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Equal rights are not a favor

By David Kimche

(April 30) - The shooting at the Umm el-Fahm crossroads on Saturday night raises the specter of an Israeli version of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict.

The Kurdish minority in Turkey has demanded recognition as an autonomous national minority. The Turkish majority has refused to grant them their demands, and over the years thousands of people - Kurds and Turks - have been killed. Could it happen here?

There are two ways to deal with the problem: one is to treat the Israeli Arab minority as a hostile element that has to be repressed; the other is to consider them as equal citizens, enjoying equal rights as the Jewish majority.

"How can we regard the Arabs of Israel as equal citizens when they display such hostility to the state?" many Israelis would ask.

"How can we consider ourselves to be a true democracy upholding liberal values when not all of our citizens are treated equally?" other Israelis would respond.

The hostility that many Israeli Arabs demonstrate towards the state emanates from two sources: one is the general feeling of solidarity that many Israeli Arabs feel for their Palestinian brethren. They are, after all, one people who were arbitrarily divided by a green line, and it is as natural for them to display solidarity with their own people as it is for Jews all over the world to show similar feelings for the State of Israel.

This source of hostility will only be removed when the peace process will be culminated, and we reach full understanding with our Palestinian neighbors.

The second source of hostility stems from the gross inequality and discrimination that has been the lot of Israel's Arabs for the last 50 years.

A typical example is a news item that appeared in the Hebrew press yesterday, according to which out of 85 Magen David Adom stations in the country only two were in non-Jewish communities. In the town of Umm el-Fahm, for instance, there is neither an MDA first aid station nor a fire station, despite a written promise made by Moshe Katsav, who was at the time the minister responsible for Arab affairs, that both would be installed in 1999.

There are dozens of similar examples of discrimination, from Interior Ministry or Education Ministry budgets to town planning and building permits and job opportunities, to say nothing of the daily acts of discrimination that Arab Israelis suffer at the hands of Jewish Israelis.

Back to the question of how a hostile sector could be granted equal rights. There exists an inherent vicious circle, for the more we refuse to grant equal rights to the Arab citizens, the greater their hostility will be to the Jewish majority, and the greater their hostility, the less the state will be inclined to grant equal rights.

There can only be one way to break that vicious circle, and that is the only manner in which we can consider ourselves to be a true democracy.

There is, obviously, no way we will ever induce the Arabs of Israel to embrace the Zionist ideology, nor, equally obviously, should we ever try to do so. They have their own culture, their own history, their own heroic figures and they certainly do not include Theodor Herzl among them.

We can, however, significantly reduce their hostility by making real efforts to reduce the sort of discrimination shown by MDA and by assiduously granting equal rights to the Israeli Arabs as equal citizens.

There are those who will say that the Arabs don't have the same commitments to the state, and don't serve in the army. Nor do the haredim.

Regardless, in any true democracy equal rights come before equal commitments. And just as it would be justified to mobilize haredim for national service, the same should be done for the Arab minority.

We come back to the Umm el-Fahm shooting and the tendency of many to demand greater repressive measures in order to prevent such incidents in the future. Repressive measures usually have the opposite effect. They generate greater hostility which in turn creates more such incidents.

This is not to say that all efforts should not be made to apprehend the assailants who randomly took the life of an innocent person. Every effort should be made to find them, and it must be in the interest of the leaders of the Arab community to cooperate in this effort, for the last thing they should want is a deterioration of the situation into violence.

The most fundamental dictum of any democracy is that the law must be applied equally to all citizens, in our case to Arabs and Jews alike. This basic truism must be guarded zealously by all who believe that Israel must be guided by democratic principles, and it is by these principles that we must direct our policies with regard to the minorities - Arab, Druse, and Circassian.

The Jewish character of the State of Israel must be upheld as the only Jewish state in the world. But within that state all citizens must be treated equally and have equal rights.

"When a Jew, in America or in South Africa, talks to his Jewish companions about 'our' government, he means the government of Israel."

- David Ben-Gurion, Israeli Prime Minister

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