Carter's Book; Israel, Apartheid and Arab Grievances

by Norman Berdichevsky (March 2007)

President Carter's recent book “Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid“ has called into question the strong traditional and emotional support for Israel as a thriving and beleaguered democracy and raised the specter of an oppressed Arab population in the territories and within Israel itself on a par with the Black population under the previous Apartheid regime in South Africa. In response to criticism, Carter does a trick with smoke, mirrors, slight of hand and vanishing elephants by claiming that his reference to apartheid was intended to call attention to what Israel might or would become (rather than what it is now) if the grievances of the Arabs are not addressed.

It should have been a simple matter for President Carter to declare his concerns when he was President rather than waiting more than twenty years to bring us his program for peace. Moreover, the book deals primarily with the Palestinian Arabs in Gaza and the territories on the West Bank under Israeli control. Its treatment of the plight (both real and imagined) of the Israeli Arab minority covers two pages in the book (p. 68 and 168) is shallow and gives the reader little information about what to expect in the territories.

Do Israeli Arabs live under Apartheid conditions? A simple answer must be a categorical NO. Individuals among Israel’s non-Jewish population of Arabs (both Christian and Muslims, Bedouin tribesmen), the Druze, Circassians have held and continue to hold significant positions in the Israeli parliament (Knesset), the police, the army, the diplomatic corps, the arts, literature, cinema, sports, entertainment, the universities, business, medicine and science.

Serious problems and discrimination do exist especially in the areas of career choices, and jobs, as well as a pattern of segregation in residence and elementary education that goes far back to conditions prevailing in Palestine under the British and Turkish administrations. Like charges of discrimination practically everywhere else, historical reasons cannot be ignored and must be put into perspective before any judgments can be made.

Much of Israel’s Jewish population settled on private land purchased by the Jewish National Fund, a branch of the Zionist movement with the expressed purposed of providing for Jewish settlement. The great majority of Arabs living in Palestine lived in their own villages or in the “mixed cities” of Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa, Lydda, and Ramla. Nazareth and Acre have separate Arab and Jewish residential quarters. After 1948, practically no Israeli Arab had the desire to relocate and live anywhere but in a dense Arab environment. All Arab (and Jewish) community leaders have opposed an integrated school system of elementary education. In addition to these natural historic factors, there have been security concerns adding to the pattern of residential segregation.

The Arab Minority

The Arab minority in Israel, numbering a million souls is guaranteed full cultural expression of its identity whereas practically no more than a handful of a few thousand Jews remain in the Arab states (primarily in Morocco) as if they were exotic plants on display in a hothouse when in 1948 they numbered more than 800,000 throughout the Arab World and Iran and included large sections of major cities such as Baghdad and Cairo. Their fate, expulsion, forced exile and loss of property rate not a single mention in Carter‘s book - his sole humanitarian concern is for the Palestinian Arabs who were first forcibly put under Jordanian and Egyptian occupation without their consent and then became the pawns of all those in the Arab world intent on launching a new crusade to destroy the Jewish state.

Israel’s population today is just over 6.5 million of which non-Jews constitute something like 18%. This does not take into account the former Jordanian occupied areas of East Jerusalem. Of the one million Israeli citizens who are lumped together as “Arabs”, there are significant differences among three communities including those such as the Druze, Circassians and Bedouin tribesmen who voluntarily serve in the Israel Defense Forces.

The Arab minority in Israel has lived for almost sixty years in a state of “suspended animation”. They are citizens and are entitled to the same rights and obligations according to Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Israel’s Arabs have, however, always looked at only one side of the equation, demanding equal rights without equal obligations. Equal does not necessarily mean identical. Military service may be replaced by some civilian duty, but to continue wobbling the issue or sitting on the fence has only led to growing disaffection and tensions. In 1948 a few optimistic voices expressed the naïve view that they or the Jews in the Arab countries might serve as a “Bridge to Peace”.

The settled Moslem and Christian Arab Population:

The bulk of the Arab population comprises 950,000 Israeli Muslim citizens and another 145,000 Christians living in villages and towns. In theory, every Arab child must go to school in Israel for at least 8 years and Hebrew is taught from the third grade. Hostility towards Israel has always been primarily due to the experience of being reduced from a majority, both ethnically and religiously, to the status of a minority. The previous confidence of being a Christian or a Moslem and therefore part of a prestigious worldwide religious community was dealt a severe blow by Israel’s independence and military victories. The same attitude of a "lost prestige" prevails among the Arab population in the territories to an even greater degree yet President Carter makes no allowances for this and how they can ever be pacified with less than a return to majority status within one state. He cannot see the contradiction and irony in his use of the term Apartheid.

For him, Israel is to make every concession regarding full and equal rights and acceptance of a large number of refugees who would thus comprise a huge minority destined to become a majority by the differential birth rate alone while the Arab Palestinian state to be formed by the Palestinian Authority in the west Bank and Gaza would be “Judenrein”. i.e. without any Jewish population whatsoever similar to the reality in much of the Arab states today.

Israeli Arab Cultural Creativity in Arabic and Hebrew

The lack of an appropriate framework and symbols by which the Christian and Moslem population can identify with the state rather than a specific grievance based on prejudice is the problem which Israeli statesmen, educators, philosophers and politicians have not sufficiently addressed. High school graduates are fluent in Hebrew after 3-5 hours a week instruction for ten years. Knowledge of Hebrew is much greater among men and especially those who work in the Jewish sector of the economy outside of the village. Hebrew is needed for higher education as there is no university in Israel especially for Arabs. The shortage of appropriate skilled jobs for Israeli Arab university graduates has always been a primary factor in antagonisms and resentment towards the state. Several Israeli Arabs have distinguished themselves in the theater and as writers, winning Israel’s highest honors in these professions.

They are Anton Shammas, author of the critically acclaimed novel Arabesques, Makram Khouri, a popular actor on the stage, screen and television and the late playwright, politician and Communist member of the Knesset (Israel’s parliament), Emile Habibi; all prominent on the Israeli cultural scene and who have demonstrated equal talent in Hebrew along with their native Arabic but their work and names are totally unknown among Jewish communities abroad. Within Israel, they have been regarded by some from both communities with suspicion.

What is crucial however is that Israel is the scene of a real, if flawed, coexistence while the Arab World and the Palestinian Authority continue to envision a macabre world of an eventual confrontation in which the Arabs will regain their “rights” aided by Iran as a result of a major Israeli catastrophe. The recent award winning Israeli film The Syrian Bride is a gallant effort by Israeli actors and producers - both Arabs and Jews for a future without the threat of war and the promise of potential benefits stemming from co-existence and mutual respect. Carter has not a word of priase for these joint efforts within Israel at coexistence and no word of criticism for the Palestinian Authority's openly anti-Jewish textbooks with open incitement to hatred in elementary schools.  

One of Israel’s top football club won the Israel Cup and participated in the 2004 UEFA Tournament. The team, Bnei Sachnin (a small Arab village in Galilee), is made up largely of Israeli Arabs but also includes a number of Africans “on loan” and a manager and several key players who are Jews. No other country has a national team in which Whites, Blacks, Jews, Arabs, Christians and Muslims are represented. If another country had such a team, it would be the subject of endless praise by the international media. 

The Druze and Circassians

Hebrew has been fervently embraced by the Druze in Israel, a community of 100,000 Arabic speakers who are considered a “heretical” or “deviant” Moslem sect (an offshoot of Shi'a Islam). The Druze sided with the Jews in the War for Independence in 1948-49 and have since voluntarily accepted the obligations of military service in the Israeli Defense Forces and the Border Police. They have in the past voted heavily for the Zionist parties and admired “strong” Israeli leaders, particularly General Moshe Dayan and Menahem Begin. The same has been largely true among Israel’s 200,000 Bedouin minority, largely concentrated in the Negev, nominally Moslem but and traditionally hostile to the urban-dwelling nationalistic and more religious Moslem population.

Among the Druze, the greater degree of social integration with the Jewish majority is also leading to greater use of, and fluency in, Hebrew, so much so that many observers report spontaneous Hebrew conversations between men and among youngsters at play or while watching football games without any Jews present. Obviously their shared loyalty, sense of common citizenship and language has also led to greater demands for real equality in every walk of life. Yet, the Druze have their own flags (one version used by Druze soldiers in the IDF contains the Star of David and is flown only in their own villages alongside the Israeli flag), and their religious particularity remains unchanged.

They are a “minority within a minority” and their relationship with other Arabic speaking Druze living in Arab states hostile to Israel is a cause of concern and suspicion among both Israelis and Arabs. There is a large Druze minority in Syria, a state that has been particularly hostile to Israel. Many of the Druze residents on the Golan Heights under Israeli administration have close relatives living on the Syrian side, a reality that is portrayed in the Israeli film, “The Syrian Bride.“

The 3,500 Circassians in Israel are non-Arab Moslems who settled in the Galilee region of Palestine at the end of the 19th Century after fleeing from their homeland in the Russian occupied Caucasus region to Turkey and Turkish controlled areas in the Middle East. They were loyal subjects of the Ottoman Turkish regime and like the Druze, have been on good terms with the Jews and loyally serve in the Israeli armed forces. All the men are fluent in Hebrew and scores of Circassians have moved from their Galilean villages and settled in Israeli cities from Eilat to Haifa. They speak their Circassian language at home but due to their physical isolation from other Circassian settlements in Jordan and Syria, they have readily given up Arabic and adopted Hebrew instead as the most practical means of common discourse.

The Bedouin

A third group of Israel’s “Arab population” are the Bedouins (almost entirely Muslim and mostly located in the Negev), a still distinct group who have traditionally been hostile to the settled population and government authorities throughout the region. The problems of providing health, education and welfare services to the Bedouins and integrating them into the national society with its laws and demands upon all citizens has evoked the same opposition in Arab countries as it has in Israel. Traditionally, the Bedouin have been less susceptible to the claims of modern nationalism and Islam. Many tribesmen traditionally felt no “divided loyalty” in serving as trackers and scouts for Israel’s army and security forces, yet times have changed and Israel now faces the possible additional threat of Bedouin hostility.

The biggest issue for the Bedouin has always been “land use” and grazing rights rather than formal legal “ownership” of land. Traditionally, no attention was paid to the formal ownership of land when Bedouin tribesmen built temporary structures or grazed their herds of sheep and goats. For this reason, all Israeli Bedouin abandon their nomadic life and settle in towns. Israel’s security needs in the Negev, especially the use of land as training ground for the army and for airports, have often posed conflicts with the areas grazed by the Bedouin. Many Arab governments share the same concerns about their Bedouin populations and are suspicious of their loyalty.

The first Israeli Bedouin town, Tel Sheva, was founded in 1967. Another six towns have been established since then and the residents of these towns now account for more than one-third of the Bedouin population. Much resentment among the Bedouins has been caused by the urban framework of these towns that are felt to be too restrictive of their mobility. The problem remains, however, that the best way to provide necessary services is to a sedentary population. The extremely wide gap between Bedouin living standards and that of the settled Jewish population has produced new tensions. Children who formerly took an active part in herding activities are now idle or forced to attend schools. Part of the adaptation to an urban lifestyle has led to more interest in religion and the establishment of a fixed mosque for the Bedouin population in the regional capital of Beer Sheva.

The Dilemma of the Israeli Arabs

Israel will lose nothing if it accepts the principle of equal rights and equal responsibilities for individuals rather than for communities. However, this does not mean compromising the “national identity” of the state with its Jewish character and symbols. Undoubtedly there were and are many more educated Arab, Druze and Circassians who could have been appointed to the post of Israeli representative at the UN or European Union than the party hacks who are often selected as part of the coalition politics stemming from Israel’s proportional representation system. Even among states whose religious or national-linguistic identity is represented by a dominant group such as Hindus in India, the President is a Moslem and until recently in Iraq, the Foreign Minister, Tariq Aziz was a Christian.

After 50 years of procrastination, there was one Israeli Arab appointed to the level of ambassador (to Finland) and one Druze, Walid Mansour (to Vietnam and Peru). The Arab is Adib Hassan Yihye, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University and the National Defense College, a resident of Kfar Kara who was awarded an Israel Price in 1986 for his work in education. He also teaches Arabic and Hebrew at Ulpan Akiva, a residential language school in Netanya that has twice been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for its work in fostering Jewish-Arab relations.

President Carter’s Concern for the Palestinian Arabs in the Territories

President Carter’s portrait on the left hand side of the jacket cover of his new book shows a thoughtful man with his hands clasped under his chin in a staged portrayal of dignity, piety, humility, and deep prayerful contemplation. One is immediately reminded in the starkest and most ironic terms of his predecessor in the highest office of our land who acted without the Carterite halo of sainthood although raised in the same Baptist traditions - Harry S. Truman. “Give them Hell Harry” was the slogan that propelled him to victory in 1948 following the crucial decision to recognize the State of Israel as an act of historic justice, a decision that Jimmy Carter apparently believes he must compensate for by his new found passion for the situation of the Palestinian Arabs.

The right hand side of the jacket cover shows a picture of the foreboding security wall that looms over the people scurrying at its base; an obvious allusion to “Apartheid” and the discomfort and problems that have befallen the civilian Arab population in the region as a result of Israel’s successful effort to drastically reduce infiltration by suicide bombers. The efforts of the jacket cover designers is decidedly to portray a truth but certainly not the WHOLE truth.

A careful reading of the book uncovers a multiplicity of omissions and one-sided coverage although it may well be that the President is convinced that he is an honest broker on a mission from God and a true friend to both sides. There are indeed many expressions of Carter’s “good will to all men” but the picture he paints is a two-dimensional one like the paces of a thoroughbred horse with blinders on, oblivious to the jockeys on either side about to pull past him.

Palestinian terrorism is condemned as “suicidal” for ….“the Palestinian cause” rather than the real victims of these acts of homicide that result in the death and disfiguration of innocent civilians. Israeli steps designed to halt the infiltration of terrorists that interfere with civilian life are referred to as “regrettable”. The immense achievements in living standards that were the result of improved security and general prosperity until the outbreak of the intifada are wholly missing from the book that places the chief responsibility for the current dreadful living standards and lack of security on the Israelis. In numerous citations of “fact”, Carter omits vital information. His description of Jordan’s loss of the West Bank as a result of the Six Day War in June 1967 makes no mention of how Jordan became a belligerent and entered the war and launched hostilities after numerous warnings from Israel not to open a new front.

His fascination with The Fourth Geneva Convention that forbids an occupying power from transferring any parts of its civilian population into “territories seized by military force” does not distinguish how Jordanian policies and population transfers in parts of the West Bank were themselves a result of seizure by Jordanian occupation forces. The same rule apparently never interfered with U.S. and Soviet policy following the Yalta Conference and the seizure of massive parts of what had been Germany and then seized and occupied by Soviet, Polish, Czech and Lithuanian armed forces who annexed the same territories.

References to such events as the Syrian inspired assassination of President Rafiq Harriri of Lebanon are stated simply as “facts” as well as the automatic Syrian denial of any responsibility. President Carter prefers not to express any opinion on the matter (p.99). Israeli and Jewish readers may find it surprising that Carter speaks so highly of the Israeli leaders he has called “right-wing” and “hawks” such as Menahem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin, and Ezer Weizman but the intention is crystal clear in his remarks that these leaders had “seen the light“ or were about to and would “inevitably have“ continued “ their conciliatory policy of compromises had they lived (Carter sees beyond the grave).

What is outright repugnant is his analysis of the elections to the Palestinian authority that he so highly praises, describing the victory of Yassir Arafat as “an overwhelming mandate”. This is his view of an election in conditions without freedom of the press, an independent judiciary, widespread intimidation and the absence of a realistic opposition candidate (Arafat’s opponent was a woman for whom the great majority of Palestinian men in the territories would have most likely boycotted if she had run unopposed). Carter’s reluctance to do more than “chastise” (how like a Biblical prophet!) Arafat, a man with so much blood on his hands and the individual most responsible for the use of terrorism as a political weapon in our times for…..”not encouraging more democracy in the Palestinian Authority” and “arresting Palestinians of the news media and human rights activists” (p.193) is a scene out of the theater of the absurd. The term “extremely militant” is only used regarding the 450 Jewish settlers in Hebron (many of them descendants of those Jews who survived a massacre by local Arabs there in 1929) “driving out” 150,000 Arabs.

Carter, like so many other “Johnny-come-latelies” to the Middle East views events through the prism of his background. What else can explain the weird reference to illegal Arab migration into the Palestinian Mandate Territory from 1920 to 1947 as the entry of “Gentiles” (p.66), a frame of reference that is simply out of place. The back of the jacket cover is just as off-base in calling the book a plea for “a lasting peace agreement with justice, compatible with international law” and …“conforms to agreements previously consummated”; a ridiculous description of the present Hamas-led government that has renounced all such agreements.

Every so often, an apparent slip of the pen or Carter’s repressed subconscious emerges to proclaim real and undeniable crucial aspects of the Middle East conflict such as on page 68.…“Only among Israelis in a democracy with almost unrestricted freedom of speech can one hear a wide range of opinion concerning the dispute among themselves with Palestinians and other Arabs.” How then does one reach a meaningful agreement when the other side does not permit a real debate on the issues? Carter has no answer.

Caught in the middle - Between a rock and a hard place

Although Israeli Arab expressions of disloyalty during the Intifada dismayed many Jews in Israel, signs of loyalty and even heroism are often ignored. One recent case that made headlines was that of 17-year old Rami Mahamid who informed police of a suicide bomber by cell phone just in time to prevent many fatalities at the bus stop in the Arab village of Umm-el-Fahm. One policeman was killed and Rami seriously injured by fragments of the explosion. Rami was given a police citation by Brigadier General Dov Lutzky, “for saving life with great courage and initiative” and celebrated his “good citizenship”. He was originally shackled to his hospital bed until his story was checked out due to fear that he might have been an accomplice.

Rami described himself as Israeli, not Palestinian, but he spoke with some bitterness about the reality of the Arab minority in Israel. “I feel always under suspicion” he said. “You don’t feel free in your own country.” This is the great dilemma of Israel’s Arab minority. They are under constant suspicion as disloyal. The way forward is to recognize and reward those who are loyal and make them feel that Israel is their state too and to punish severely all (Jew or Arab) who betray their obligations as citizens.

Anyone who doubts this is unaware of how Jews and Arabs in Israeli football clubs, restaurants, garages and the entertainment world have performed harmoniously together during almost sixty years of coexistence. The Arabs of Israel do face a dilemma. They must be aided by a much greater willingness on the part of their Jewish fellow citizens to foster their integration. Those who elect to stay in Israel must be loyal citizens or else they will have no future. They must, however, be given more encouragement and a new and more embracing framework to emphasize that their status is not an ambivalent one. Most of all, recognition of loyalty should be rewarded and common citizenship stressed.

The Future and What Can Be Done

A much more clear-cut critical American position on the Palestinian Authority, and the eventual realization that Hamas and Mahmoud Abbas & Company have led their brothers and cousins on both sides of the Green Line down a dead-end path, will ultimately create a change in attitudes.

The Arabs of Israel have some legitimate grievances. It behooves Israel not to put symbolic obstacles in the path of those Arab citizens who do not identify with the enemy. This should require some attempt at finding the kind of minor compromises that foster identification with the state and lower barriers to full participation in Israeli society but without insisting on acceptance of Jewish identity.

Sponsoring a competition for Arabic words to a common anthem and replacing Hatikva (or permitting an alternative anthem) that sings of love for a common homeland would offend no one except the obtuse and obdurate. A model for this exists in Finland where Swedish speaking citizens in the Aaland islands sing the Finnish national anthem in their own language and serve in special Swedish speaking units in the armed forces yet no would hurl the label of apartheid at Finland. Israel must, of course, also strive to eliminate some of the major disparities in employment opportunities and municipal services to Arab towns and villages.

Many observers who are aware of the unrelenting hostility of Arab Knesset members and many prominent figures in public life among the Israeli Arabs do not give sufficient recognition to the unabashed opportunism that characterizes the political culture prevalent in the region. This means there are no real political parties, no free press or independent judiciary - hence the expression “The Arab Street”. Questions and issues of policy are not debated. They are manifested in street demonstrations, almost always orchestrated. In stable states with strong governments, the “people” support the government. In weak states, or in the case of Israel, extremist religious and political groups capable of using force, coercion and the threat of violence hold sway because they promise greater pain and punishment than the rewards offered by the government.

This should have been obvious during the “Iraqi Freedom” campaign. Many critics of the Bush administration bemoaned the “apparent lack” of support for American troops until it was clear from Baghdad that the regime symbolized by Saddam Hussein’s statue was gone forever. There is a residue of Arab opinion in Israel that is afraid to speak out in any public forum against extremists who preach secession and civil disobedience. Many Israelis who are suspicious and pessimistic of ever reaching any accommodation with the Arab minority in the country see only emigration as a “final solution”.

This is short-sighted and self-defeating. It also plays into the hands of extremists. Even if many Israeli Arabs are opportunistic and blow with every change in wind, it would be a smart policy to offer a framework based on the “carrot and stick” approach. In so doing, Israel would be spared the accusation that it is an “Apartheid state” and give some hint to the population in the West Bank and Gaza that a real peace agreement would bring enormous benefits to all. Carter's repeated accusations against Israel only encourage the hard-liners to continue their campaign of no meaningful compromise.

The ex-President’s use of the nickname “Jimmy” was always calculated to sound more folksy. He undoubted believes that he has a special mission to bring “peace” to the Middle East and that a renewed effort on his part may restore the luster and prestige to his achievement of bringing Sadat and Begin together. Sadat’s fate and the cold nature of the Egyptian regime toward Israel (and the United States) have not given him cause to reconsider. He believes that his new book will somehow contribute to a new step forward but there is a hollow and pathetic ring to it. If the term "apartheid" has any meaning at all in the context of today's realities, it is the self-imposed apartheid of Muslim communities refusing any meaningful step towards integration within Western democratic societies. 

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