History & Overview
Israel is home to a highly diverse population from
many different ethnic, religious, cultural
and social backgrounds. Of its 6.3 million
citizens, over one million, constituting nearly
20 percent of Israel's population,
are not Jewish. Almost all are Arab Israelis,
mainly residents from before the establishment
of the State of Israel or their descendants.
Arab Israeli Sector
Although defined collectively
citizens of Israel, the Arab Israeli sector
includes a number of different groups - primarily
Arabic-speaking - each with its distinct identity.
Muslim Arabs, the largest group, constitute three-quarters
of the Arab Israeli sector and most are Sunni
Muslims. Nearly one-tenth of Israel's Muslim
Arabs are Bedouins,
formerly nomadic shepherds. Christian Arabs
form the second largest group in the Arab
Israeli sector. Although many denominations
are nominally represented, the majority of
the Christian Arabs are affiliated with the
Greek Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic
churches. The Druze,
some 100,000 Arabic-speakers living in 22
villages in northern Israel, are a separate
cultural, social and religious community.
The Circassians, comprising some 3,000 people,
are Sunni Muslims, although they share neither
the Arab origin nor the cultural background
of the larger Islamic community. While maintaining
a distinct ethnic identity, they participate
in Israel's economic and national affairs
without assimilating either into Jewish society
or into the general Muslim community.
and Political Status
Arab Israelis are citizens
of the Israel with equal rights. In 1948,
of Independence called upon the Arab inhabitants
of Israel to "participate in the upbuilding
of the State on the basis of full and equal
citizenship and due representation in all
its provisional and permanent institutions".
The political involvement of the
Arab sector is manifested through both national
and municipal elections. Arab citizens run
the political and administrative affairs of
their own municipalities and advance Arab
interests through their elected representatives
in the Knesset,
Israel's parliament. Arab Israelis have also
held various government positions, including
that of deputy minister. At present a member
of the Druze community is serving as a government
The Declaration also promises that Israel will "ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex" and guarantees "freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture".
Israel has extensive anti-discrimination laws. Moreover, since the founding of the State, the status of Arab Israeli women has been significantly improved by legislation stipulating equal rights for women and prohibition of polygamy and child marriage. Israel remains one of the few countries in the Middle East where women enjoy equality in rights and personal freedoms, including the right to vote and be elected to local and national office.
The only legal distinction between
Arab and Jewish citizens is not one of rights,
but rather of civic duty. Since Israel's establishment,
Arab citizens have been exempted from compulsory
service in the Israel
Defense Forces (IDF). This exemption was
made out of consideration for their family,
religious and cultural affiliations with the
Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world,
given the on-going conflict. Still, volunteer
military service is encouraged and IDF service
was made mandatory for Druze and Circassian
men at the request of their community leaders.
and Sectoral Identity
Israel is not a melting pot society, but rather more of a mosaic made up of different population groups coexisting in the framework of a single democratic state.
As a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-lingual society, Israel has a high level of informal segregation patterns. While groups are not separated by official policy, a number of different sectors within the society have chosen to lead a segregated life-style, maintaining their strong cultural, religious, ideological and/or ethnic identity.
The vast majority of Arab Israelis have chosen to maintain their distinct identity and not assimilate. The community's separate existence is facilitated through the use of Arabic, Israel's second official language; a separate Arab/Druze school system; Arabic literature, theater and mass media; and maintenance of independent Muslim, Druze and Christian denominational courts which adjudicate matters of personal status.
While the development of inter-group relations between Israel's Arabs and Jews has been hindered by deeply rooted differences in religion, values and political beliefs, the future of the Arab Israeli sector is closely tied to that of the State of Israel. Though they coexist as two self-segregated communities, over the years Jewish and Arab Israelis have come to accept each other, acknowledging the uniqueness and aspirations of each community and participating in a growing number of joint endeavors.
An excellent example of
such a venture is the Citizen Accord Forum,
established last year by the Deputy Foreign
Minister, Rabbi Michael
Melchior (then Minister of Israeli Society
and the World Jewish Community). The goal
of the Forum is to reduce the schism existing
between Jews and Arabs in Israel and to develop
the country's civil society. The Citizen Accord
Forum, which has over 500 active volunteers,
has encouraged coexistence between Jewish
and Arab citizens and the development of a
relationship based on values of respect and
In the years since the founding of the State of Israel, the Arab Israeli community sector has made great strides in almost every area of development. For example, the median years of schooling of Arab Israelis rose incredibly over a 35-year period (1961-1996) from 1.2 to 10.4 years. Infant death rates per thousand live births decreased significantly during that same 35-year period. In the Muslim population, the rate dropped from 46.4 per thousand births to 10.0; among Christians the decrease was from 42.1 to 6.7; among the Druze it dropped from 50.4 to 8.9 deaths.
These advances are particularly striking when comparing Arab citizens of Israel to their brethren living in neighboring countries. However, it is also clear that much work must be done to close the gap between Arab and Jewish Israelis.
Minority communities often face developmental challenges, especially when a language different from that spoken by the majority group is used at home and at school. There are several other factors that explain the reason why the gap between economic development in the Arab sector and that of the Jewish sector has yet to be closed, among them:
- The average family size
in the Arab sector is far higher than
that of Jewish families, greatly reducing
the relative number of financial providers
- Participation of women
in the work force is still very low in
the Arab sector, further reducing the
average family income.
- Eduction levels in the
Arab sector are relatively lower than
those in the Jewish sector, often leading
to lower incomes.
- The majority of Arab
Israelis live in small communities with
limited economic infrastructure. This
plays a contributing factor in employment
in unskilled or semiskilled fields, as
well as the higher overall rates of unemployment.
- The lack of easy access
to places of employment can also prevent
employment commensurate with the skill
or education level of the job seeker.
- Service in the Israeli
Defense Forces gives veterans certain
economic and other benefits. Although
Arab Israeli youth who do not volunteer
for army service gain a two-to-three year
head start in their higher education or
in joining the workforce, this does not
always compensate for missing out on the
benefits and training enjoyed by veterans.
One of the most prominent examples of governmental activity designed to meet the challenge of closing the gap between the Arab and Jewish sectors is the October 2000 decision of the Government of Israel to designate resources for all areas of socio-economic development in the Arab sector communities of Israel.
The decision states that the Government "regards itself as obligated to act to grant equal and fair conditions to Israeli Arabs in the socio-economic sphere, in particular in the areas of education, housing and employment" and "to reduce the gaps between the Arab and Jewish sectors". The total cost of the multi-year plan is NIS 4 billion (approximately 1 billion US dollars) during the years 2001-2004.
The plan is coordinated by an inter-ministerial team, headed by the Prime Minister's Office, and is based on working jointly with Arab Israeli authorities.
Highlights of the plan are:
- Education projects, including construction of classrooms in pre-compulsory kindergartens, elementary and high schools; pedagogical plans to advance the educational system in the Arab sector; the opening of new courses of study in technological fields; setting up engineering-technician and vocational training courses.
- Construction of family health and dental clinics.
- Funds for the restoration, establishment and development of religious institutions in Arab sector communities.
- Development of public institutions for cultural, social and sports activities. First priority has been given to community centers of various sizes and sports halls in large communities. Funds will also be allocated to assist cultural, artistic and sports activities.
- The advancement of master schemes, outlines and detailed plans in Arab sector communities. These planning tools are vital for without them the physical development of these communities cannot implemented.
- Development of older neighborhoods, including new infrastructure and improvement of existing infrastructure. Special attention will be devoted to restoring dwellings owned by elderly persons living alone.
- Development of new neighborhoods using high-density public building, mainly on State lands, for a total of 5,000 dwelling units, as well as on private lands located with the bounds of Arab sector neighborhoods.
- Transport projects, including the development of a network of roads in the areas of Arab sector communities, internal road systems and safety projects.
- Six industrial zones in densely populated Arab areas, with the accompanying benefits to be granted to enterprises under the Encouragement of Capital Investments Law.
- Funding for various economic projects, such as development of trade and services areas, tourism infrastructure and holiday units.
Although implementation of the Government's multi-year plan has only just begun, the plan and its generous budget have the potential for greatly advancing development throughout the Arab sector of Israeli society.