Anti-Arab sentiment swells among youth in aftermath of Gaza war
From Monday's Globe and Mail, Toronto
January 26, 2009
JERUSALEM — When the leader of Israel's religious-Zionist Meimad Party recently addressed a meeting of 800 high-school students in a Tel Aviv suburb, his words on the virtue of Israeli democracy for all its citizens were drowned out by student chants of "Death to the Arabs."
Not since the days of the now-illegal Kach party, and Baruch Goldstein killing 29 Muslims at prayer in Hebron in 1994, has Rabbi Michael Melchior heard such anti-Arab sentiment.
But that sentiment is swelling, and the controversial former cabinet minister Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beitenu party are riding the wave. They have emerged as the biggest political winners from the recent war on Gaza. Their unequivocal anti-Arab policies have never been more popular.
It was Mr. Lieberman who led the recent campaign to have Israel's two Arab political parties banned from next month's Knesset election. He argued that their public criticism of Israel's assault on Hamas in Gaza constituted a disloyalty to the country as a Jewish and Zionist state.
Mr. Lieberman has long argued that all Arab Israelis should be made to swear an oath of loyalty to the country and, if they don't, they should lose their citizenship.
The country's highest court ruled in favour of the Arab parties, but not before the Knesset's central elections committee voted in favour of the ban. Even representatives of the mainstream Likud, Kadima and Labour parties cast ballots supporting the ban.
"The court has effectively given the Arab parties a licence to kill the state of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state," Mr. Lieberman said, adding that his party would not give up the fight.
Besides loyalty oaths, his party wants to exchange Arab communities in Israel for Israeli settlements in the West Bank; it says that giving up any land in exchange for peace with Arab neighbours is "fundamentally flawed" and should not be pursued; and it argues that Jordan should be where Palestinians seek to create a state.
Public opinion surveys indicate that a growing number of Israelis support this approach; Yisrael Beitenu is poised to win 16 seats in the Feb. 10 vote (it currently has 11), as many seats as Labour might win.
More importantly, the party could be a coalition partner in an expected Likud government - something that would put Mr. Lieberman in a good position to promote his agenda.
"Yisrael Beitenu's rise, with its racist agenda, is a very dangerous trend in Israeli society," said Mohammad Darawshe, an Arab from the Israeli town of Nazereth who is co-director of the Abraham Fund, an organization that promotes co-operation among Israeli Arabs and Jews.
The anti-Arab trend is particularly strong among the young generation, Mr. Darawshe said. "In a poll conducted in May, more than 60 per cent of Jewish high-school kids say they want to control the political participation of Arabs in Israel; they're not ready to live in the same apartment building as Arab citizens; they don't like to hear the sound of Arabic language; and so on," he said. This racism "has to be taken seriously and dealt with seriously," Mr. Darawshe said, "as must separatism in the Arab community." A growing number of Israeli Arabs want to opt out of Israeli society, including boycotting elections, he said.
"Unfortunately, [the two trends] have common agendas; they feed off each other."
Even Foreign Minister and Kadima party leader Tzipi Livni shocked many by saying that if people don't like what the government is doing "they can leave."
Overall, Israel's Arab population, while sympathetic to the plight of Gazans, is not particularly radicalized, certainly not as it was in the early days of the 2000-2004 Palestinian uprising. Yet, as Mr. Darawshe says, anti-Arab sentiment in the country has never been greater. The Lieberman party "ultimately seeks a direct clash with the Arab citizens in Israel" he said. And he worries that "there's no serious effort to stop it."
The 100 people at the Yisrael Beitenu rally for English-speaking voters Thursday night in Jerusalem certainly don't want to stop it. "It's the clarity of it that's so appealing," said Yona Triestman, a thirtysomething who works helping new immigrants settle in Israel. And the message certainly is straightforward. At the end of the night, Uzi Landau, a former Likud cabinet minister now running for Yisrael Beitenu, leaned forward and wagged his index finger at the audience. "There's just one thing you have to remember about our platform," he said, "just one thing to tell your friends: 'No loyalty, no citizenship.' "