It was my tenth trip to Israel, but for the first time in over 30 years, I visited last month on a purely personal basis, scheduling no political events or meetings. I had the pleasure of traveling with one of my nephews (Larry), introducing him to the country and to his many Israeli relatives.
Israel appears to have recovered nicely from the physical damage of last year’s war with Hezbollah. We saw but one unrepaired building from a missile strike in Haifa. And Naharia, a major coastal town in the Western Galilee, that was virtually evacuated last summer, bustled with night life and the exuberance of youth. My cousin from a nearby kibbutz noted that Naharia is booming, having suddenly grown to over 50,000.
Larry expressed surprise that so many we encountered in Israel were not Jews. He wondered if the population is divided about 50-50 between Jews and non-Jews. Wherever we toured, we encountered Israeli-Arab families also enjoying the scenic summer landscape, from Rosh HaNikra in the north to Ein-Gedi and the Dead Sea in the southeast. And after my massage at the Ein-Gedi spa, I realized that my masseuse wore a cross around her neck; Eva, a blue-eyed blonde, is apparently a Russian immigrant.
I explained to Larry that officially Israel is about 80 percent Jewish, counting most of the remaining 20 percent as Arabs and Druse, but that many recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union are either non-Jewish spouses of Jews or people of Jewish ancestry who are Christian by religious identification. The proportion is not 50-50 but, because of this peculiarity of the nearly million immigrants from the former Soviet Union, may be closer to 75-25 than 80-20.
It surprised me to see so many Arabic-speaking guests at the Ein-Gedi resort where we stayed for two days. At first, I had thought that the women — identically garbed in black with distinctive white head coverings — were nuns or members of a reclusive Christian community like the Amish. I have been informed since that these were Israeli Druse.
By the way, Kibbutz Ein-Gedi (where the resort is located) is a rare example of an Israeli community that literally made “the desert bloom.” Contrary to this mythic image, most Israeli agricultural land was never desert, but this patch of lush green fields was carefully nurtured from starkly barren, rocky terrain. Authorities did not believe that anything could grow in what had once been under the Dead Sea, but they were proven wrong by the pioneering generation that began its work in 1956. Since this is the lowest point on earth, the vegetation benefits from an extra dose of oxygen (just as oxygen becomes scarce on high mountains, it grows denser at low altitudes).
Arab citizens of Israel have legitimate complaints about not being treated equally in terms of government policy — mainly in budgetary allocations and in matters relating to employment and housing, where there is discrimination. For example, Meretz USA opposes the bill currently circulating through the Knesset to enshrine housing discrimination on lands owned by the Jewish National Fund in Israel and we deplore the unrecognized status of Bedouin communities in the Negev and the hardships that result.
But what we found on our visit brought home a truth that may appear subtle to some but is very significant: although Arab citizens of Israel do indeed experience discrimination, they are NOT oppressed! They are not suffering from a systematic and total system of enforced separation and degradation — nothing like an “apartheid” policy as alleged by Israel’s enemies. (Alas, the situation of Palestinian Arabs who are not Israeli citizens and live under occupation is far worse.)
Postscript: Less than three weeks following our visit to some sites in the Old City of Jerusalem, we learn of a fatal gunfight, with nine bystanders wounded, nearby.
Our news agency assists the foreign press coverage of Israel.
Israeli Arabs are one of the communities that we cover. I work with many of the contacts in villages that I made when I was a social worker in TZfat, 79-85.
Currently, ISraeli Arabs are experiencing a rise in their economic life style, and they are copying the mode of conspicuous consumption from Israeli Jews. That is why Israeli Arabs seem to suddenly dominant so many resorts and beaches, when we travel with our family.
The tension of the Islamic movement in the Israeli Arab sector is beginning to show, however. I was witness to some tension at a swim club between some Arab girls in bikinis and some Islamic clerics. A sign of things to come, perhaps.
The expert on that subject is Rafi Israeli, from the Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at Hebrew U.
A wonderful and truthfull account of what life in Israel is like for most of us here. Not only is it good to learn about a lovely vacation, it’s also very much needed that the greater public will have a chance to get more information on the true nature of Israeli life and not the half-truths that cloge so many channels of discourse on the matter. Cheers from Tel Aviv mate!
Young Meretz Israel