Israel has changed tremendously in the 20 years since I moved here. A lot of the change has been the stuff of the daily news here, including three Knesset elections in less than a year, but other developments haven’t been noticeable at first and then there was a tipping point, when they seemed to burst into the forefront, even though they developed gradually.
Israel’s expertise in the high-tech sector was one such development. Another example that gets less attention is the transformation of Israel’s Arab community, which accounts for a fifth of the country’s population. Arabs – particularly younger members of Israel’s Arab community – have become much more integrated into Jewish Israeli society in the years I have lived here.
Between 2008 and 2019, the number of Israeli Arab computer engineers, for example, increased from 350 to 6,600, according to Tsofen, a nonprofit organization that is nurturing the country’s Arab high-tech sector. And in 2008, none of these Arab engineers were women. Now a quarter of them are.
Israeli Arabs are an accident of history of sorts. Following Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, which in some respects was a civil war between the Jews and Arabs of Palestine, armistice lines were based on where the Israeli army was in control. Despite the large Palestinian refugee problem that the war created, about 100,000 Arabs remained on the Israeli side of the border and became citizens. The Arab population of Israel itself – not including the West Bank or Gaza – now numbers about 1.9 million.
Israel’s Arabs aren’t here because they made aliyah to a Jewish state. In a sense, the Jewish state came to them.
Despite the progress at integrating the country’s Arabs, which Israeli Jews should welcome, relations were particularly damaged in 2018 when the Knesset passed the nation-state law, which not only defined Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, which I fully agree with, but also changed the legal status of Arabic from an official language of Israel to a language with special status. It also stated that, as a people, the Jewish people had the sole right to self-determination in Israel.
Israel has defined itself as a Jewish and democratic state, and I see no conflict between the two, as long as Arabs are citizens with equal rights. As a practical matter, the nation-state law, which is the subject of a legal challenge before the Israel Supreme Court, changes very little, but it has symbolic significance. The nation-state law was a crass political move by right-wing politicians and should be amended to confirm that Arabs are citizens with equal rights.
More remains to be done to integrate Israel’s Arabs. A 2017 study found that only 10% of them described their primary identity as Israeli, while 14% identified themselves as Palestinian and 39% as Arab.
Yet my sense is that, particularly among young people, there is increasing attachment to Israel. It has been a common mantra that Jews in Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are destined to be neighbors. But equally importantly, Jews and Arabs are destined to share Israel.
Israeli Arabs may not be rushing to join Zionist organizations and don’t start the day humming “Hatikvah.” And many of them are determined to undermine the Jewish character of the country – the very character that attracted me to this place. But there are encouraging signs that point to a brighter future for the country’s Arabs, which is also important for Israel as a whole.
Cliff Savren is a former Cleveland resident who covers the Middle East for the Cleveland Jewish News from Ra’anana, Israel.