Israeli Arabs make plain Israel’s identity

Once apathetic voters, their high turnout in an election and endorsement of a Zionist to form a government reveal a faith in a democracy with equality for all.

Ayman Odeh, leader of the Arab Joint List parties, meets constituents in Nazareth, Israel, while campaigning for the Sept. 17 election.

By force of its impartial civic values, a democracy has a way of elevating the identity of its citizens beyond ethnicity, religion, gender, or even ideology. Sometimes voters, especially the most vulnerable, simply want practical help from elected leaders. In Iraq, the often-suppressed Sunni minority now actively cast ballots. In Turkey, minority Kurds embrace elections despite widespread discrimination. The latest example comes from Israel.

In a Sept. 17 election, the one-fifth of Israeli citizens who are Arab and often demonized by some far-right Jewish leaders went to the polls in near-record numbers. Some 60% voted compared with 49% just five months ago. A coalition of four mainly Arab parties, known as the Joint List, won 13 seats in the Knesset, making it the third-largest grouping in Israel’s 120-seat parliament.

Then on Sunday, in a rare engagement with Israeli democracy, three of the four parties endorsed a Zionist center-right candidate, ex-military chief Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party, as the leader best able to form a coalition government after an inclusive election. The main reason for their endorsement was to end the “politics of fear and hate, the inequality and division.”

To illustrate their potential new role, the leader of the Joint List, Ayman Odeh, tweeted a passage from the book of Psalms: “The stone which the builders rejected is become the chief cornerstone.” The jockeying to form a new government could take weeks.

The four parties are under pressure from grassroots Israeli Arabs to work within the government, especially to oust longtime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and end the political persecution. At a practical level, crime is rising in Arab-dominated areas. More Arabs now work more closely with the majority Jews in Israel’s workplaces. They seek equality in resources, law enforcement, and other aspects of democratic life. Although some Israeli Arabs verbally support terrorist attacks on Israel, most are tired of being characterized as a domestic threat. A recent poll found a majority identify as Arab Israelis rather than as Palestinians.

As a democracy that also serves as a homeland for Jews, Israel has yet to live up to ideals such as equality among citizens. Yet just as in other democracies also dealing with vulnerable or suppressed minorities, it is often the minorities who most strongly demand inclusion, dignity, and respect. To them, democracy is a way to embrace, not divide.

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