I remember it was the day after Christmas because I was struck and disappointed that my new friend had to work on Christmas. She was a Christian Israeli Arab and was working with an elderly Jewish philanthropist to counsel him on funding programs that would combat substance-abuse in the Arab community.
It was my first Christmas in Israel since moving to Israel. Everything was a new experience.
We met in a conference room of a Nazareth hotel including Mr. Green, the philanthropist, my new friend as his advisor, representatives of the Arab community and the Israel Anti-Drug Authority, and me.
The conversation bounced interchangeably between English, Hebrew, and Arabic. At one point, Mr. Green mentioned that it was important to support initiatives like this in the Arab community because Israeli Arabs are second class citizens.
The meeting concluded with specific ideas of what could be done by way of programs to make a substantial difference to tackle substance-abuse within Israel’s Arab community.
As the meeting broke up, I walked toward the exit. My new friend, who until that point I had only spoken to across the conference table, pursued me. After brief pleasantries she confronted me, wagging her finger in my face as if my mother would do in anger. What had I done to earn this admonishing?
“Don’t ever let me hear you say that Israeli Arabs are second class citizens,” she said firmly in Arabic accented English. “When you say that, you give them the opportunity to blame Israel for all their problems rather than taking personal responsibility.”
Them?! Here I am talking to a Christian Israeli Arab woman who separated herself enough from the rest of the Arab community, at least for the purpose of this conversation, to tell me how my silent nodding affirming Mr. Green’s comment was wrong.
I later learned how the Arab leaders present at that meeting, and the day before when she was required to work on Christmas to accompany Mr. Green, would speak openly among themselves, in Arabic, about how they really weren’t committed to combatting substance abuse, but they wanted his money to use for other priorities.
She was bothered by this as a matter of integrity, driving her all the more to serve Mr. Green and make sure his generosity was not abused. She was bothered by this because it was another example of how members of the Arab community would seek ways to take advantage, rather than take responsibility.
As a nonprofit professional for 30 years, it became another example (of which there have been many) of nonprofits taking advantage of the goodwill and finances of thoughtful and generous donors. Its driven me to work with the highest integrity to make sure that nonprofit organizations and their leaders don’t abuse the trust and funds with which they are entrusted, and to always advocate for the donors.
As a new immigrant, it was all eye opening to me. Since then, my Christian Arab friend has become like a sister, and her family like my family. I’ve had multiple opportunities to visit them in the Galilee, and host them in my home even for Shabbat. Speaking together once with a group of diplomats, I introduced myself as the only Orthodox Israeli Jew with a Christian Arab sister.
Don’t tell my friend, but I still think to a degree Arabs in Israel are second-class citizens. This is a reality, first due to inevitable distrust and discrimination by Israeli Jews, due to the political reality and challenges that strain Israeli society. It’s not good but it’s a reality. This is a reality both among those on the right the left, but for different reasons.
They are second-class citizens because far too often their leaders separate themselves from the majority of Israeli society, rather than engage and be a part of it. This is a symptom of the broader issue that my friend called me out on that very first day we met, blaming others rather than taking responsibility. A consequence of this is Israeli Arabs putting themselves in the place of being second class rather than equals. This is evident by the rhetoric that’s common among Arab Israeli political parties, and the fact that despite the growing number of (particularly Christian) Israeli Arabs serving in the army, hostility toward them in the wider Arab community means they are often shunned and threatened.
A third, and tragically too common human phenomena, is that even among societal groups that are second class, too often there are subsets and discrimination within that very group. She blames their cruel, ruthless culture in which they don’t even have mercy on their own.
Over the years I’ve learned about the discrimination against Christian Arabs who are a minority within the overall Israeli Arab community. Israel’s Arab population makes up some 20%. Of that, fewer than 10% are Christian. For that reason, I am referring to my friend anonymously because she and her family have been subject to violence from within the broader Arab community and I don’t want to be the reason they have a bigger target on their backs.
I will say however that people like her give me hope for the future of Israel, and Arabs in Israel integrating within and casting off their second-class status by taking responsibility. Nurturing this model could be the framework for a much wider solution of conflicts that exist throughout the Middle East where Israel is only one small factor.
All this is not to say that Israel as a state, and the overall Jewish community within Israel, don’t have a responsibility as well. Of course we do. But, like substance abuse, in order to fix a problem one must first recognize and except the problem, and take responsibility for their own circumstances.
With Arab friends like these who are not just loyal Israeli citizens but good friends in every sense of the word, I have hope for Israel.