bloc the victor, having won a majority of Jewish votes—though the center-left bloc, including the United Arab List, won the majority of Israeli votes.

Yet even as Netanyahu was shattering the delicate balance between Israel’s democratic and Jewish identities, Gantz, head of the Blue and White party, was challenging another taboo: trying to create a center-left government based on outside support from the United Arab List. And while in the end Gantz joined Netanyahu in a unity government, a precedent had been set. During a recent anti-government demonstration, Odeh and the center-right leader and former Israel Defense Forces commander Moshe Yaalon shared the same platform, an act that would have been inconceivable for either man only weeks before.

The convergence of the coronavirus crisis with those political convulsions has created an unprecedented opportunity for expanding a truly Israeli civic space shared by Arabs and Jews. To exploit this moment will require deep changes on both sides.

Israel’s Jewish majority must finally commit to full equality for the state’s Arab citizens. According to Israel’s Declaration of Independence, Jews are to be favored only in determining eligibility for citizenship. Once inside the gates, as former Chief Justice Aharon Barak has put it, all citizens are equal.

A first step would be amending last year’s Nation-State Law, which establishes Israel’s Jewish identity while ignoring its democratic identity. Defenders of the Nation-State Law insist that affirming Israel as a democracy was unnecessary, because the Knesset has already passed laws ensuring the rights of all citizens. Yet those laws refer to individual rights, while the Nation-State Law defines the country’s identity. The Declaration of Independence implicitly defines Israel in two ways: as the state of all Jews, whether or not they are citizens, and as the state of all its citizens, whether or not they are Jews. For Israel to be true to itself, the law must include both definitions.

For their part, Arab citizens need to reconsider the wisdom of electing representatives who allow right-wing demagogues to delegitimize the Arab community. And although no one expects Arab citizens to join the IDF in large numbers, the Arab community needs to embrace alternative national service for its young people. The country is under constant siege, requiring great sacrifice from its young Jewish men and women; Arab citizens need to share the burden of service. Thousands of young Arabs do volunteer for national service, defying the opposition of the Arab political leadership. That opposition must change.

Both sides need to accept the very different ways each relates to being Israeli. For Arabs, Israeliness is necessarily devoid of the mythic elements embodied in the country’s Jewish identity. For Jews, though, the Jewishness of the state is nonnegotiable: Faithfulness to Jewish history and longings has been a primary driver of the Israeli success story, inspiring devotion and sacrifice.

For most Jews, the state’s symbols—from the Star of David on the flag to the national anthem that invokes 2,000 years of Jewish longing for Zion—are expressions of their deepest commitments. Understandably, Arab Israelis are emotionally indifferent to those symbols. But if Israel manages to nurture trust, Arabs and Jews should together consider how to expand the state’s symbols to be more inclusive without forfeiting their Jewish vitality.

This week, Israelis marked the nation’s two secular holy days, Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers, followed immediately by Independence Day. In my building in the French Hill neighborhood of Jerusalem, where half the families are Arab Israeli and half Jewish Israeli, only the Jews have hung Israeli flags. The absence of national flags from Arab balconies is a painful reminder of the gaps between us.

Still, these past weeks have provided a glimpse into the possible. Israel must now do what it has always done best: Turn crisis into opportunity.