This piece appeared in the Jerusalem Post on Jan. 9, 2013
under the title: My Dream about Israeli Arab Voters
The other night I had a dream in which Arab voters were flocking to the polls and exercising political clout commensurate with their percentage within the Israeli population. In this dream, Arab parties emphasized mainstream issues of housing, education, and employment and regularly engineered a vigorous get-out-the-vote effort. Their capacity to garner 20 per cent of the vote – potentially 20 or more Knesset seats – created a common interest with a center-left bloc of Israeli parties. A center-left bloc expanded by these mainstream Arab parties offered a chance of ousting the Netanyahu controlled coalition and shifting governmental priorities from the territories back to the Galilee and Negev while promoting negotiations toward a 2-state solution of the conflict with the Palestinians. In my fantasy coalition, the Arab parties could extract concessions meeting socio-economic needs of the Arab sector, much like Shas has done for its constituency in recent governing coalitions.
The subconscious origins of my dream are easy to trace. I grew up in the U.S. of the 1950’s and 1960’s, when African-Americans, though only 18% of the population, launched a non-violent movement against oppressive, discriminatory conditions in housing, education, and employment. Blacks in their campaign utilized the courts (starting with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 invalidating separate public facilities), legislation (for example, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawing invidious employment discrimination), and vigorous voter registration to promote minority interests by electing sympathetic representatives to Congress, state legislatures, and city mayoralties. While such African-American ballot box efforts have not eliminated the overall social disadvantage of African-Americans, enormous advances have been made in creating educational and employment opportunity for black Americans. (Witness the elections of Barack Obama.) In the course of the struggle for African-American rights, dissident voices called for separatist governance or even violent resistance to the white-dominated political system. But black Americans rejected the demagogues like Stokely Carmichael and Eldridge Cleaver in favor of the non-violent, integrationist path of Martin Luther King. That successful history was doubtless the source of my recent dream.
Then I awoke to the reality of the Israeli political scene. The focus of the vocal Arab political sector is not economic or social advancement within Israel. The voices of Arab political figures are stridently raised to condemn all Israeli conduct that harms the interests of the Palestinian residents of Gaza and the West Bank. Though Israel’s entire southern population had for years been bombarded by thousands of rockets, missiles, and mortars from Gaza, Israeli Arab politicians treated Operation Cast Lead (and later Operation Pillar of Defense) as though they were unprovoked assaults. This lack of empathy with defense of their fellow Israeli citizens in the south is jarring; even the notoriously unbalanced Goldstone Report acknowledged that Hamas had precipitated “terror within the [Israeli] civilian population,” causing high rates of trauma, especially among children, and hundreds of injuries. (Indeed, because Hamas’ rockets had been purposefully and indiscriminately aimed at civilian targets, the Goldstone Report denominated them as war crimes.) Nor do reigning Arab politicians promote the common social interest in increased social services by promoting either compulsory or voluntary national service. While increasing numbers of young Israeli Arabs do volunteer for national service, their political leaders have discouraged the phenomenon. The atmosphere created by hostile rejection of Israeli institutions is one in which a Muslim IDF soldier from an Arab village must hide his uniform and weapon when returning home in order to avoid abuse and threats from neighbors. (See Yediot Achronot, 12/30/12).
In the contemporary Israeli scene, Arab voters have not come close to exercising their potential political clout as 20% of the electorate. In 2009, only 53% of Israeli Arabs voted, succeeding in electing 12 Knesset members (as opposed to the potential 20 or more); those elected then largely marginalized themselves by their strident rhetoric. (Of course, some Arab voters support center-left Israeli parties in the thus far vain hope that those parties will become responsive to Arab sector social and economic interests).
This phenomenon of failing parliamentary representation has not gone unnoticed within the Israeli Arab community. In the current electoral race, two fledgling parties are seeking to rally Arab voters to elect Arab representatives with a focus on mainstream issues of improved housing, education and jobs while coexisting within Israeli society. An Israeli Arab party, called Hope for Change, is headed by a Bedouin named Atef Krenawi (who was formerly associated with the Likud Party). Another party, called Da’am, is headed by an Arab woman Asma Agbaria Zahalka and emphasizes social equality and workers’ welfare.
But if I were to wake up on January 23, 2013, and discover that either of these fledgling parties had passed the 2% threshold for Knesset representation, I would think that I had been dreaming again – just fantasizing that Israeli Arabs would embrace parliamentary struggle to advance their sectoral interests along with the general welfare of all citizens of the State of Israel.