Israel and its Arab citizens

Israel and its Arab citizens


I’ve spoken of Jews and Judaism and the Jewish state
and Jewish immigration and the idea of
the Jewish state. But a lot of what
captures the headlines is the question of the conflict
between Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians. I want to briefly introduce two concepts on this issue. You will hear much more. You will obviously
read and hear about it. I want to talk
about Jews and Arabs within the state of Israel and Jews and Arabs
in the region. Within the state of Israel, citizens of the state,
of the republic, about 20% belong
to, in their mind, a different nation
and people, the Arabs, sometimes the Palestinian Arabs. So 20% of Israel’s citizens
are people who belong to a different
nation and people. Almost all of them are Muslims and a tiny, tiny
minority is Christian. How did it come to be? How are they citizens
of the Jewish state? They clearly did not
dream of it in Vienna, they did not want it, and they did not immigrate
here to build it. When the idea of the modern
state of Israel is born, there is this phrase
that goes around, it comes from
Christian thinking, the idea that a
people without a land are coming to a land
without a people. The people without a
land, who are they? The Jews. Clearly living, even
in many countries, they were barred from
literally owning land, as part of their discrimination. So a people without a land, people who are
strangers, foreigners,
belong to no country. Why was this considered
a land without a people? Everyone knew it
was not Antarctica. It was clear that there were
human beings living here. So why was it conceived of
as a land without a people? For two main reasons. The first, this is
the imperial era. This part belongs to
the Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years. It’s actually a backwater, unimportant part of
the Ottoman Empire. It’s not Damascus. It’s not Beirut. It’s not Baghdad. It’s not Cairo. This belongs to the emperor. It does not belong to a people It belongs to the
Sultan in this case. This was considered a
land without “a people”. The other reason
it was considered a
land without a people is that this is the era when people start to travel and publish travelogs. The most famous one
about this place was by Mark Twain. He describes a desolate land, some farmers, some shepherds, but the notion is
that there is land and that this is a place
stuck in ancient times. So people reading
this, hearing about it, say, “There’s room for us. “We can come here. “We can build and
develop this place.” I’m always amused by the notion that Israel is a
colonialist enterprise because, if so, they
came literally to a place with zero natural resources. There was nothing to take. There were only things
to give and to build. So the Jews come
here, they immigrate, fired by this idea
of restoration, of sovereignty, of
building a modern state. They come here. They believe that they will
be welcomed and accepted because they have only
the best of intentions. I know that today
Zionism is presented as a colonialist
movement that only sought to displace the
local population. But read all of the
early Zionist writings: From the perspective
of the Zionists, they expected to be welcomed. They didn’t expect
to displace anyone. You can fault them
for being naive, but not for having ill will. Of course this is not
how things turn out. As more Jews begin
to immigrate here, with this idea of
building a modern state, the more they begin
to face resistance from those who live here. Initially under
the Ottoman Empire. But as World War I ends, the Ottoman Empire
is carved out, the British take over. Under the 30 years
of British tutelage, the Jews and Arabs coalesce into two fighting nations. After World War II, the United Nations
basically says, “Enough. Divide.” Britain says, “We’re done. “The empire’s over.
We’re out of here.” And the United Nation
says, “Divide.” A Jewish state, that’s
the UN definition, and an Arab state. Jewish and Arab. Two peoples, two
nations, not religions. A Jewish state
and an Arab state. The Jews say yes.
The Arabs say no. Even though it’s a tough
choice for the Jews, it’s only half of the land they thought they would
get after World War I. It’s mostly desert. They are not getting Judea. The cradle of the
Judaic civilization is to be part of the Arab state. They are not getting Zion. They’re the Zionist movement and they’re not getting Zion. Jerusalem is to
belong to the world, not to the Jews,
not to the Arabs. Yet the Jews say yes. The Arabs say no. As far as they’re concerned, the Jews have no
business being here. What is this crazy story of returning after 2000 years? War ensues. Cease fire lines are established at the end of the war. The West Bank goes under
Jordanian occupation, and the Gaza Strip under
Egyptian military rule. Within the cease fire lines, the state of Israel
is established and declares independence. The day that Israel
declares independence, later at the time
of the cease fire, there are Arabs in what
becomes the state of Israel. Now think about them. What are they going to do? Until the day before, they fought against that
state coming into being. They rejected it. They didn’t want it. Yet they wake up
the next morning having lost the war, and they are citizens
of that state. What are they gonna do? From that moment, you have two responses
that persist to today. One says, “We didn’t want this. “We fought against it. “But it’s a good enough country. “It’s a democracy. “We can vote. “We can be elected. “So let’s just make sure “that our rights on paper,” the ones that are found here, “translate into a
sense of belonging, “of being truly part
of this country.” This is a classic
minority struggle. It is one with which
the Jewish majority has tremendous sympathy. It is one that has led to
tremendous achievements. The gap between Jews and Arabs in the state of Israel
is among the lowest between minorities
and majorities in most of the
world’s countries. But then there’s also
another attitude, another response, sometimes
in the same person. The same person might
be torn, saying, “Not until this country “ceases to be the Jewish state, “until it is no longer committed “to Jewish immigration, “until there are no
longer Jewish symbols “in the public sphere, “not until all of
this disappears “can we feel that we belong, “that it’s our country.” When the Jewish majority
hears that, they say no. We have not fought,
we have not bled, we have not immigrated,
we have not sacrificed, so that at the end of the day, the Jews do not have even
one state to call their own. This complicates
the relationship. I have a colleague who says that if you want to understand Jewish-Arab relations in Israel, he himself is an Arab, he says, “You need to understand “that within the
state of Israel, “the Jews are the
numerical majority, “but in their minds
they’re the minority. “The Arabs are the
numerical minority, “but in their minds,
they’re the majority.” If you zoom out into the region, since the day Israel
was born, it’s true. The ratio of Jews to
Arabs in the region was 1:50 when we declared
independence, 1:60 today. The Jews are a tiny,
tiny, tiny minority in a predominantly
Arab and Islamic region that is deeply hostile to the idea of a Jewish
sovereign presence in this land. But it’s not just
about the region. It’s about a mentality,
a way of thinking. The Jews have spent
millennia being a minority, a persecuted one,
a vulnerable one. Their modes of
thinking, their culture, even the famous Jewish humor, have all developed for a
people living as a minority. You do not transition
easily in history from centuries and millennia of having adapted to being
a vulnerable minority to suddenly having
the comfort and ease of being a majority. And the Arabs, think about them. Within the region, they
are the only Arab minority. In a region where all countries are literally 100%
Arab majorities. It’s a humiliating experience. It’s one that you do not
easily adjust to being. Sometimes I have to say, that if you look at the
various complications of Jewish-Arab
relations within Israel, it is nearly a miracle this
relationship is not worse.

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