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December 20, 2014 | 28th Kislev 5775

Toward Democracy

December 24, 2000
Marc Rosenstein

Since the rioting stopped in mid October, there has been a flurry of meetings around the Galilee, mostly among people who were always involved in coexistence activities on some level, to try to organize new initiatives. I have been spending a lot of time at meetings, from the initial "sukkat shalom" dialogue tents to the current steering and planning committees - everything from employment opportunity projects to regional planning to a Jewish-Arab circus. It feels good and right to me to be involved in these projects, as I feel that I was not active enough before these events, that I should have been more sensitive to the situation of the Palestinian Arabs of Israel, as I was in the case of the African-Americans in the United States in the 1960s.

For me, after getting over some initial feelings of fear and betrayal, the rioting was a kind of wake-up slap: for years I have been explaining to tourists the "delicate fabric of coexistence" in our area, how while the Arabs had legitimate grievances, they had found that the way to resolve them was to remain true to democratic processes, to "play the system;" I said that for all its imperfections, Israel is a democracy, and can be held to a democratic standard; I said that while we aren’t sure just how, we believe that a Jewish state can also be a democracy, and that we have to keep working on perfecting it; I said that our treatment of the Palestinian Arabs living among us will be the moral litmus test of our success. And then, I stood on the front porch, looking across the valley to the Moslem village of Shaab, 20 minutes walk from here, whose relationship with the Jewish communities had always been seen as a model, hearing rhythmic chanting in Arabic as brush and forest fires kept breaking out in different spots along the side of the ridge above the village.

And I didn’t know what to think. What if the rioters marched on our community? What if everything I had been believing and saying was naive self-persuasion, like so many on the right had always claimed - and the Palestinian Arabs of Israel were just biding their time before driving us into the sea? And how could I reconcile such doubts with the reality of the local Palestinian Arabs I know personally, whose commitment to democracy seemed so clear? It took a while, but a series of conversations since then have convinced me that I was both right and wrong: right that the Palestinian Arabs of Israel are not committed to the destruction of Israel and the expulsion of the Jews; wrong to think that the calm status quo indicated a stable modus vivendi. What I have learned since October is that to a large extent, we have failed the test of democracy, that I was overly complacent and somewhat ignorant to think that despite some frustrations and limitations, we were on a clear path toward actualization of our democratic ideals.

The reality is that we have a long way to go. We have placed the Palestinian Arabs of Israel in a double bind: we expect them to act like good citizens, but at every airport security check, every job interview, every zoning hearing, we treat them as potential enemies. And then, when they respond by expressing reservations about their loyalty to Zionism, we accuse them of not being good citizens, thus justifying treating them as enemies. And I am convinced that much of this is based on simple ignorance: because of geographical and cultural and historical factors, the vast majority of Israeli Jews have never spoken to an Arab except to say "fill it up with high-test." And most Israeli Jews have served in the army, fighting an enemy who is, generically, an Arab.

We have a lot of work to do. And the message of the October riots is that it is urgent. I worry that all the local efforts, the dialogues and committees, are just a drop in the bucket, that a national effort is needed, led by the leaders of the nation. And yet those leaders have other priorities just now. So I continue to go to meetings and to hope that micro will somehow lead to macro...


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