Haaretz ran here a news item about the low percentage of Arabs in the governmental and public sector (around 6%) despite the government decision six years ago to raise it to match the percentage of Palestinian Arabs in the Israeli population (20%). It is not for lack of qualified candidates. The article sums up in a nutshell the complex of attitudes of Israeli Jews toward Israeli Palestinians. On the one hand they are citizens; on the other hand they are foundationally discriminated against. What do I mean by "foundational discrimination"? I mean the sort of discrimination that follows from foundational assumptions, in this case, the assumptions of the Jewish ethnic state established in 1948 against the will of the native Arab population.
You see, it is one thing to be discriminated against because you are a member of a minority, and no doubt ethnic minorities often suffer discrimination in states formed by ethnic nationalism. Israel's case is different, and in some respects unique – for in statist Zionism you have an ethnic nationalism that recognizes the importance of equal rights of ethnic minorities by virtue of citizenship – but is unable, for ethnic nationalist reasons, to put that principle into practice. This is the fundamental difference between, say, the discrimination against African-Americans in the United States and against Arabs in Israel. Statist Zionism inevitably casts Palestinian Arabs as enemies, for what normal people will not resist attempts to conquer its land? They *should* be a fifth column, thinks the Israeli, even if facts are to the contrary. So Palestinian Arabs are axiomatically viewed as one (or as a "potential" fifth column) by virtue of their being Arab. Of course, when they have harmless successes (as in football), or modest gains (as in education) they are to be boasted about. But when they assert their rights or when call for cultural autonomy, the fifth column business crops us. Foundational discrimination against Palestinians entails that despite official Israel's recognition of the principle of equal rights and genuine desire to improve their lot, official Israel must accord them inferior status. And, of course, the foundational assumption ensures that the Palestinians themselves will be excluded and will feel excluded from the Jewish state.
But it is not just Jewish suspicion of the Arabs that ensures their inferior status. It is also the tribal mentality of members helping each other. This mentality is fostered both by centuries of Jewish experience, and the smallness of the country, where who-you-know is often more important than what-you-know. Of course, this is true, to some extent, everywhere. But in other countries there is at least an assumption that if you are a citizen, you share values and a common identity. But in Israel, as I and others have said, there is a willing and conscious denial of a common Israeli identity that includes Israeli Arabs. So unless there is massive affirmative action, which would go against the ethos of the Jewish state, nothing can change.
Even if there were peace with the Palestinians, or if Israeli Palestinian were to serve in the army, this foundational assumption would not be altered. To put this point another way – the inevitable price to pay for a Jewish state along the lines founded in 1948 is foundational discrimination against its Arab minority. This foundational discrimination can only begin to be rectified by transforming Israel from an ethnic Jewish state to a state of all its citizens -- to transform it into a liberal democracy.
Every so often, usually following a crisis, there are well-intentioned attempts to improve the lot of Arabs. Intelligent Israelis realize that such an improvement would be good for the country as a whole. And so a sympathetic minister takes an initiative, or the government makes a decision. All these well-intentioned efforts are doomed to fail, because other priorities and needs will inevitably trump them
The Haaretz article tells an all-too-familiar story that brings together the standard elements: the good intentions to increase the percentage of Arab employees in government agencies and ministries, the failure to realize these intentions; the good guys bemoaning the failure; the bad guys justifying it.
Perhaps the most poignant position here is the one taken by Reuven Rivlin, long-time Likud politician, and about as decent a human being as an ultra-nationalist can be. I have no doubt that Rivlin genuinely believes that it is vital for Israel's national interest to reduce the gaps between Israeli Palestinians and Israeli Jews. This belief underlies the good intentions of all the various initiatives and decisions over the year. But what Rivlin doesn't get is not just that the gap won't be significantly reduced but that it cannot be, as long as he and others champion the values of the ethnic state. Like the obese man who perpetually intends to go a diet, but whose ingrained eating habits and cultural mores prevent him from reducing weight, Israel must discriminate against 20% of its population -- if it wants to remain Israel.