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Alexander Yakobson | Who's afraid of equality?

Alexander Yakobson

Who's afraid of equality?

Why won't writer Emile Habibi, an Israeli Prize laureate, appear on one of the banknotes bearing the likenesses of writers, asked Salman Masalha ("Shekels as tools of the regime," April 24 ). He was immediately attacked by belligerent commenters, sending him off to Gaza and swearing in the name of the Jewish state.

But there's nothing wrong with that proposal, nor does it contradict the Jewish nature of the state. The system of official Israeli symbols, including the portraits on the banknotes, should faithfully reflect the fact that Israel is a country that grants national independence to the Jewish people. But who said that that is the only thing it should reflect? In principle there is no reason why it shouldn't also reflect the existence and the culture of the country's Arab minority, among other things.

The symbol of the state is a menorah surrounded by two olive branches, based on the verse in Zechariah: "A gold candelabrum with two olives trees." The olive is one of the symbols of the country, and it's an important symbol of Israeli Arabs. The two branches could be turned into two olive trees to the right and left of the menorah. That's still a menorah "with two olive trees." If this step is accompanied by a clear statement that its purpose is to give the Arab public a part in the system of official symbols, which is supposed to represent it - such a modest change is likely to be of positive significance; not in the eyes of Arab chauvinists, who won't be placated by anything, but in the eyes of those who really want to feel that the state is theirs too.

And why doesn't such a proposal have a chance of being accepted in the foreseeable future? Partly because of those same commenters who are ready to send to Gaza an Arab citizen who wants to feel at home in the State of Israel of all places - and the politicians who represent them. But no less because of the leadership of the Arab public and most of its spokesmen in the Israeli media, whose main cause has become the rejection of the Jewish people's right to a state. In such an atmosphere, a change of the type suggested here will be regarded by the Jewish public not as a step toward justice for the Arabs, but as a step towards injustice for the Jews. There is no chance that this community, or any community in the world in similar circumstances, will agree to that.

Salman Masalha, in his fascinating articles, often belittles Jewish nationalism. In his favor, it should be noted that he belittles Arab nationalism equally. I do not share this attitude, but I greatly admire his courage and his consistency. Although I disagree with him, he believes that he is fighting for equality.

But what we hear from the Arab leadership and elite in such documents as "The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel" is a very different voice. This voice is saying to the Jewish public: Yes, there are two nations in this country; our nation has a right to a state, whereas your nation has no such right. We are by no means trying to turn the Jewish and Arab citizens in Israel into the members of one civic nation - an Israeli nation. Our Arab-Palestinian nationality is very important to us; we have our nation and you have yours, and your nation has no right to a state. That is why we reject the Jewish state in Israel and favor an Arab state alongside Israel.

This discourse of the Arab leadership - not necessarily of the Arab public, whose viewpoint, according to the surveys, is far more complex and more moderate - is trampling on equality in the guise of defending it. This makes no positive contribution to the relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel.
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Published: Haaretz, May 4, 2011
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