In Israel today, what does co-existence actually mean?

Mohammad Darawshe of The Abraham FundI always try to go and hear Mohammad Darawshe of The Abraham Fund Initiatives (TAFI) when he comes to town. His work for minority rights in Israel will inspire you, not only because what he says renders the boycott campaign’s selective narratives nearly unrecognisable, but because of the way he comports himself as a proud member of a minority group, engaging with the authorities their behalf. He also talks about progress in the areas of government, civil service, education, and policing, which, because good news is no news, you won’t learn about in the mainstream media.

Below, Mohammad Darawshe discusses policing protests against Gaza, Yisrael Beteinu, racist Knesset bills and Israel’s response, and what engagement involves.

Like the others I have heard, this is no feel-good presentation. There is a great deal that remains to be done to bring the circumstances of Israel’s Arabs citizens level with those of its Jewish citizens. However, the direction of progress is unmistakeable. Read on.

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“Israel has institutionally and consciously discriminated against its Arab citizens and this has to end”.

It’s highly unusual for leaders to have this kind of awakening until after they have left office – but here was Olmert, at that time the Prime Minister of Israel, making this remarkable statement at the first conference on Arab Israelis convened by the Israeli government on July 10th 2008. Prior to this moment, the issue of discrimination had been an Arab claim against Israel. But for Mohammad Darawshe, who believes that half of the battle is identifying that you have a problem, Olmert’s admission seemed like half the battle had been won.

Mohammad Darawshe has spent over half his life working for co-existence between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel, the sine qua non of which is civic equality, the guarantee of proper representation at all political levels. The reality is that Israel is the state of the Jewish people inside and outside Israel, but there is a third share-holder – Israel’s Arab citizens. Israel allocates budget for its Arab citizens, makes policy for them, appoints ministers from among them. De facto, Israel is the state for its citizens. However this is not yet a political reality. TAFI is working towards co-existence by bringing about policy changes at local and national government level in the areas of language learning, policing and civic and ministerial representation.

The years since the clashes and deep schism of the 2nd Intifada were highly formative for co-existence in Israel, and a number of recent tests have signalled to the Abraham Fund that its initiatives are bearing fruit. One test was Gaza. An anti-war demonstration in Sachnin, an Arab town, mobilised 150,000 Arab citizens, an unprecedented 13% of Israel’s Arab population, to demonstrate against government policy. It was a very loud, big, angry, sometimes nasty statement. It is very important to note – although we in Britain hardly noted it – that it passed without a stone being thrown and without casualties, despite provocation from Yisrael Beteinu.

One difference between the heavy casualties and fatalities of nine years ago and the events at Sakhnin, was that the municipality and the Israeli police cooperated. Formerly cooperation with the Israeli police would have earned an Arab leader the brand of ‘collaborator’, but at Sakhnin the agenda of protecting Arab-Israeli relations was a well-understood priority. This meant that although Israeli society was badly split by Gaza with the split running neatly down Jewish and Arab lines, the Arab leadership in Israel set limits, advised on policing and the anger did not boil over into violence. During the war, moreover, Jews and Arabs were not boycotting each other as they had done after the events of October 2000, a state of affairs which lasted for nearly 2 years.

“As with every time there is a clash between our people and our country”, says Mohammad Darawshe, “Gaza left a bitter taste in our mouths and a sense that power is the only political language understood in the region”. And during campaigning for the elections, the far right did not use the non-violent demonstration in Sakhnin in their campaign literature; they used the fraught images of October 2000. Radicalisation and incitement became part of the political agenda in Israel in a way which they would not have been permitted to previously.

Israeli Arabs valued Ehud Olmert’s term in power, which saw him turn words into deeds with the allocation of $40m to develop the Arab Israeli economy, currently on the verge of bankruptcy. The new right-wing government is a worry. The former Minister of Education Yuli Tamir had appointed Mohammad to a commission to draft co-existence policy for the mainstream education system, which was presented back in February; the new Minister of Education put on the brakes. A meeting is planned imminently, but currently progress can only happen through cracks.

But, says Mohammad, “there were worse governments than this one, more right wing, and the sky didn’t fall”. And there are friends in power too. The US Agency for International Development funded a TAFI policing project proposal to the tune of $1.2m, conditional on a no-objection letter from Israel’s Foreign Ministry. When no letter was forthcoming, a very senior member of the police force drafted a letter to Israel’s Head of Security, who is from Yisrael Beteinu, to request that the no-objection letter was sent. The Minister of Minority Affairs in Israel is another friend who sticks his neck out. He told Mohammad, “consider me your lobbyist in government”.

Notoriously, in recent weeks Yisrael Beteinu introduced bills to the Knesset to outlaw Nakba Day and to demand, from all citizens, allegiance to a Jewish state. The Arab community did not dignify the stunts with protests. If they were to become law, Nakba Day would become an annual day of mass civil disobedience enacted by those who already commemorated it, and new recruits who wanted to keep faith with Israel’s Basic Laws guaranteeing freedoms of belief and expression, and the Declaration of Independence itself. “We don’t go to court”, says Mohammad, “It’s not the way we do business. But we marked these bills as a red line – if they were passed, we were going to take the government to court”. He was sure that the Israeli Supreme Court would throw out laws like these. The bills go against the direction of development; just a few months ago the Israeli Minister of Education legislated to permit teaching about the Nakba in Israeli Jewish schools. In the event, the Ministerial Committee decided to vote against government endorsement of these bills – they would be a free vote of conscience, and Yisrael Beteinu would almost certainly be isolated in supporting them as private bills. When asked by Al Jazeera what he thought was the likelihood of the bills passing, Mohammad Darawshe replied “Israelis are smarter than that”.

So The Abraham Fund Initiatives continues to view the government, right wing or left wing, as the main partner with which to effect change, by engaging in a constructive manner by showing policy-makers what’s in it for them. He is confident that if those who are pushing for change approach their work in a strategic way, significant changes can be made despite the existing government. After all, as he says, “Equality is not a favour”.

And regarding the changes achieved to date, many are systemic, bureaucratically embedded, and consequently nearly impossible to roll back. It’s practically impossible to repeal the law which will bring the number of Arab civil servants to 10%, for example. The direction is obvious and positive. Changes in the wrong direction cannot be embedded because of established Israeli law, while changes in the right direction endure because they are germane – quite simply, they are just fulfilling the law. “In Israeli law, it’s the discrimination that’s out of place, not the equality.”

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Mohammad Darawshe was speaking at St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace, Bishopsgate, London, 2 June 2009, hosted by the UK Friends of The Abraham Fund. Follow their (unofficial) blog, donate, join the Facebook group, and contact them about getting involved.

Mohammad Darawshe is speaking in London, Tues 2nd June

Via  the unofficial blog of the UK Friend of The Abraham Fund:

POST GAZA & ISRAEL’S ELECTIONS – CAN THERE BE COEXISTENCE IN ISRAEL?

Speaker: Mohammad Darawshe, Co-Executive Director of The Abraham Fund Initiatives.

Date: Tuesday 2nd June, 7.45pm (doors open 7.30pm)

Entry: Free, but we suggest a donation to cover our costs: £5 / £4 concessions

Hosted by the UK Friends of The Abraham Fund Initiatives and St Ethelburga’s, at 78 Bishopsgate, EC2N 4AG.

Download flyer [PDF]

Bonus link: my notes on his March 07 talk.

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