The Baltimore Sun

Israel needs freedom for all
Democracy: Despite fear and violence, Israel must not repress its Arab citizens, or it fails.

By Michael Bear Kleinman
September 7, 2003

Last week, a specially convened Israel commission found that Israeli police acted with "prejudice and neglect" in the killing of 13 Israeli Arab citizens by Israeli security forces during widespread rioting in northern Israel three years ago. The Orr Commission, established by the Israeli government to investigate the riots, has highlighted the major fracture point in Israeli society - the divide between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel.

While peace and security for Israel may depend in large part on how a settlement is reached with Palestinian Arabs, Israel's ability to bridge the divide with Arabs who are Israeli citizens may determine its future as a democratic nation.

As the Orr Commission stated: "The treatment of the Arab sector is the most important and sensitive internal issue on the agenda of the State."

The measure of any democracy is how it treats the most vulnerable and unpopular groups in society, and no group in Israeli society is more vulnerable or unpopular than Arab citizens of the state, often called Israeli Arabs. Historically, they have been treated as second-class citizens, especially in housing and education opportunities. In the face of the past three years of the Palestinian uprising against Israel and its unprecedented terror tactics, there is growing popular support for limiting the rights of Arab citizens. Some have even recommended expulsion. Yet Israel's claim to be a democratic nations based on "freedom and justice" is only as secure as the rights of all Israelis, including Israeli Arabs.

Arab citizens of Israel constitute about 20 percent of Israel's population. They live within Israel proper, not in the West Bank or Gaza. Nominally, all Israeli citizens, Jewish or Arab, are promised "full equality of social and political rights" by the Israeli Proclamation of Independence.

Today, the civil and political rights of Arab citizens of Israel are threatened as never before. According to a survey prepared for the Yitzhak Rabin Center, 59 percent of Israelis polled supported the idea of limiting the rights of Arab citizens.

Even more disturbing than the calls to disenfranchise Arab citizens are the actions periodically taken against Israeli Arab members of the Knesset, Israel's parliament. Almost all of the Israeli Arab members oppose the Israeli presence in the West Bank and Gaza. This unpopular stance has led to a serious backlash. In the past few years, 25 investigations have been launched against the Israeli Arab members, on charges ranging from incitement to assaulting police officers at demonstrations. Meanwhile, eight of the nine Israeli Arab members in the last Knesset reported being beaten by either the police or security forces at demonstrations over the past four years, seven seriously enough to require hospitalization.

The bedrock of any democracy is the freedom of elected representatives to state their views, no matter how unpopular or controversial. The attempted silencing of Israeli Arab Knesset members underlines the precarious position of Israeli Arabs within their own state. Arab citizens of Israel are caught in a double bind: Like all Israelis, they are the potential victims of terror attacks, but at the same time they themselves are seen as part of the threat.

It is, in many ways, a Catch-22 - the only way to protest unfair treatment is to speak out against discrimination, yet any such political activity only increases the suspicion in which Arab citizens of Israel are already held. Even though granted the right to free speech, this right is debased every time an Arab citizen remains silent for fear of the repercussions of speaking his or her mind.

This discrimination does not exist in a vacuum - given the intifada and the terror attacks, Arab citizens of Israel are often seen as a fifth column, a threat to the safety of the state itself. According to one Tel Aviv University survey, 61 percent of Israelis polled thought that Arab citizens were a threat to state security; 60 percent thought that Arab citizens should be encouraged to emigrate.

Some argue that Israel is beyond reproach, because Arab citizens of Israel have more freedom than citizens of neighboring Arab states. The argument, though, isn't about whether Arab citizens of Israel have more rights than citizens of Egypt or Lebanon or Syria. Israel considers itself to be a Western-style democracy, and so should be judged as a democracy. The only question that matters is whether Arab citizens in Israel are treated as Jewish citizens are treated. And, as the Orr Commission stated, "The government's handling of the Arab sector was characterized mostly by neglect and discrimination."

Today, the danger to Israeli democracy lies in the real possibility that Arab citizens will lose their rights. Any democracy that strips one group of citizens of their fundamental rights is seriously, perhaps even fatally, flawed. It is like a firewall - if the rights of any one group of citizens aren't protected, then the rights of no citizens are safe.

Even terror attacks, or war, do not justify depriving an entire segment of the population of their fundamental rights. Israel has set the standard by which it wishes to be regarded as a democracy surrounded by authoritarian regimes. The Jewish state's treatment of its minorities stands as a test of the legitimacy of that claim.

Michael Bear Kleinman is a recent graduate of Harvard Law School, now working on human rights issues in the Middle East.

Copyright © 2003, The Baltimore Sun

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