A better way to beat prejudice

The Zionist Federation chairman explains a radical shift in policy on Israel's Arabs

By Paul Charney, June 19, 2014

As the leading grassroots Israel advocacy organisation in the UK, the Zionist Federation is no stranger to partnering with groups which share our aim of celebrating Israel and challenging its enemies.

But our partnership with the UK Taskforce - or to give it its full and far more explanatory title, the UK Taskforce on Issues Relating to Arab Citizens of Israel - is an important new development that we hope will have a positive impact here and in Israel.

Broadly speaking, the UK Task Force goals are to promote a wider understanding of the difficulties faced by the 20 per cent of Israel's population who are not Jewish, and help them overcome those difficulties.

Israeli Arabs are not banned from joining certain professions, they are not denied citizenship rights, or live in a hostile environment that frequently erupts into pogrom-style violence. While such "negative discrimination" is still in vogue elsewhere in the region, Israel has implemented positive discrimination programmes to protect the rights of its minorities.

This is not to say that the country should simply congratulate itself for rising above the rock-bottom level of its neighbours; just that it is important to bear the regional context in mind.

The future of Israel is tied to the fate of its minorities

However, it is the case that prejudice and barriers do exist against Arabs, leading to a situation where minorities are consistently over-represented at the bottom of any kind of social-economic analysis. There is nothing to be afraid of in admitting this. This is true of any liberal democracy in the world, and it is not indicative of any inherent flaw in Israel's "Jewish and democratic" formula. Nor is it evidence of "apartheid", as anyone who has ever visited the country will know.

This is a reality that the UK Task Force is working hard to tackle, under the leadership of Toni Rickenback. Unlike some organisations, which appear to be concerned with highlighting Israel's flaws in order to inflate their sense of moral self-worth, the UK Task Force's only concern is the genuine betterment of the situation. The ZF is delighted to join them in this cause, and, hopefully, start a more honest and effective way of communicating about Israeli Arab citizens.

In taking up this issue, we are reflecting the beliefs of the broader Jewish community. One of the key themes that emerged from the recent Institute for Jewish Policy Research survey of diaspora Jewry was a desire to see an improvement in the treatment of minorities.

Clear-eyed acknowledgement of the real nature of the situation is necessary not just so that, as advocates for Israel, we stand ready to face those who would use its imperfections against it.

It is also in our best interest as Zionists, since the future security of the Jewish homeland is tied to the significant percentage of non-Jewish citizens whose relationship to the state can at best be described as ambivalent.

John F Kennedy said that "a rising tide lifts all boats", exemplifying the notion that the overall improvement in a society boost the fortunes of all, and not just those at the top. In Israel, the converse would be true - improving the integration of the Arab minority would not only lift the smallest ships, but raise the Israeli tide with it.

But this should not just be about self-interest. It should be the full articulation of the Zionist dream - to create a Jewish country that can be a light unto the nations, showing how Jewish principles are no obstacle to valuing its non-Jewish citizens.

Last updated: 6:45pm, June 19 2014