Will Israel ever integrate its peoples?
Street violence in the ancient port of Acre over the past few days has traumatised a town that has promoted itself as a multicultural tourist hotspot, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and rare model of integration between Israel’s Jewish majority and the Arabs who make up a fifth of the population.
It has provoked an outpouring of reflection on the place of Arabs within Israel, on the nature of Israel as a Jewish state and on its broader relations with the Arab world, not least with the Palestinians in the occupied territories.
The word “pogrom” has been bandied by both sides after rioting broke out at the start of the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur.
A term for attacks on Jews in 19th and early 20th Russia – the kind of attacks that drove the Zionist push for a Jewish state in Palestine – it has been heard rather frequently here of late.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may have started the trend by using it in condemning an attack by Jewish settlers on a Palestinian village in the West Bank
Members of the Israeli parliament, both Jews and Muslim Arabs, have used it in recent days to describe what happened in Acre, apparently after a local Arab man drove his car into a Jewish neighbourhood on Yom Kippur, a 24-hour dusk-to-dusk fast during which observant Jews pray and abstain from all work, including using machines, like cars.
Jewish youths attacked the driver. Arab residents then rioted, damaging cars and shops, and Jews set fire to two Arab homes and damaged nine others.
The hapless driver has since apologised and appealed for unity. His public show of humility in Israel’s parliament, however, provoked angry scenes and calls from some Jewish lawmakers for his arrest. They got their way when he was detained this week, prompting outrage from Arab members of parliament.
And for many commentators, the damage has been done. Gideon Levy of Israel’s left-leaning Haaretz newspaper found “a little Bosnia in the making” during his visit to troubled Acre.
Yigal Sarna on Ynet described it as a “the war of poor against poor”, with tempers fraying as the local economy slows.
The Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, which refused to accept that Israel should exist, said there was more violence to come.
Among Israelis, all too aware of Jewish history, there was also anxiety, as this blogger said in demanding “Where is the government” after Jews in Acre were, in his view, victims of a “pogrom” by their Arab neighbours.
The rightward-leaning Jerusalem Post condemned Jewish youths for their part in the violence but also said the behaviour of Acre’s Arabs who shouted “Death to Jews” disgusted it.
The paper’s condemnation of “vigilantism” by Jews, however, drew angry responses from some readers. One, who signed himself “Terry” went so far as to write “Stop being so PC … Simply put, no Arabs, no riots.”
He advocated boycotting Arab businesses “and eventually population transfer”. He concluded: “Let them holler “Death to Jews” somewhere else.”
Gulf News in Dubai, in common with many Arab commentators, sees a failure of Israeli policy and worrying trends for the future.
“The disturbances in Acre also come as proof of the failure of Israeli policy in assimilating or integrating the Palestinian population, treating them instead as second-class citizens,” it wrote in an editorial, raising the spectre of worse to come.
Ehud Olmert, who is still serving as caretaker prime minister while his successor Tzipi Livni tries to forlm a coalition, called for dialogue and said peaceful communities were being held “hostage” by small groups of extremists on either side.
Across the sealed and hostile northern border in Lebanon, home to some 400,000 Palestinian refugees from what is now Israel, The Daily Star was critical of his government’s policies, saying Israel “routinely runs roughshod over Arabs”. It urged a new approach so that Jews and Arabs could live together. Not such a radical idea, the paper suggested as it contrasted the sufferings of Jews in Europe down the ages with the relative harmony that Jewish communities long enjoyed in the Arab world.
Julie Gal, an Israeli who made a film about the killing of 13 unarmed Arab citizens by Israeli police in 2000, told Ynet in an interview that Israel’s Arabs were right to feel justice was not equal – after years of halting investigation into the case, all the police involved were exonerated this year. “We search worldwide for those who commit hate crimes against Jews, – as we should, but here at home 13 fellow citizens are killed and we have to beg the authorities to investigate and then they find no one guilty?” Gal told the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.
The answer, Gal felt, may lie in the schools and doing more to overcome the gulf of mutual ignorance and mistrust that divides Arabs and Jews.
Like much else that is being spoken of in the wake of the violence, that is a long-term solution. And for many, even such long-term solutions are hard to make out, even as rival views of short-term answers assert themselves loudly.
Israel could do better in integrating its Arab minority economically, as commentator Akiva Eldar wrote in Haaretz. “But,” he concluded, “No money in the world will turn an Arab/Palestinian public, be it Muslim, Christian or secular, into an organic part of a country that defines itself, based on the nationality of the majority, as a Jewish state.”