A Minority Report for Israel’s Right

Until now, Israel’s right has let the left set the tone for discussions of non-Jewish minorities. Here’s how they can change that.

Binyamin Netanyahu’s recent statements on Arab voters have ostensibly confirmed the worst fears of the Israeli and American left regarding the right’s xenophobia • But rather than just apologize, Netanyahu and the right have an opportunity to go on the political offensive in dealing with non-Jewish minorities • A conservative vision for the Gentiles in the Holy Land

Israel's right is widely, and wrongly considered to be irrevocably racist. Anti-Netanyahu demonstration. Photo: Flash90
Israel’s right is widely, and wrongly, considered to be irrevocably racist. Anti-Netanyahu demonstration. Photo: Flash90

On the day of the 2015 Israeli elections, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu galvanized his voting base by making remarks about Arab voters being bused to the polls by left-wing NGOs. At the very least, it was an insensitive and ill-judged remark, and it played into the Israeli and American political left’s fear and prejudice that the Israeli right is at heart anti-democratic, xenophobic, and racist.

Netanyahu’s comment on Arab voters even garnered more controversy than his ostensible backtracking on his commitment to a two-state solution a few days before, and President Barack Obama openly criticized these remarks as risking Israeli democracy itself. But the American president need not worry. Israeli democracy has weathered far worse, including a long period when its Arab citizens were subject to military control. An inflammatory remark about getting voters to the polls will not sink it now.

But the controversy is a good opportunity to discuss the almost total absence of right-wing thinking—be it conservative, classical liberal or nationalist—regarding Israel’s non-Jewish citizens. There are reams of right-wing literature on the justice of Zionism and on proposed  political solutions (or non-solutions) to the disputed territories, but surprisingly little has been written specifically about Israel’s non-Jewish minorities. An article here and there by Jabotinsky is hardly enough to guide one through the thorny practical problems involved (President Reuven Rivlin’s invocation thereof notwithstanding).

The right has made some efforts to woo minorities. It can do a lot more . Binyamin Netanyahu and Father Gabril Nadaf. Photo: Flash90
The right has made some efforts to woo minorities. It can do a lot more. Binyamin Netanyahu and Father Gabriel Nadaf. Photo: Flash90

This doesn’t mean that Israel’s right-wing parties have entirely neglected the issue. Both Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu boast Druze MKs and ordinary Druze supporters and voters. Likud has made strides within the Christian community with its support for the Aramean Christians and the Israeli Christians Recruitment Forum. Even the Jewish Home party, whose head Naftalli Bennet is often accused of the worst sort of xenophobia, invited a Muslim Arab woman to compete for a spot on the candidates list.

It’s also important to remember that Israel’s non-Jewish population is far from monolithic. Only about 80% of those identified as Israeli Arabs are Muslim; the remaining 20% are Christians and Druze. Over half live in the north, about 30% live in the “Triangle area” in the country’s center and in mixed Jewish-Arab cities, and the remainder-a little over 10%-in the south of the country. Some are Bedouin. Some live in mixed cities like Lod and Akko, others in Arab-only towns like Umm el-Fahm. Right wing parties have ties with at least part of this varied population.

But by and large, Israeli right-wing parties and thinkers don’t spend much time on its non-Jewish citizens except to fend off left-wing initiatives by NGOs, far-left or Arab parties, and the like to dilute or eliminate Israel’s Jewish character. An occasional inflammatory remark by Avigdor Lieberman aside, they’re simply not on our radar.

Why Bother?

It is here that your average right-winger will ask: OK, and your point is…? Granting that the right hasn’t invested much thought or resources in wooing minorities, why should it do otherwise now? Why invest in minority groups who just recently voted overwhelmingly for the Joint Arab List, all of whose members are openly and unapologetically anti-Zionist and hostile to Israel’s Jewish character?

Aside from the fact that as supporters of democracy, we have a commitment to see to the welfare of all our citizens—including those who are not Jewish—I believe there are at least two solid practical reasons to make an effort on the issue.

The first is diplomatic. Nothing sells Israel quite like support and endorsement of minorities. English Mida articles talking of Israel’s good treatment of Christians and other minorities have consistently gained the most positive attention and traffic. Such treatment sends a clear signal to the powers that be that integration of minorities is an interest of the right and not just the left. This message must continue to be repeated.

We need to fight the New Israel Fund in the field of ideas, too. Anti-NIF demonstration. Photo: Flash90
We need to fight the New Israel Fund in the field of ideas, too. Anti-NIF demonstration. Photo: Flash90

The second is internal Israeli politics. We can’t fight the New Israel Fund with legal actions or public censure alone. It’s critical to fight in the realm of ideas and show both Israeli Jews and Arabs that there is a third option besides anti-Zionism and discrimination. In addition, talking about a positive right-wing program for minorities will help the right attract voters from the critical Jewish central bloc by dispelling the canard that we want to expel or subjugate all non-Jewish citizens.

People often complain that the right is simply the left a few years down the line. Outlining a positive policy and value-based approach to minorities now would help us be more than a pale copy of the Labour Party, and show that the right has a genuine alternative and better approach on minorities no less than on other issues such as economics and foreign policy.

What Can We Offer?

Our hypothetical right-winger will now respond: Fair enough. But what can we offer them? We won’t agree to the Arab parties’ demands to effectively eliminate Israel’s Jewish character, and we also won’t countenance the Zionist left’s approach of diluting Israel’s Jewish character just to make ourselves feel better. In the fight for minorities’ hearts and minds, we are dealing from the bottom of the deck.

Everything as civilians, nothing as a national collective. Prof. Alexander Bligh, former Arab advisor to Prime Minister Shamir
Everything as civilians, nothing as a national collective. Prof. Alexander Bligh, former Arab advisor to Prime Minister Shamir

I disagree. In fact, I think we have a winning hand while our opponents are bluffing. The reason is that the Zionist and anti-Zionist left are promising minorities the moon, while we’re offering something realistic and achievable. Neither complete equality nor the abolition of Israel’s Zionist character is in the cards. The NIF and the Israeli Supreme Court are quite successful in hampering Zionist initiatives, but they are better at stopping matters than effecting positive changes to Israel’s national character. Those hoping that Israel’s Jewish character will somehow be eliminated by judicial fiat or that perfect social equality will be achieved through government action are going to be sorely disappointed. The right, on the other hand, can and should deliver.

So what does it deliver? Ariel University Professor Alexander Bligh, a former advisor on Arab affairs to Yitzhak Shamir, put the right wing approach best: everything as civilians, no recognition of autonomous bodies such as Arab parliaments and the like. This means government investment in education, infrastructure, and whatever else is needed to allow minorities to thrive and prosper as law-abiding citizens. It also means promoting these ideas among minorities themselves, not just to Jewish or international audiences. Incidentally, according to Bligh, who has closely studied Arab voting patterns up to the present day, Likud received the most Arab votes it ever gained in 1992, when it adhered to this policy.

Effective fightin against terrorism, not enough regular law enforcement. A police borderguard during hightened terror tensions. Photo: Flash90
Not enough non-terror related law enforcement. A police borderguard during hightened terror tensions. Photo: Flash90

Law and Order

There are two areas which the right often emphasizes and which would benefit the Arab community in particular.

The first is law enforcement. People on the right-wing often emphasize law-breaking that affects Jews or Israel such as Arab MKs joining pro-Hamas flotillas or illegal construction that takes over state lands. But the Arab community has a very serious internal crime problem. Violent crime of all kinds is far more prevalent in the Arab sector than the Jewish one.

Israeli Arabs are responsible for 46% of cases involving murder, 31% of cases involving attempted murder, and 52% of cases involving serious assault, and most of the victims of these crimes are other Arabs. Authorities know of at least 11,000 cases of illegally held weapons. Drug gangs are a plague, as are lethal family feuds and domestic violence. It is not for nothing that Meretz’s Arab candidate ran on an anti-crime platform.

Our failure to deal effectively with these internal crime problems sends all the wrong messages. We are effectively telling your average law-abiding non-Jewish citizen that the State will not provide the minimum protection necessary for him to live and prosper, as Israel is only interested in enforcing the laws that affect Jews. Paradoxically, the tendency of left-wing NGOs to reward and exalt criminals who illegally build and squat on state land and the tendency of the government to reward or negotiate with such people also tells the self-same law-abiding citizen that law-breakers get noticed and rewarded, while law-abiders are ignored and neglected.

If a right-wing government cracked down on all law-breaking in the Arab community, it would demonstrate that its enforcement of law is for its benefit and not just protecting the state or Jewish predominance. None of this would require withdrawing an inch on Israel’s character as a Jewish state, and it would benefit everyone by taking dangerous criminals off the streets early.

Minorities need a freer market, not state crutches. Arab shoe store in Nazareth. Photo: Flash90
Minorities need a freer market, not state crutches. Arab shoe store in Nazareth. Photo: Flash90

Free Markets

Another important thing we can offer to minorities is expansion of the free market. Poll after poll showed that Israeli minorities were far more concerned with economic issues this election than political or national ones. This doesn’t mean they’ve stopped being Palestinian, but it does mean that they have needs the right has shown it can address and answer.

The left’s typical solution, typified by the Israel Democracy Institute, is affirmative action achieved by massively employing minority members in the public service or “explaining” the benefits of a diverse workforce to private employers. But opening up the market would benefit the broad base of minority communities, as opposed to a small group of politically connected minority individuals. It’s hard enough for Jews to legally set up and maintain a business in Israel, so you can imagine the extra difficulty an Arab or a Druze faces.

A right-wing government should emphasize how expanding the free market and eliminating regulations and red tape would benefit the most disadvantaged in setting up businesses and finding employment, as it has throughout the world. It could also invest more in industrial zones and the like. Once again, this is an easy way to help minorities, the economy, and the state without making any sort of concessions on identity.

Conservative Coexistence

By now, I’m sure my reader is incredibly impatient—but what of the fact that minorities, especially those who identify as Palestinian Israelis, are so anti-Zionist? Surely, we need to do something about that? While the left is often obsessed with this issue and has even conducted many brainstorming sessions and conferences to try and somehow arrive at a compromise on the state’s identity, I believe such efforts are pointless. Prof. Bligh made the same point with much more authority, stating that the gap between what the Jews can offer and what the most moderate of mainstream Palestinian-Israeli leaders demand in this area is simply unbridgeable. Prof. Dan Schueftan convincingly demonstrated as much in his study of the Israeli Arab leadership, both in the Knesset and among the non-governmental elites.

Many often ascribe such negative attitudes of Israeli right-wingers to racism and xenophobia. We certainly have our share of bigots—as does the left—but that’s not why we see no point. As right-wingers, we recognize the power and importance of national and religious identity in general and among Jews in particular. Because of this, we take Palestinian and Palestinian-Israeli affirmations of identity seriously. We don’t hold them in such contempt as to think that a seat at the government table or a better economic situation will necessarily make them drop or even moderate their deeply held convictions.

Everyday life - a real, if imperfect form of coexistence. Photo: Flash90
Everyday life – a real, if imperfect form of coexistence. Photo: Flash90

Dr. John Schindler, an experienced intelligence officer with years of experience working with Muslims around the world, made the point that the debate on the Muslim attitude towards the rest of the world is an internal one. Those outside are but spectators. The same is true of non-Jews in Israel. It’s time we learned some humility and stop thinking we can force a society to change against its will. One would think our experience with Haredi Jewry had taught us that much.

Furthermore, we reject the facile idea that the choice is between perfect social harmony and varying degrees of racism. Just as friends and family members often bicker and fight, all the more so is it to be expected that groups with as complex and tortured a history as Jews and Arabs in the Holy Land will too. All attempts to force perfect “coexistence” do little more than line the pockets of NGOs and involve the same small and self-selecting group of people. Just like some religious and secular Jews live together and some prefer to live apart, the same can and should be true of Jews and Arabs. Forced social harmony is a contradiction in terms.

In the place of “coexistence,” we propose the much more realistic concept of simply “getting along.” There are many areas in which we can cooperate and have shared interests. Tolerance for others, rather than reverence for the Other, is the way to go. But we should not and must not delude ourselves into thinking that differences will disappear. This thought may be sobering, but it will free us from the illusions and the anxieties that come from pining after an impossibly perfect world.

The conservative vision for Jews and non-Jews in Israeli society may be less exciting and utopian than that promised by the left. But much like democracy, for all its flaws it is the best and most realizable vision around.

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1 comments on the article

  1. Very interesting.
    I think that the economic blockade of Gaza is one other right-wing blind spot. There are many food items which are not allowed in, and I cannot imagine that jam is going to be used to build terror tunnels. Once again, a right wing vision on this is both morally and practically necessary.