Racist... but not apartheid

Crit­ics go too far — but a mil­lion Arab-Is­raelis must be given equal­ity. By Linda Grant

The Jewish Chronicle - - Comment & Analysis -

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

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