Israel’s Arab minority, comprised of Arab Muslims, Christians and Druze, including distinct ethnic groups like the Bedouin, makes up approximately 21% of Israel’s population.
When the State of Israel was declared in 1948, its Declaration of Independence stated that Israel would:
“ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions;”
These promises were made realities. Arab Israelis are full citizens of the State of Israel, and have the same rights and privileges as all citizens.
Israeli Arabs voted in Israel’s first election in 1949 and in all elections since. Arab parliamentarians have served in every Knesset (Israel’s Parliament). An Arab party, the Democratic List of Nazareth led by Seif el-Din el-Zoubi, won seats in the first Knesset and was a part of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s first Government Coalition. Today, Arab-majority parties make up more than 10% of the Knesset, with additional Arab citizens of Israel serving in the Knesset as members of other parties as well.
Arab citizens of Israel also play leading roles in Israel’s judicial system. George Karra is a Supreme Court Justice who served as the trial judge who convicted Israel’s President, Moshe Katzav. Salim Joubran served as Deputy Chief Justice of Israel’s Supreme Court and chaired the Central Elections Committee that supervised Israel’s 2015 general election.
Israel is both a Jewish and democratic state, and its state symbols, like its flag and national anthem, reflect its Jewish nature. This is similar to the over 80 countries around the world with official or semi-official religions, many of which are Western democracies, and the 64 countries around the world with religious symbols on their flags. As in the European democracies with established religions, this in no way undermines the individual civil and political rights of Israel’s minorities.
In contrast to how many other countries have treated minority groups, Israel has promoted the language and culture of its Arab minority. Israel’s laws are officially published in Hebrew and Arabic, and all road signs, food labels, medicine booklets, safety regulations, government messages and election information must be provided in Arabic. Members of Knesset can give speeches in the Knesset plenum in Arabic. Arab citizens of Israeli can study in Arabic-language primary and secondary schools and in Arab-majority towns, the local government and services are provided primarily in Arabic. Arabic culture and arts programs receive state funding.
The majority of Arab citizens of Israel are Muslims. The number of mosques in Israel has increased five-fold since 1988, and today numbers over 400. The Israeli government pays the salaries of approximately 300 imams and muezzins, provides Korans and other religious items, and supports the sharia (Islamic law) courts which are in charge of personal status issues such as marriage and divorce among the Muslim community. Employers must grant vacation days for Christian and Muslim holy days if their employees request them.
Unlike Israeli Jews, most Arab citizens of Israel are exempt from being drafted into the Israel Defense Forces. Nevertheless, some do volunteer to serve; Bedouin trackers are renowned for bringing their traditional skills to the role, especially to the IDF’s elite Unit 585 Desert Reconnaissance Battalion.
About 7% of Israel’s Arab minority are Druze. Israeli Druze proudly serve in the Israel Defence Forces, often in combat roles. There have been many Druze Members of Knesset and Ministers. Druze MK Majalli Wahabi served as Knesset Speaker and even as Israel’s Acting President.
Israel’s Arab citizens play leading roles in many areas of Israel’s economic, scientific and cultural life. One of the areas in which Arab Israelis disproportionately contribute to public life is in healthcare, with many of the country’s leading doctors and hospital department heads coming from the Arab community.
Israeli Arabs also contribute significantly to Israel’s cultural scene. TV host and news anchor Lucy Aharish presents some of Israel’s top current affairs and news programs. As a child, she was injured by Palestinian terrorists who threw a Molotov cocktail into her car. Model Rana Raslan was the winner of the Miss Israel beauty pageant. Arab Israeli singer and songwriter Miri Awad represented Israel at the Eurovision Song Contest, singing a duet with Jewish Israeli Achinoam Nini.
Soccer (football), the most popular sport in Israel, is another area in which Arab Israelis excel both at the club and national level. Israel’s national soccer team includes several Arab players: Hatem Abd Elhamed, who plays for Israeli team Hapoel Beer Sheva; Muanas Dabur, who also plays for German team 1899 Hoffenheim; Mohammad Abu Fani who plays for Maccabi Haifa, and Diaa Sabea, who also plays for the United Arab Emirates club Al-Nasr.
The identity of Arab citizens of Israel is complex. In a 2017 study by a German foundation, 61% identified as Israeli, as an Arab citizen of Israel, or as a Palestinian citizen of Israel. Only 15% self-defined as simply “Palestinian”. When anti-Israel campaigners try to label all Arab citizens of Israel as “Palestinian”, this orientalist approach deliberately tries to erase the distinction between Arab Israelis and the Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza, and ignores the lived identities and experiences of the actual citizens themselves.
Like in all Western democracies, racism towards minorities exists within pockets of Israeli society. When racist incidents or hate crimes take place, the police and judiciary investigate and prosecute the offenders. The Israeli Government runs anti-racism campaigns to educate and promote tolerance among the public and within the education system. Stamping out racism is a great challenge, made all the more complex by the ongoing threat of Palestinian terror, and there is always more work to be done.
Nevertheless, as the world’s only Jewish and democratic state, Israel has guaranteed full civil and political rights to its Arab citizens, while preserving and promoting the Arabic language and culture. Israel’s Arab citizens play an increasingly important role in the life of Israel’s vibrant multi-cultural democracy.