Israel's shared society of Arabs and Jews: 'Racism in Israel ... is a curable disease'
Mohammad Darawshe, an Arab Israeli citizen, is the director of planning and equality at the The Center for Shared Society at Givat Haviva, a nonprofit educational institute in Israel. The organization’s stated mission is to build an inclusive, socially cohesive society in Israel by engaging divided communities in collective action towards the advancement of a sustainable, thriving democracy based on mutual responsibility, civic equality and a shared vision of the future.
During a visit to the United States that included a speaking engagement at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington D.C., Darawshe also visited southeastern Connecticut as the guest of the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut and spoke at Connecticut College. He sat down for an interview with Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere. The following are excerpts from that conversation.
CHOINIERE: If you could just start out with a brief introduction as to what brings you to our area and what you’re hoping to accomplish with your visit, we’ll start there.
DARAWSHE: I think I’m the first Arab to ever speak (at AIPAC) about our minority inside Israel. We’re talking about 21 percent of the Israeli population who are Arab citizens, and when most people think about Israel, they think about Jewish Israel. So my goal is basically to educate the American public that’s concerned about Israel about ... what’s the reality of the country.
Mind you, we are talking about a population which is an indigenous minority. It’s not an immigrant minority to Israel. We’re citizens of the country — the state immigrated to us.
CHOINIERE: Is the Arab population segregated in certain geographical areas, or is it homogenized throughout the country?
DARAWSHE: 92 percent of Arab citizens live in separate Arab towns. 99 percent of Arab students study in separate Arab schools.
CHOINIERE: Is it segregated by choice of both Arabs and Jews?
DARAWSHE: Its (schools are) segregated by decision of the government in 1948. In my view, this is probably the mother of all evils in Israel. This was the stupidest mistake that the state of Israel has done, because the separation becomes a segregation, and once you live in a separate environment, and you study in a separate environment ... it goes into development of fears, and it goes into development of racism.
These are the issues we try to deal with (at The Center for Shared Society) — how to reduce the level of antagonism, how to try to break the system of separation through educational corporation, educational programs and encounters.
One of the projects I started in 2005 was placing Arab teachers to teach in Jewish schools. And in Jewish schools that had Arab teachers, the racism rate drops to below 10 percent — once they have an Arab teacher — when the national average is 63 percent. In Arab schools that we’ve been able to place Jewish teachers in, the racism rate drops from 52 percent to below 8 percent. Which tells me one thing, that racism in Israel is not a DNA issue of Jews or Arabs. It’s a result of the isolation from each other, ignorance, alienation, and fear that develops.
It’s a curable disease.
CHOINIERE: Is it difficult to be, for want of a better word, a peacemaker? Is it difficult to be someone trying to bring the sides together? Because, I could think, at some level, you might get distrust on the Arab side —“Why is he cooperating with the Jewish State?” And you have built-in discrimination on their side too about your motives.
DARAWSHE: Most people want peace. Most Jews want peace. Most Arabs want peace. But they’re not willing to invest in it or put their time and energy to try to make it happen.
So there is a lot of skepticism within this area. Here and there, you get also criticism. Sometimes it’s harsh criticism. I do it out of self-interest for my community, not out of love to the Jews, not out of love for Israel. I do it out of love for my own community.
I think that if we cannot find the formula for good relations between the Arab citizens and the Jewish citizens, we are on a crash course that would bring us into similar period to the Troubles in Northern Ireland, of intercommunal fighting (and) the losing party would be us. We are the minority. If we become too much of a problem, it’s easy to crush us.
So my work for coexistence does not come out of just idealistic, peace-love type of issues, it comes out of trying to find the proper practical way to find a win-win situation for the Jewish and Arab citizens.
I started a project called Sharikat Haya — “Life Partners.” The Arab community has 60 percent poverty rate, and we found that one of the key contributing factors ... was the lack of a second income in an Arab household. So we’re trying to convince the government, and the government was saying, “We can’t do anything because this is the cultural matter of the Arab men will not allow their women to work.”
So we started the pilot project...we started giving workshops for Arab women in Hebrew and (using) computers, and we’re able to turn what they called in the government “chronic unemployment.” We showed them that if you train them a little bit with Hebrew and with the computers, you can help them get basic jobs, and you can turn them into taxpayers. Only nine years later, the percentage of Arab women in the labor market is now 34 percent.
CHOINIERE: If we’re able to ever see a Palestinian state in peace with Israel — do you think that would have a dramatic effect on the relations between Arabs and Israeli Jews?
DARAWSHE: Very dramatic effect. Our golden ages of coexistence between Jews and Arabs were between 1992 and 1996 during the Oslo negotiations.
Every time we go in the opposite direction — meaning increased tension between Israel and the Palestinians — (Arab Israeli citizens) immediately fall in the trap of being seen as the extension of the enemy — as the fifth column, as part of the Arab demon that Israeli Jews should be afraid of or fight.
Israel has not decided if there is a contradiction between being a Jewish and a democratic state — what comes first? Is it first democratic, or first Jewish — what triumphs during that argument? And I think this argument will not be finalized until we resolve the regional context and until we resolve the meaning of “Jewish State.”
Supreme Court justice Aharon Barak ruled ... Israel has to be a Jewish state in terms that it has to be a safe refuge for any Jew around the world because of the history of the Jewish people. They need a safe place to be.
But the minute you become Israeli, Barak said, Israel can treat you only as an Israeli, not as a Jew. We should be treated as an equal citizen; the state has no authority to discriminate between citizens. That’s his perception of Jewish and democratic. With this kind of Jewish and democratic, I can live.
CHOINIERE: A landmark decision?
DARAWSHE: A major landmark decision. In March 2011, there was another law ... to bypass it, which is called Admissions Committee Law (upheld by the Supreme Court), which gives authority to smaller Jewish towns of up to 400 families to formulate acceptance committees of who can live in the town, who can rent, who can lease ... which I find a very anti-democratic, ugly law in Israel.
CHOINIERE: Is the reverse at all true, that if you can improve relations between Arabs and Israeli citizens it might increase the chance of creating a Palestinian state and a lasting peace?
DARAWSHE: Absolutely yes. I think that we’re the laboratory for Jewish-Arab relations on regional level. We can prove that Jews and Arabs can live and coexist peacefully inside Israel, that’s square one from which you can derive the potential integration of Israel in the Middle East. That’s why I say Israel has a golden opportunity that it was lucky to have an Arab minority so that the Jews can prove their intentions to the Arab world, and the minute we are able to succeed in exporting a successful story of coexistence, then we can challenge those that think that Jews and Arabs are doomed to be fighting forever.
I’ll probably end by saying the best potential ambassador of Israel to Arab countries is a satisfied Arab citizen that can testify that Jews are here to stay in peace with us. They’re not a passing phenomena of occupiers. They’re not colonialists ... They’re here to stay because they choose to live in peace with us. So that’s why I think that Jewish-Arab relations inside Israel are of a strategic interest for the state of Israel.