Federation program highlights difficulty of life in Israel for Arab citizens
Shared SocietiesEvent aims to shed light on segregation in Israel

Federation program highlights difficulty of life in Israel for Arab citizens

Members of Israel's "largest minority" live, learn and work separately from Jewish Israelis. The segregation, presenters said, causes socioeconomic burdens and ignorance.

Ghaida Rinawi-Zoabi and Myriam Darmoni Charbit answered questions and discussed segregation and discrimination against Arab citizens of Israel. (Photo by Jim Busis​)
Ghaida Rinawi-Zoabi and Myriam Darmoni Charbit answered questions and discussed segregation and discrimination against Arab citizens of Israel. (Photo by Jim Busis​)

Arab citizens of the Jewish state maintain a vastly complicated life as evidenced by a presentation at a recent Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh event. The Oct. 23 gathering, which welcomed about 50 attendees to the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, featured a film, prepared remarks and a question-and-answer session with three visiting Israeli citizens.

“This program is part of our efforts to promote shared society — an important part of Israel’s democratic and highly pluralistic, inclusive culture about which many Americans are not familiar,” said Adam Hertzman, Federation’s marketing director.

“Many American Jews don’t have a full understanding of the complexities of being an Arab citizen in the State of Israel or of the challenges and many opportunities that come along with it,” agreed Kim Salzman, director of Israel and Overseas Operations at the Federation. “This event shed light on those complex issues.”

Michal Steinman, director of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues, shared a series of statistics at the evening’s onset to illustrate Israel’s relationship with “its largest minority.”

“Arab citizens make up today nearly 21 percent of the total population in Israel, or approximately 1.7 million people,” said Steinman. “Eighty-five percent of the Arabs and the Jews in Israel live in all Arab or all Jewish towns or cities; and although Arab and Jewish towns are very often geographically close, Jews and Arabs don’t have many occasions to come into meaningful contact.”

The failure to assimilate is demonstrated not only by “mixed cities,” where Arab and Jewish residents largely reside in separate neighborhoods, she explained, but by the separate Jewish and Arab educational systems, which exacerbate linguistic barriers.

It is in “the common good of all Israelis” to create educational chances for positive interactions since those activities ultimately reduce fear and foster greater understanding, noted Myriam Darmoni Charbit, director of civic and peace education at the Center for Educational Technology.

Similarly, without such beneficial engagements, not only does segregation spur ignorance, but it also triggers a socioeconomic burden on Israel’s citizens, added Steinman. Arabs often “live more in the periphery; are less urban; are underserved in terms of public transportation and health services in industrial zones around Arab municipalities; are less budgeted in terms of infrastructure and building; have low, and low-quality employment rates; underperform in public schools; and are under-represented in higher education.”

These particulars create a statistical reality in which “over 50 percent of Arab families live in poverty, compared with less than 14 percent of Jewish families, and all Arab towns are rated among the four lowest economic rankings for municipalities,” she said.

A docudrama offered an illustration of the challenges. Ibtisam Mara’ana’s “77 Steps” details the struggles of the Arab-Israeli filmmaker’s struggles of leaving her childhood home in Fureidis, an Arab village near Haifa, relocating to Tel Aviv and attempting to engage in a romantic relationship with her Canadian-Jewish boyfriend, who arrived in Israel roughly five years earlier.

More than juxtaposing rare moments of hilarity against an otherwise serious subject, the 57-minute movie from 2010 was representative, explained the speakers.

“The story of Israel is really the stories of the people of Israel,” said Charbit.

But over the past 10 years there have been two basic messages from the Israeli government: integration through economic development and exclusion through polarizing rhetoric. And bridging those ideas is no quick fix, noted Steinman. “[There is a] level of tension that we see in Israel between Jews and Arabs, and closing the socioeconomic gaps will not be enough.”

“As Arab citizens in Israel, we always need to prove our loyalty to Israel, [but] I don’t need to prove anything to anyone. I was born in Israel. I pay my taxes,” said Ghaida Rinawi-Zoabi, director of the Injaz Center for Professional Arab Local Governance, adding that she is often “treated as a second-rate citizen.”

During the question-and-answer session, Zoabi was asked about similarities between Israel’s treatment of Arab citizens and South Africa’s former implementation of apartheid. Quick to bifurcate the two governments’ behaviors, Zoabi answered, “Israel is not an apartheid state. There is no racism. There is no segregation, not by law, but by de facto.”

The discrimination that exists is showcased both by the lack of Arab hospitals, towns or universities that have been established by the Israeli government, as well as other public works fiascos, including the general inaccessibility of easy public transportation for Arab citizens and the paltry road signs denoting major Arab villages along highways, she said. “The discrimination is very sophisticated, and you have to be very sophisticated to fight this discrimination.”

While discrimination may exist, the high court has ruled that there are “equal rights to all citizens,” countered Steinman, repeating Zoabi’s statement that “there is no apartheid in Israel.”

“Building a shared society is a huge challenge in Israel,” but it is achievable through education, said Charbit, who along with her co-presenters provided a framework for following up the discussion.

“Get informed and educated,” said Zoabi. “Democracy in Israel is the most important issue to work on and pursue.”

For those visiting Israel, make sure to see Arab villages and discover their world, because “if you go to Israel, you’ll see Arabs who are thirsty for integration and who want to be a partner in all aspects of society,” said Steinman.

That face-to-face encounter is key, agreed Charbit, a former civics teacher, before offering a final piece of advice to those present: “Learn about the issues with people who are the issues.” pjc

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz

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