As Israeli and Palestinian believers, we usually focus on our theological differences, but we are unaware of the greater political and societal differences. Recently, I was speaking with one of my colleagues from the Hebrew University, a professor who has done a lot of work on bringing Israelis and Palestinians together. We were discussing the different challenges that these sort of inter-group meetings face, and the lack of hope that people have in the prospect of reconciliation. This led us to talk about the new report by Sammy Smooha, a professor of Sociology at Haifa University, and one of Israel’s preeminent scholars of Israeli-Palestinian relations, especially within the State of Israel. He recently published a report through the United States Institute of Peace, called Arab-Jewish Relations in Israel, Alienation and Rapprochement.[1] It is an informed look at the shift in attitudes over the past few decades, as well as the current situation, and suggests a number of policy changes that should be made to help reconciliation as we go forward.

Smooha first points out that Israeli society is fragmented on a number of different levels. He writes, “Israel is a deeply divided society. The division between Arab and Jewish citizens is reflected in institutions; culture; national identity; socioeconomic status; and stances on the character of the state, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and other fundamental issues.”[2] Furthermore, Palestinian-Israelis, [R]eject Zionism, the de facto state ideology of Israel. They see Zionism, the Jewish movement of national liberation, as colonialist and racist, and they denigrate the Jews’ fundamental Zionist collective identity. The Jews, meanwhile, do not see themselves as colonial settlers but rather as the genuine proprietors of the Land of Israel, from which they were historically exiled and to which they rightfully returned to find alien Arabs in possession . . . Both sides reject the most cherished values of the other. [3]

This division is important, because the Palestinians in Israel make up a very significant minority; one in six Israeli citizens are Arab, and they make up around 17 per cent of the total population (excluding the Palestinian Territories). Smooha explains that there are two different theories on the Arab-Jewish relations within Israel, mutual alienation and mutual rapprochement. The mutual alienation theory states that the two communities are on a violent collision course, while the mutual rapprochement theory claims that they are in the process of adjusting to each other. He then looks at the period from 1996 to 2010 and discusses some of the developments that took place, in light of these two theories. “By either account,” he writes, “any account in fact, this was a lost decade for Arab-Jewish coexistence. The situation has worsened and bodes badly for the future of their relations.”[4]

For example, Smooha discusses the collapse of the Oslo accords and the beginning of the Second Intifada, as well as the October Events in 2000, when Israeli police killed thirteen Palestinian-Israelis in protests that took place across the country. Smooha also looks at the steep rise in popularity of right wing political parties such as Yisrael Betenu, and the proposed measures to require loyalty oaths, and to criminalize participation in Nakba Day memorial ceremonies. Although these measures were not passed, they affected Arab-Jewish relations within Israel and indicate the level of animosity between the two communities. Among Palestinian-Israelis, the voting rate has dropped from 75 per cent in 1999 to 53 per cent in 2009, and contains an element of boycott that demonstrates a withdrawal from Israeli society. The Palestinian-Israelis that do vote have increasingly supported Arab parties that advocate a bi-national state that would no longer be Jewish.[5] Smooha also includes the results of his survey on attitudes towards reconciliation, and they do not paint a rosy picture. 43 per cent of Palestinian Israelis are not ready to have a Jewish neighbor, and 50 per cent of Jewish Israelis are not ready to have an Arab neighbor.[6] All of these trends represent a growing hostility between these two communities.

For Smooha, real progress will only be made when a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is found, and when Palestinian-Israelis are integrated into mainstream Israeli society. Unfortunately, no progress was made on either of these fronts in the past decade. In spite of this lack of progress, however, Smooha is optimistic. He sides with the mutual rapprochement theory, and believes that we can still reach coexistence and reconciliation, but only if we are willing to work for it. If nothing is done to bring about change, the only result will be further alienation, destruction and violence. We cannot afford to “postpone change until peace is concluded,” we must “take steps immediately to improve Arab-Jewish coexistence” if we are to “preclude further deterioration that might impede peace.”[7]

This is encouraging, and serves as an affirmation of Musalaha’s work. But it is also a warning. As believers, we are by no means immune to the destructive traits that mark our respective communities, and all of the factors that have further entrenched the divisions in the past decade have also affected us. We may disagree on how to go about reaching reconciliation, but we do still have hope for an improvement of our relations, and we have our shared faith in the Messiah who calls us to dwell in unity as brothers and sisters. If nothing is done to restore the relationships that have been damaged, there are dark days ahead, and this is why it is crucial that we allow God to use us as an instrument of his peace. We are called to be peacemakers, and stand against division, hatred and violence with love.

Salim J. Munayer
Musalaha Director
[1] The report can be downloaded at the United States Institute of Peace website: http://www.usip.org/publications/arab-jewish-relations-in-israel. It is a very interesting report that includes the results of surveys done on Palestinian-Israeli and Jewish-Israeli attitudes towards each other.
[2] Smooha, Arab-Jewish Relations, 5.
[3] Smooha, 6.
[4] Ibid., 9.
[5] Ibid., 11.
[6] Ibid., 17, 21.
[7] Ibid., 28.