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talking politics

Israel: Economic reality trumps racist ideology

The words “historic decision” spill forth across Israel's political spectrum, including the Arab leadership. Yesterday, the most right-wing government in the country's history passed the largest aid program ever to its Arab sector: NIS 15 billion (ca. $4 billion). How is that possible?

Recently the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel was outlawed, and everyone prophesied that this is just the beginning. Leftists were preparing to wear yellow stars, and a novel called Borderlife, about a sexual relationship between a Jew and an Arab, was removed from the school curriculum. Netanyahu's contentious election-day warning that "Arabs were thronging to the polls in droves" still reverberates. Words like “fascist” and “foreign implants” dominate public discourse. And then suddenly, for a few hours, sanity dawns. On the Right and Left, among Jews and Arabs, people unite behind a historic decision, the foundation of which is "Correcting the Systems of Allocation." The systems that until now have discriminated against the Arab sector would be transformed into systems creating equality. Hallelujah!

The financial implications of the plan are still unclear, but the political content is evident, so it is truly “historic.” The State of Israel recognizes at last that its Arab citizens are here to stay. For the first time, all government ministries will allocate funds to the Arab sector according to its proportion in the population (21%). As Meirav Alozoroff put it the Dec 31, 2015 issue of The Marker: "They are taking from the Jews what they don't deserve and giving to the Arabs what they do deserve." The same government that works overtime to stress the Jewish character of the state at the expense of democracy suddenly reverses the entire historical trend, favoring equality over its pro-Jewish tendency. Gone are the days of Ben Gurion and programs like "the Judaisation of Galilee." Indeed, the latter program has been quietly upended in recent years: the cities of Carmiel, Nazareth Illit, and Afula Illit, founded to establish a Jewish majority in Galilee, have become home to Arab families from the villages. Reality trumps policy.

To understand how a national Jewish-Arab consensus took shape supporting the decision of a right-wing government, one has to enter the depths of Israeli reality, where politics and economics do not always go hand in hand. Some Arab critics of this ambitious plan claim that the government was forced into the new budgetary decision under pressure from the OECD and the EU, and that the true allocation to the Arab communities will amount to only 2.5 billion.

This may be true, but it's not the whole truth. In today's Israel, which is well integrated into the global economy, there are two separate forces at play: alongside the army, the security services, and the political mechanisms, there is a civil establishment that is no less important to the state's existence. It consists of professionals from the Finance Ministry and the Bank of Israel. Just as generals rely on intelligence assessments, these professionals depend on graphs and statistics. The Israeli economic model of today is warped and ineffective because the Arab sector is not fully integrated into the economy. This sector consumes health services, education, welfare, and infrastructure, yet its economic contribution is meager because of institutionalized discrimination. Those who study the Arab sector know very well that ever since Israel's acceptance into the OECD in 2010 (and in some respects even before that), the Finance Ministry has been guided by professional considerations. As for the years when the political echelon excluded the Arab population economically, it was clearly acting against economic logic.

For several years the Finance Ministry and the Prime Minister's office have been distributing funds to correct the low level of participation of Arab women in the labor market. But Arab entrepreneurs are not waiting for the government and have tried independently to break through economic barriers, many quite successfully. Integration of Arab entrepreneurs and professionals into the Israeli economy has become a reality, despite racial obstacles and intense right-wing politics. The Arab citizen has made intelligent use of his citizenship in defiance of the politicians. So the government's correction of the budgetary allocation proves Churchill's adage: “If you can't beat, join them.”

The government decision is just a beginning. To make this program happen, a lot of good will and skill are needed. Even if we assume that all ministries really do allocate funds proportionately to the Arab population, a key question remains: Will the Arab representatives be able to make wise use of the money?

Wise use will require the active participation of three factors in the Arab sector: a political factor, namely the Joint List (an alliance of four Arab parties); a civil society factor, namely the many Arab NGOs that have risen over the years; and most important of all, the local governments. The greatest difficulty lies in the fact that for 40 years the gap between Jews and Arabs has widened. It contributes to the subordinate status of Arab women, discrepancies in education, and increases in violence, crime, unemployment, and poverty.

The problematic situation in Arab society takes political expression. That society is more conservative and religious than ever before. Just two months ago, we witnessed mass unrest led by the Northern Islamic Movement under the banner "Al-Aqsa is in danger!" A religious nationalist agenda sets the tone in the Arab community today, dragging along the political parties and local governments. This was evident when schools and municipal services were shut down in solidarity with the Islamic movement. The return to religion has reinforced patriarchal society, and the dominance of clan affiliation in elections to local councils impairs local government. Therefore, the problem is not limited to the allocation of funds; everything depends on how these funds are used. If they are managed by people who have been placed in key positions as a result of favoritism rather than professional qualifications, the result will be disastrous.

In order for the ambitious plan to succeed, two profound changes are required. The first depends on Israeli politics. Israel must go through a deep political change fitting a modern day economy. Equality in budgetary allocations must be accompanied by changes in discourse and attitudes towards the Palestinian people, including the Arab citizens of Israel. If the state wants to integrate the latter into its economy, it cannot continue to exclude Arab representatives from government . It cannot continue to view them as traitors. Without the political integration of the Arabs, the program will dwindle to “ink on paper."

The second change, no less essential, must occur in Arab society. What's the use of talking about cultural budgets if books and plays are censored by local Arab institutions? What's the use of improving public transport if women are expected to stay at home? How can you encourage the youth to embrace modernity if you portray the West as heretic? Just as the Israeli government cannot promote equality while inciting to racism, so the Arab leadership cannot promote equality when it refuses to recognize men and women as equals, or when it censors expression, or when it ostracizes those who live free from religion and tradition.

Nonetheless there is room for optimism. This government's “historic decision” shows that reality is stronger than dogma or racist ideology. It also reflects the desire of the Arab citizen to exercise his or her citizenship. This, despite preachers who seek to return Arab society to the days of the Prophet. The government's decision symbolizes the fact that, despite rift and division, Israeli society is advancing toward civil equality. A thousand racist laws and prohibitions will not prevent this.

  • Translated by Bob Goldman
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