David J. Forman, who writes an opinion column for The Jerusalem Post, has completed a two-part series in which he describes the dream of aliyah he cherished growing up in the United States, and the disappointment he has experienced upon coming here (nearly 40 years ago) and finding that the Zionist Paradise is not all he had imagined.
I disagree with most of what Forman writes, and often abandon reading him at all after seeing the headlines of his pieces. But I not only read this series but kept my mouth shut and my computer idle after the incredibly silly first piece was published, in which he makes the claim that he, like most Westerners, is disappointed with the reality of Israel.
Part II of his piece, in which he sets out to cover in greater depth the things about Israel which disappoint him, could have been about anything—it could have been about the very hot topic these days of sex-segregated buses, about political corruption, about the awful way the government is set up with almost no check and balances, or about the travesty of coalition politics. It could have been about the incompetent handling of the water crisis, the shameless littering and pollution of the Holy Land, or the unconscionable death toll on Israel’s roads. But Forman chose perhaps the most complicated topic for his brief discussion: Israeli Arabs. And the objections he raises to the treatment of Israeli Arabs include loyalty oaths required by certain communities in order to secure building permits, and the fact that some Jews have received building permits in East Jerusalem while an unspecified number of Arabs have not.
Forman has limited space in which to write, so the breadth of his discussion is naturally limited. He acknowledges that Israeli Arabs have the right to vote and attend Israel’s universities. He mentions that President Shimon Peres is actively encouraging the business sector to invest in the Arab labor force to help economically disadvantaged communities.
But that is the extent of his discussion of Israeli Arabs. This is a shame, because they have been a complicated fact of Israeli life on nearly every front since Israel became a state. Israeli Arabs, unlike Druze and Beduin, do not serve in the IDF. I think everyone is in agreement about why: they don’t want to, and we’re not sure we want them to either. The government even offered young Arabs the opportunity to participate in a program similar to National Service, where they could be posted in positions benefiting the Israeli Arab community, and their response was angry and indignant. (That they should take anything offered by the government was anathema to their young, farbrennter ideals.) They live in the Jewish State as non-Jews, and therefore are naturally limited in the enthusiasm they can have for singing HaTikva, learning the history of Zionism, or watching their government take on Arab enemies from within and from without. Arab Israelis have been called a fifth column of late, fueled by the murders of eight yeshiva boys two years ago at the Mercaz HaRav, by three bulldozer attacks on pedestrians and street traffic in downtown Jerusalem by Israeli Arab drivers, and by the fact that during the terror war in the early 2000s, Israeli Arabs were often found to have helped Hamas and Fatah terrorists carry out attacks on innocent civilians. While Minority Affairs Minister Avishay Braverman (whom Forman reviles in his column) denies that Israeli Arabs are a fifth column, it is difficult to convince many people of this in light of some of the more egregious acts of violence perpetrated by Israeli Arabs who, far from acting out of insanity or principles offensive to the Israeli Arab community, are hailed publicly as martyrs by their fellow Arabs.
I sometimes look at Israeli Arabs and wonder how they manage. Recent newspaper articles about young, educated Arabs struggling against the negative image of Arabs in the media while competing for high-tech jobs show how complicated their existence is. And I imagine that when Israeli Arabs identify with the Palestinian Arabs (those living in Gaza, Judea, and Samaria), they are doing so for the same reasons Beduins identify with Palestinian Arabs and the Druze often identify with Syrians: Their future has a degree of uncertainty, and if someday they find their homes and land part of a Palestinian State, or part of Syria, they know it would behoove them to have made clear their loyalty in advance. They do this in the full knowledge that Israel allows them the freedom of conscience and speech to believe and say this that they would never be allowed in an Arab state.
And yet most Israeli Arabs, when polled, say they prefer to live in Israel than anywhere else. This is a remarkable statement given the awkwardness of their existence, and the impression many Westerners have of them and their perceived misery here. (I once debated another commenter about the status of Israeli Arabs, and that person could not accept that Arabs would want to live outside of a state of their own, or that they might be better off doing so.) If it’s true, it means that despite the many marks against Israel’s treatment of them, there must be something that keeps them here. Economic prosperity? They are far better off than most other Arabs in the Arab world. The presence of culture? There is little in the way of cultural development in the Palestinian sector of society. Freedom? There is certainly much more of that here than anywhere else in the Arab world. Representative government? There are far more parties to choose from here than in the PA- or Hamas-controlled territory. An independent press? Despite the horror and embarrassment of Israelis at having their government ministers exposed as having committed crimes including fraud, embezzlement, and rape, Arabs have been on record as saying they admire Israel’s system of exposing corruption and holding government officials accountable for their actions—something many Arabs wish they themselves had in their societies. A connection to the land, and belief that they are living where their ancestors lived? A handful probably have ancestry that goes back more than 100 years from this land, and others may believe they are here to help in eventually tipping the population balance between Jews and Arabs.
Forman’s columns usually disappoint me. Like the dream of the Jewish State, they set out to tackle great issues, and like the reality of the Jewish State, they seem to fall short. Alas. But what separates my disappointment from Forman’s is that he expected more, and I’ve learned to expect very little.