Racist... but not apartheid
Critics go too far — but a million Arab-Israelis must be given equality. By Linda Grant
Iwas recently in a friend’s apartment in Tel Aviv. She was telling me about her family’s return visit to their country of birth, South Africa, in 1991. She and her mother were waiting for a bus, and watched as each one passed full of blacks. No “white” bus appeared.
Finally, an elderly white woman, also waiting, became tired of the delay and flagged down the next black bus; they boarded, without comment from the driver and the passengers. “South Africa is changing,” the mother said in Hebrew to her daughter.
I heard this story having just, halfan-hour before, landed back in Tel Aviv after a brief stay in Eilat. We had booked rooms at Le Meridien, a new five-star hotel on the beach. We walked into the usual cacophony of noise you find in the lobby of any Israeli hotel: children ran up and down, large family parties sat drinking coffee, taking up every sofa and chair, vying to attract the attention of the harassed waitresses. It was a normal scene for Eilat, and at least half the guests were Arab-Israelis.
We went for a walk that evening. Thousands of strolling Arab-Israeli families — Muslim, secular and Christian — were strolling along the beach front, thronging the malls, buying clothes at the best stores, eating at the best restaurants, unremarked on. Around 70 per cent of visitors were Arab-Israeli because it was the religious festival of Eid. I saw a woman in hijab having her tarot cards read by a blonde-haired Russian. I saw teenage girls trying on jeans. I saw kids in the hotel pool, a cluster of splashing dark heads and brown bodies, unable to distinguish between Jew and Arab, tourist and Israeli citizen.
While I was in Eilat, I read an interview in Ha’aretz with an Arab-Israeli political activist, rejecting the charge levelled by the rest of the Arab world that her fellow Arab Israelis had become “Israelised” — seduced and corrupted by Western liberal values.
Later that afternoon, at the airport, I bought a copy of the Jerusalem Report, whose cover story was a discussion of what it described as a controversial document issued by Arab Israeli intellectuals calling for a binational system and Arab autonomy. The conference, held on December 25 at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, discussed the huge gap that had opened up between Jewish and Arab education “both in terms of resources and results as a consequence of decades of inadequate funding and discrimination”, according to the article.
There is no question that the Zionist insistence on a Jewish state puts the Arab minority in a position of second-class citizens, underscored by the inferior school system, roads and town planning. No Israeli government has ever invited an Arab party to join its coalition. And recently, in an ominous signal of what might be to come, rabbinical leaders in Bnei Brak issued a statement saying that it was forbidden to rent apartments to Arabs. This is naked racism. The Jerusalem Post’s long report on the van Leer conference raises various possibilities for the future of Arabs in Israel, the nature of the state they live in and how it will have to change to become truly equal and democratic.
This is, for me, the most important debate that confronts the country today. Many, maybe most Israelis, would like to blink, open their eyes and find the Palestinians had gone away.
Israel can build fences and walls and define its borders. But a million Arab-Israelis live inside Israel itself. Despite the wet dreams of MK Avigdor Lieberman or the wilder fantasies of expulsion (whose proponents think they can co-opt the army into loading the cattle trucks), there is a non-Jewish population inside Israel which deserves the full equality that we in Britain, as a minority, demand for ourselves.
As a writer, I take objection to the violation of language. You may wish to call the ceramic object from which I just now sipped a mouthful of coffee a ledge or a camera or a paving stone or a tree — you have that right — but words have common meanings.
When one set of people is restricted to separate buses and benches, are forbidden from the act of miscegenation, you call it apartheid. When a people are drinking coffee in the lobby of five-star hotels and their kids are swimming in the same pool as the kids of the majority, you’re going to have to call it something else.
Right now, Arab-Israelis may be second-class citizens, but they do not live in an apartheid state. Unless the Orthodox rabbis of Bnei Brak have their way and Israel turns into a racist theocracy and the hotels are declared Arabrein zones. Linda Grant is a writer and journalist. Her book, When I Lived in Modern Times, won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2000