General Discrimination

Israel’s one in five citizens whose mother tongue is Arabic are increasingly fearful of using it in public as hostility has mounted towards the language from both officials and the Jewish public, human rights groups have warned. The alert comes as lawyers have threatened the municipality of Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest city, with a contempt of court action for failing to include Arabic on most of the city’s public signs – 14 years after the Israeli supreme court ordered it to do so.

In a classroom on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, young Israeli children – Jewish and Palestinian – play and study together, casually chatting and joking in a mix of Hebrew and Arabic. The opening of the first bilingual classrooms in Israel’s largest city was celebrated with great excitement last September. But only months into the educational experiment the mood has soured. Hundreds of parents staged a protest this month, chanting “All children are equal”.

Leaders of Israel’s large Palestinian minority have begun creating an alternative syllabus for Arab schools, in what they are terming “a revolutionary” step towards educational autonomy. It will be the first time in Israel’s history that the Palestinian minority has tried to wrest control of the curriculum taught in Arab schools from the Israeli education ministry. The move follows controversial revisions to the civics textbook.

Moments before an Aegean Airlines flight was due to take off, three Israeli passengers took security into their own hands and demanded that two fellow passengers, from Israel’s Palestinian minority, be removed from the plane. Dozens more Israeli Jews joined the protest, refusing to take their seats. Like a parable illustrating Europe’s bottomless indulgence of Israel, Aegean staff caved in to the pressure.

With 47 independent church schools in Israel facing closure as they are starved of funding, many Christians are starting to suspect their government is waging a low-level war against them. Christians in neighbouring states are fleeing the Middle East as they face civil wars and threats of persecution. In Israel the mistreatment of Christians may be more bureaucratic than physical, but its effects are likely in the long run to prove just as tangible.

Israel is seeking to bring dozens of church-run schools under government control, a move that community leaders warn will curb the last vestiges of educational freedom for the country’s large Palestinian minority. The schools, which educate Christians and Muslims and are among the highest-achieving in Israel, are the only hope for most families trying to escape dire conditions in the government-run Arab education system.

Haaretz warned this week that, if Netanyahu’s Jewish nation-state bill passed, it would remove Israel “from the community of democratic nations, and give it a place of honour instead beside those dark regimes in which minorities are persecuted”. But as human rights groups in Israel explain, Israel has long dwelt among such dark regimes. Netanyahu’s bill simply helps to shine a light on that fact.

Rauf Hamdan admitted to one small consolation as he sat in his mourning tent, nearly a week after his son was gunned down in the street by Israeli police. “At least his death was caught on camera. Otherwise the police would accuse me of lying when I said that he was executed in cold blood.”

The killing of a 22-year-old Arab youth by Israeli police has highlighted tensions that have been building rapidly between the Israeli authorities and the country’s 1.5 million Palestinian citizens. Their treatment as an enemy derives from an ideological viewpoint that regards the Palestinian minority as the state’s Achilles’ heel: an opening for Palestinians in the occupied territories to undermine the state’s Jewishness.

Israel’s effective loss of its only international airport for a couple of days last week—and the cloud of uncertainty that continues to hang over its operation in the future—has deeply unsettled Israelis. It was a warning to Israelis that, now Palestinian factions in Gaza have longer-range rockets, there is a potentially more serious, collective price to be paid for Israel’s repeated military assaults on the tiny enclave.

The leaders of Israel’s large Palestinian minority are stepping up opposition to Israeli government plans to recruit Christians into the military with a specially convened congress. The move follows an announcement in April from the Israeli Defence Forces that all Christians would receive call-up papers on graduating from high school. An initial batch of 800 papers is due to be issued in the coming weeks.

Some 9,000 police have been drafted in to protect the Pope during his visit to Israel, and Christian institutions are under round-the-clock protection. According to a Vatican official, Israel’s preparations have turned “the holy sites into a military base”. But Israel is loath to publicise the grounds for its concerns, because the most tangible threat comes not from Islamic extremists but Jewish fanatics linked to the settler movement.

The Israeli government has been slowly raising the stakes to pressure Palestinian Christians to serve in the military. In April, Israel announced it would issue enlistment notices to Christians on graduating from school. The Greek Orthodox patriarch responded by sacking a Nazareth priest who has styled himself the spiritual leader of a small but vociferous group of Christians who back the government campaign.

The arrest of a journalist and several political activists in Israel over the past few weeks has provoked a troubling debate: are laws applied differently depending on whether a citizen is Jewish or not? Particularly controversial was the arrest last month of Majd Kayyal, a journalist from Israel’s Palestinian minority who was seized on his return from Lebanon and interrogated for five days without access to lawyers.

A wave of violence over the past fortnight, including attacks on two mosques and a church, has shocked Israel’s large Palestinian minority. Growing ever bolder, it seems, Israeli right-wing extremists are shifting attention to Palestinian areas inside Israel. Palestinian leaders, meanwhile, have accused Israeli authorities of repeatedly turning a blind eye to the attacks.

The rise in sectarian sentiment in Nazareth can be understood only in the context of a wider political climate being fomented by the Israeli government. In recent months, the right have unveiled plans to create for the first time separate Christian and Muslim national identities, and, even more controversially, Benjamin Netanyahu has personally backed a campaign to encourage Christians, but not Muslims, to serve in the Israeli army.

Emile Habiby ends up writing the quintessential character in Israeli-Palestinian literature: Saeed the Pessoptimist. This character represents the tension the Palestinian minority in Israel lives: pessimism imbued with optimism. The Jewish state is the situation you’re trapped in, that’s pessimistic; the optimism looks to the equality you think you can aspire to, despite the reality. Saeed is always trying to square the circle. This very much becomes a theme of Palestinian literature in Israel.

Israel and the United States now appear to regard the Palestinian refusal to recognise Israel as a Jewish state as the key obstacle to a peace agreement. Suddenly it has become the cornerstone of Israeli diplomacy. But this demand made its debut only in 2007 – 14 years after the Oslo accords originally laid down the path that was supposed to lead to Palestinian statehood. So what is at stake for both sides on the recognition issue?

Mounting efforts by Israel to divide its large Palestinian minority along sectarian lines have heightened fears that the Biblical city of Nazareth may be about to return to the scenes of violent clashes witnessed 15 years ago. Netanyahu is playing a very dangerous game, seeking to inflame tensions so that he can pit Christians against Muslims and weaken us as a community,” said Hanna Swaid, a Christian Knesset member.

The last thing Israeli leaders want is for Jewish and Palestinian citizens to develop shared interests, forge friendships and act in solidarity. That would start to erode the rationale for a Jewish state, especially one premised on the supposed need of the Jews to defend themselves from a hostile world – Israel’s self-image as “the villa in the jungle”. A Jewish state’s future precisely depends on the anti-Arab stereotypes inculcated in young Israeli minds.