Last Friday, I spent the morning at a planning session with the most courageous, inspiring and sensible Israelis I have ever met: the leaders of Givat Haviva, which has been fighting the battle for coexistence and equality between Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel for decades.
At a time when the social and economic gaps between Israel’s Arabs and Israel’s Jews are gaping, these Jews and Arabs are striving, almost defiantly, to build a “shared society,” an Israel where different cultures have a shared stake in the future, despite the Nakba, despite the racism, despite the difficulties of reconciling the Zionist ethos with the Israeli Arab experience, despite the Arab villages that have disappeared, despite the Muslim cemetaries that have been desecrated by government-approved construction projects, despite everything.
Other American Jewish groups are also engaged in this struggle, including the Abraham Fund and Ameinu, on whose board I serve. Recently, the plight of Palestinian citizens of Israel has been taken up by the American Jewish mainstream, or at least part of it, in the form of an Interagency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues. That is a coalition of 80 North American Jewish organizations, foundations, federations and private philanthropists, who “support Israelâ€™s Declaration of Independence, including the article that promises social and political equality for all its inhabitantsâ€”Jews and Arabs alike.”
This is, to put it gently, a journey up a very steep, perilous slope. It may well be harder to reach the goal of a shared and equal society within Israel than to create a Palestinian state. But the last thing Israel needs is to make the problem worse, to send a signal to Israeli Arabs –one fifth of the population–that they are not full-fledged citizens. That is why a Knesset bill that will be introduced by Likud MK Limor Livnat is not just infuriating; it is obscene. As noted in today’s Haaretz:
MK Limor Livnat (Likud) and three other leading MKs from Kadima, Likud and Shas are set to propose this week that the Knesset remove Arabic from its list of the country’s official primary languages.
The bill would make Hebrew the only official primary language, and Arabic, English and Russian would become official secondary languages…
“It cannot be, it is not appropriate or reasonable that the status of one language or another in the Land of Israel is identical to the status of the Hebrew language,” said Livnat.
“Precisely in these times, when there are radical groups of Israeli Arabs trying to turn the State of Israel into a binational state, it is most urgent to put into law the unique status of the language of the Bible – the Hebrew language.”
Her last statement might win this year’s prize for the most contorted, creative Orwellian doublespeak. Yes, there are single-staters among Palestinian citizens of Israel, and there are fierce separatists, and there is bitterness and fury and confusion. The answer to that trend is to make every effort to give these citizens equal standing in Israel. Instead, some political opportunists are going out of their way to slap them in the face, to treat them as a kind of irritating afterthought.