Israel moves to help its Arab citizens

Recent events in Germany, where Muslim immigrants harassed local women, generated more doubts about Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy, which let some million immigrants enter Germany in 2015. Most vocal were spokesmen of Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident), who have been warning that the new immigrants would “destroy” Germany.

However, these doomsday prophecies ignore an interesting, positive effect of the recent wave of immigration to Germany. According to the Guardian newspaper (Jan. 6, 2016), this influx of people stopped the constant decline of the German population and rejuvenated its workforce. Indeed, Chancellor Merkel, in her New Year address, asked Germans to see refugee arrivals as “an opportunity for tomorrow” and urged doubters not to follow racist hate-mongers.

The popular magazine Der Spiegel summed it up last August: “Germany is experiencing an unprecedented influx of immigrants who will fundamentally change the country. They represent a burden, but also a chance to create a New Germany, one that is more cosmopolitan and generous.”

Looking at it from Israel, where one out of every five citizens is an Arab, is mind-opening.

Unlike the new Muslims in Germany who have a long way before being fully integrated, Israeli Arabs are part and parcel of the Israeli society. Their vast majority consists of law-abiding, taxpaying people, who accept the fact that Israel is a Jewish state.

This is far from being trivial, when their fellow Palestinians have been struggling against Israel for decades.

The late Arab member Knesset, Abd-al-Aziz Zuabi, aptly phrased it: “My tragedy is that my country is at war with my people.” Yet in spite of their identification with the plight of the Palestinians, in poll after poll Israeli Arabs reiterate their primary goal: to be equal to the Jewish citizens of Israel.

Two decades ago, the Yitzhak Rabin government made a historic move by deciding to divert significant funds to the long-neglected Arab sector. A special governmental task force was created to supervise the implementation of the plan. Israeli Arabs didn’t fail to notice the change, and no wonder that following Rabin’s assassination, there were vigils in Arab towns and villages all over Israel. With Rabin removed from the scene, however, this affirmative action was scuttled.

More than 20 years have passed, and now the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided to invest the equivalent of $6.6 billion in the Arab sector. This move might have surprised some observers, who remember the same prime minister warning on the eve of Election Day of “Arabs flocking to the ballots.” But it’s actions that matter, not rhetoric.

Indeed, it remains to be seen whether the government will live up to its promises this time. Doubts have been immediately raised, when after the declaration Netanyahu hastened to appoint two ministers to review the recently announced allocations. Some pundits were quick to conclude that “the Israeli Arabs will receive the benefits if they behave.”

This mood didn’t spring out of a vacuum. The government decision coincided with a tragic event, when an Israeli Arab murdered three innocent civilians in Tel Aviv and then found shelter in his own village. However, the immediate condemnation of this crime by an overwhelming majority of Israeli Arabs quickly cleared the atmosphere.

Investing in the Arab sector in Israel might boost Israel’s economy, much like the arrival of the 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union 25 years ago.

Furthermore, once they feel equal to Jewish citizens, Israeli Arabs will become a living testament that Israel can indeed be both Jewish and democratic.

Last, but not least, this could serve as a strong message to other Arabs: These are the benefits of living in peace with Israel.

Uri Dromi is director general of the Jerusalem Press Club, a former spokesman for the Rabin and Peres governments and a retired colonel in the Israeli Air Force. He writes a column on Israeli affairs for the Miami Herald.

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