Mohammad Darawshe, co-executive director of The Abraham Fund Initiatives, has written in the Jerusalem Post an open-letter to PM Netanyahu’s in response to his claims concerning the equal rights and freedoms enjoyed by Israel’s Arab citizens.
“Dear Prime Minister, I would like to congratulate you on your decision to mention the Arab citizens of Israel in your speech to the US Congress last month. Clearly, one of the most significant indicators of the quality of a democracy is the status of its minorities. Like you, I too believe it is important to look at Israeli society and ask: Does the Arab minority in Israel enjoy equal rights?”
Darawshe proceeds to acknowledge the political, social and economic gains made by Arabs in Israel, including positive initiatives taken by the education ministry, but takes the PM to task for comparing the status of Arabs in Israel to that of their brethren in the Middle East who live in non-democratic countries. Instead, Darawshe asks that the PM compare the place of minorities in Israel to that of other democracies, namely the United States. Such a comparison, he holds, in particular with regards to racist discourse and legislation, will find Israel’s current state of democracy wanting, creating a type of collective cognitive dissonance, thereby inspiring leadership to take action.
“Mr. prime minister, Arab citizens wish to become an integral part of Israeli society and play an essential role in it. I am confident that together, we have the potential to develop a strong democratic society that is prosperous and thriving.”
My take on this article is that it’s a smart response to Netanyahu’s speech, emphasizing the positive features in Israel’s self-image. Such an approach – in contrast to straight up slamming – may cause people to be less defensive in the face of challenging information. I am, however, not sure how effective the comparison with American democracy is – beyond imperfect analogies, my concern is principally a psychological one: when identities are under threat (as Israeli identity currently is), comparisons that do not bolster self-esteem tend to be automatically rejected or rationalized away.
In general, I think that the best type of narrative intervention in this regard is to create a shift in the locus of collective self-esteem: from an external source (“We are great because we are better than them”), to an internal one (“We are great because of who we are”). When such a shift happens, people take pride in their inclusive identities and are intrinsically motivated to live up to their own values. Israel’s declaration of independence could be an instrumental source in this regard.
This bring to mind an interesting essay by identity scholar Lena Tan entitled “From Incorporation to Disengagement: East Timor and Indonesian Identities, 1975–1999.” Tan shows how Indonesia’s 1999 disengagement from East Timor (a territory it had brutally occupied since 1975) coincided with a shift in Indonesian identity: from an exclusive national identity that viewed East Timor as threat that must be occupied, to an inclusive national identity that viewed disengagement from East Timor as an imperative in concert with core Indonesian values.
While this shift occurred due to the convergence of a multitude of factors – such as the work of NGO’s, increasing levels of public dissent, financial crises, exposure of corruption on top, fall of communism, international pressure, positive participation of government official – Tan points out that it did not happen by negating Indonesian identity in total, but rather by zeroing-in on the more inclusive and humanitarian aspect of Indonesia’s constitution and value system.
I think the same approach needs to be taken with regards to Israel, and as this article illustrates, Israeli arabs can play a transformative role in this regard.