Sikkuy-Aufoq - For a Shared and Equal Society (R.A)

The latest public furor surrounding the placing of a Christmas tree in the Haifa ‎Technion and discontinuing the Arabic language public address ‎announcements in Be’er Sheva buses, join the political incitement and ‎demonstrate that the State of Israel does not respect the Arab citizens and ‎their symbols. The battle against these appalling messages is a challenge ‎shared by Arabs and Jews.‎

Ron Gerlitz and Rawnak Natour

A single Christmas tree recently generated a storm in the Technion and in Haifa ‎in general, in light of protests by professors and clerics who were angry at its ‎placement in a cafeteria on campus, at the initiative of the student union and a ‎number of Arab students. The rabbi of the Technion synagogue even forbade ‎students from entering the complex and eating there.‎

A few weeks earlier, local Be’er Sheva residents began a similar protest against ‎the decision to add public address announcements in Arabic on the local bus ‎lines, as part of the welcome move by the Ministry of Transport to make public ‎transportation services accessible to Arab citizens. The vocal opposition of a ‎number of residents even led to the unfortunate decision to remove the public ‎address system in Arabic.‎

There is a similarity between the incidents – and the key to understanding the ‎present challenges of the struggle to advance an equal and shared society for ‎Jews and Arabs in Israel lies in understanding the dynamic that gave rise to the ‎opposition.

Christmas Eve 2012 in Haifa

This counter-reaction did not take place in a vacuum. There is continuous ‎incitement against Palestinians citizens of Israel. The education minister ‎accused them of setting this country on fire, claiming that it doesn’t even belong ‎to them. The chairman of the coalition said it would be better if they didn’t go ‎out to vote, and the defense minister recently repeated his disgraceful proposal ‎to redraw the borders and to eject hundreds of thousands of Arab citizens from ‎the country, once and for all.‎

The furor surrounding the Christmas tree and the announcements in Arabic in ‎the buses, like the crisis surrounding the absence of the Joint List from the ‎funeral of Shimon Peres (an event in which the majority of the minority in Israel ‎vehemently demanded recognition of its narrative and its symbols), ‎demonstrate that as in other national conflicts worldwide, in the Jewish-Arab ‎conflict inside Israel, symbolic issues have unique importance and cannot be ‎ignored.‎

The Israeli government and society don’t respect the Arab citizens and their ‎narrative as a native national minority that belong to this place, and barely ‎allocate collective and symbolic resources to them. Here are a few examples: ‎Arabic is absent from many public spaces: hospitals, museums, the airport, ‎some of the public transportation systems, and more; Arab students are ‎required to study and take exams even during their holidays; many places of ‎work don’t allow Arab workers to celebrate their holidays with their families. In ‎the national parks the signs are usually in Hebrew only, and the history ‎described in them conceals the Palestinian narrative regarding the site; and in ‎school curricula (both Hebrew and Arabic), there is no presence of Arab poets, ‎writers, intellectuals and leaders, and no mention of the way in which Arabs ‎perceive the conflict.‎

On the one hand, the government wants the Arab citizens to be part of the ‎economy and the job market – as we saw in the past year with the ‎advancement of the economic program to reduce discrimination in the ‎distribution of budgets. But on the other hand, at the same time their national, ‎collective rights are treated with contempt and denial. Worse, the government ‎questions their connection to the country and treats them like foreigners in their ‎own homeland, as though they have no part in this land, the homeland shared ‎by the two peoples.‎

These terrible messages, combined with the direct incitement against Arab ‎citizens coming from inside the government, create and exacerbate the push ‎back to the advancement of group rights for Arab citizens, for example when ‎Arabic is newly present in the public space.‎

But there are those in the Jewish community who understand that a person ‎cannot give up his individual or collective identity. And happily, those who ‎support respecting the identity of Palestinians who are Israeli citizens are a ‎diverse group, and not divided, as we would expect, according to political ‎camps. They include quite a number of decision makers in government ‎ministries, local councils and public institutions.‎

So although there are those who continue to espouse incitement, separation ‎and exclusion, activities by private citizens and civil society organizations, along ‎with those fair-minded decision makers, have succeeded in recent years in ‎advancing additional arenas of shared society: In most of the buses they have ‎added signs in Arabic, two universities have declared a number of Arab ‎holidays as vacation days, and in the end even the Technion supported the right ‎of Arab students to put up a Christmas trees, and more steps such as those are ‎in the offing.

But we must remember that every such achievement is likely to encounter ‎opposition, just as we saw in the Be’er Sheva buses. And the more we ‎succeed, the greater the opposition may become. Therefore we have to ‎prepare for that already now, to convey the message that this is a shared civic ‎interest and to recruit Jewish and Arab citizens to join these efforts. ‎

To date we have not succeeded in developing an effective solution to that ‎counter-reaction, and that is a huge challenge that we are facing. If we are ‎successful, we will be able to bring about an unprecedented breakthrough in the ‎relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel, and perhaps even to serve as an ‎example to the rest of the world. It’s in our hands. ‎

The writers are the co-executive directors of Sikkuy-the Association for the ‎Advancement of Civic Equality

Silence is Golden