I note somewhat belatedly, via The Head Heeb, a series of articles in Ha’aretz on the condition of Israeli Arabs. As Jonathan Edelstein notes, there’s good news and bad news and while I disagree with the concept of national minorities and ethnic states in general, I agree entirely with Jonathan, the editors of Ha’aretz, and apparently the not-so-good folks at Shin Bet that the current situation of Israeli Arabs is untenable and continuing neglect is a bad idea. The series is fascinating, but it is long enough that you will have to commit more than a brief glance to reading it.
I have never been to Israel, and the relatively small number of Israeli Arabs I have met over the years are probably not representative. So, I am hard pressed to make any grand statements about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, I want to focus on a theme that appears in several articles in the series, something that ought to be a bit surprising and that has considerably more significance for Europe: the degree to which Israeli Arabs have become quite western in outlook and behaviour. This shines through in the article on an Arab language radio talk show abouty sexuality and relationships, in the article on the political attitudes of young Arabs, and in the marketing trivia of the Arab-Israeli consumer. Israeli Arabs remain, by European standards, quite conservative. However, I know of fully mainstream American communities that are a good deal more traditionalist than what is described here. I should think this sort of society would be fairly compatible with European and American social standards.
This westernisation has not happened to Israeli Arabs because Israel encouraged them to abandon their traditional attitudes. If anything, it seems that the opposite has happened. Israel’s Bedouins still practice polygamy without any discouragement from the state. Significant portions of Israeli civil law are handled by religious and quasi-religious courts. Arab language schools in Israel do not seem to go out of their way to encourage a critical look at Arab or Israeli culture, or at least they don’t if this is to be believed. This transformation has happened despite living in a state where much of the population is openly hostile to Arabs, and where the state responds to their complaints with rhetoric more often than action.
Contrast this with Europe. In France certainly – and probably elsewhere – there is relatively little open hostility towards Arabs and Muslims by comparison to Israeli attitudes, although there is still plenty of hostility and a long history of egalitarin rhetoric in lieu of action. However, unlike in Israel, fairly large majorities of European-born Arabs identify strongly with Europe. Unlike in Israel, there is little to compare with the events of 1948 to sustain historical grievances. Even in Algeria – the closest example – France ulimately lost.
Yet in Europe, we expel imams for saying things that I suspect barely merit a second glace from Shin Bet. I suspect Israel worries far less about the mere incitement to murder than about actual guns and bombs, and I suspect they ignore the preaching of neanderthal sexual attitudes completely. Israel is far more genuinely threatened by its Muslim population than France is, and yet it has never felt the need to ban headscarves. I note little fear in Haaretz that Israeli Muslims are not modernising or adapting to global cultural norms. If anything, there seems to be a fear of the opposite – that an Arab community representing approximately as large a part of Israel’s population as francophones do of Canada’s population might make very modern demands for cultural equality.
I was watching a programme on BBC the other day about French Muslims who, despite considering themselves quite liberal and well integrated in France, greet the expulsion of imams and the new restrictions on conservative Muslims with trepidation. It leads me to wonder if in France, like in Israel, extremism is less of a problem than fear. Left to their own devices, freed from the entrenched political conservativism of Arab dictatorships but still the objects of suspicion and repression by a non-Arab state, Israel’s highly concentrated Arab population has become at least as liberal as many very successful states in the Far East and Latin America. Why then, is there so much fear that Europe’s small, dispersed Muslim population is failing to integrate?