Jewish World Review / March 30, 1998 / 3 Nissan, 5758

Full rights for all Israelis?

By Richard Z. Chesnoff

ADEL KAADAN wanted to lease a lot in a housing cooperative near his village in Israel so he could build a new home for his family. Problem is Kaadan is an Israeli Arab and the housing co-op at Katsir, south of Haifa, says it only leases land to Jews.

A justifiably angry Mr. Kaadan sued and his case is now before the Israeli Supreme Court. He and his lawyers argue that if anyone anywhere denied a Jew the right to land because he was a Jew there'd be a terrible outcry -- especially in Israel. More to the point, they say, Israel's founding fathers guaranteed equal social and political rights to all Israeli citizens - irrespective of nationality, race or sex. That, Kaadan insists, includes Israel's one million Arab citizens - -and their right to live anywhere in Israel.

The folks at the Katsir argue they've got enough problems on their hands. The 16 year old village has 700 Jewish families from Europe, North Africa and the former Soviet Union. They're having a tough enough time melting that huge pot, plead the village leaders, let alone trying to integrate Jews and Arabs.

Unfortunately, that echoes an excuse Israelis have been using for years - namely that the ongoing security and cultural problems facing their dynamic society make it impossible to fully integrate Israel's Arabs into the national mainstream.

Israeli Arabs -- who now number about 20 per cent of the population -- do share enormous civil rights in the Jewish state (far more, in fact, than they would if they lived in any Arab country). Though excused from military service so as not to stress their loyalties, they vote, have active representatives in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, enjoy social services, send their sons and daughters to Israeli universities, and savor many of the fruits of Israel's growing economy.

But there's always been a difference. Despite inevitable election year promises, Israeli Arab villages generally get less of the national infrastructure pie than do Jewish ones (if conditions were better in his oWn village, Mr Kaadan might never have tried moving to Katzir). Moreover, most Israeli Jews seem to believe that most Israeli Arabs can't truly believe in a Jewish state -- or should even be expected to.

Unfortunately, some Israeli Arabs have never really came to terms with the idea of a Jewish state. In recent years, a few younger ones have even drifted towards radical Islam and terrorist causes. But like Kaadan, many, if not most, see themselves as loyal Israelis for better or for worse. They maintain their identity as Arabs, even Palestinians, but they are not extremists. They speak fluent Hebrew and want nothing more for themselves and their children than what Jewish Israelis want: security and a bright future. Indeed, when it was suggested a couple of years back that Israel and the Palestinians trade territories in a way that would place several Israeli Arab villages under Palestinian authority, the Israeli Arab villages objected vehemently.

The Kaadan vs Katzir controversy now before the Israeli courts raises the basic question of where one draws the line between Israel's unique and justified role as a Jewish state - and its role as a modern democracy. It's a vital question not limited to Jewish-Arab relations, but also to intra Jewish ones. The ongoing struggle to find some way to grant equal rights to Israeli Jews who adhere to the Reform and Conservative branches of Judaism is far from over. Israel's orthodox establishment, which wields enormous political clout, has again failed to agree to a compromise that would at least have allowed non-orthodox participation in religious decisions -- specifically the conversion process.

This is Israel's "jubilee year" - its 50th anniversary as a free, independant democracy. The issues at stake are not easily solved. But as in the past, the Jewish state can and must continue to thrive on miraculous solutions for all its citizens.


2/27/98: America's Schindler
1/30/98: A last chance for the Mideast?
1/11/98: The Moment for Restitution Has Arrived

JWR contributor and veteran journalist Richard Z. Chesnoff is a senior correspondent at US News And World Report and a columnist at the NY Daily News.

©1998, NY Daily News