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Amnon Rubinstein’s lazy — and misleading — math

Electronic Intifada – 11 March 2003

There are not many aspects of Israeli life untouched by the celebrated Amnon Rubinstein, a lawyer, turned professor, turned political party founder, turned government minister, turned journalist and writer. After his recent retirement from politics and the mildly dovish Meretz party, he is spending more time pontificating in the Israeli media on his favorite topics.

Which unfortunately means more of Rubinstein’s regular columns in the daily Ha’aretz newspaper using figures, usually supplied by the Central Bureau of Statistics, designed to prove that Israel is being unfairly demonized. A week ago, he turned his attention to the large gaps in educational achievement between Israel’s Muslim and Jewish population. In his usual style, he also presented comparative examples from Britain and America to show that each country suffers equally serious problems with the exam pass rates of their respective deprived social groups.

By comparing statistics from the US and Britain, Rubinstein presumably hopes to refute the conclusion the rest of the world is drawing: that Israel has become an openly racist, apartheid society. If this is his purpose, and it is difficult to imagine with his regular ventures into number-crunching that he can be have any other, there are two glaring flaws in his methodology.

First, when surveying child mortality rates or indices of educational success, he consistently fails to include statistics for the Palestinians, even though for decades Israel was responsible for the Palestinians’ welfare. Even during the short-lived Oslo process, Israel continued to have administrative control over huge swaths of the West Bank and parts of Gaza. Today, of course, it is in charge of most Palestinians’ welfare again, through the undeclared re-imposition of the military government of the Civil Administration.

Inclusion of the Palestinian figures would clearly be damning to Israel, and undermine Rubinstein’s case. How many children in Israel are malnourished: surely not the one-quarter to be found in the West Bank and Gaza? How many days have Israeli children lost of their schooling in the past year to curfews: not the weeks and months that Palestinian youngsters have missed? The list, of course, goes on ad nauseam.

Second, although discrimination has similar damaging effects on minorities whether it is Britain, America or Israel being considered, it does not follow that such discrimination is qualitatively the same. Britain, for example, has become increasingly aware of the institutionalized racism in its society, as revealed in the official report into the police’s handling of the murder of a black teenager, Stephen Lawrence.

Israel suffers from similar structural racism — just ask an Ethiopian, Russian or Mizrahi Jew. They are all the victims of policies set by the self-serving and self-selecting elites that exist in every country. Evidence of discrimination and its harmful effects tells us little but truisms about the nature of all societies.

But to imply, as Rubinstein repeatedly does, that Israel’s Muslim and Christian Arab populations suffer from the same kind of racism experienced by American blacks, British Muslims, or Ethiopian Jews is simply wrong.

Certainly Arab citizens, like Ethiopians and Russians in Israel, suffer from structural discrimination, although in their case the official neglect is quantitatively worse: Arab local councils are the most under-funded, their villages the most deprived of land, their jobs the first to go when hard times hit.

But to be an Arab in Israel is also to suffer from a qualitatively different kind of discrimination: a racism that is unknown to anyone who can claim to be an “ethnic Jew,” or, in the case of the Russian Christians, a “social Jew.” The discrimination is not just structural but ideological: it is the negation of the Arab citizen’s right to an identity as an Israeli. It is felt in the absolute exclusion of the minority from all aspects of the Zionist nation-building programme.

This is why Arab citizens can never hope to be reunited in Israel with their families from the refugee camps of Lebanon and Syria under the Law of Return. This is why the interior minister can revoke the citizenship of Arabs when he would never consider doing the same to a Jew. This is why there is no hope of an Arab party being allowed to join a government coalition, even of the Left. This is why Israel has a flag, anthem, and a set of national holidays that take no account of Arab participation in the Jewish state, or their sense of loss at its creation. This is why translation into Arabic for public events, from court hearings to state ceremonies, is usually overlooked or at best offered as an embarrassed after-thought.

Britain is not a state of and for Christians any more than is the United States. White middle-class and primarily male, both countries’ governments and business communities help first those like themselves and tend to neglect the rest, including blacks and Muslims. (Although let’s not forget that in the case of both Britain and America, Jews are well represented in the top echelons of the state.)

Israel, on the other hand, is a state of and for Jews. Its leaders prefer those like themselves — white, Ashkenazi and male — and tend to neglect the rest of Israeli Jewry. But when it comes to the Arab citizens, the men in suits would rather they — like their Palestinian kin — simply disappeared for good.

This subtext is not likely to be spelled out in Mr. Rubinstein’s columns.

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