Treatment of Israels Arabs assails message of Pesach

The power of the Pesach story speaks to generation after generation because its powerful message demonstrates the universalistic meaning of the Jewish heritage. Pesach is not only a celebration of the Israelites' extraordinary escape from bondage; it is also, by extension, an annual opportunity to assess the degree of freedom and justice elsewhere, both for members of our own communities and for other peoples throughout the world.

To those who take these historical and religious obligations seriously, this year's celebration is necessarily a somber and muted one. For too long, Israel has severely assailed the norms of human dignity and liberty it values so highly by thrusting upon many of the state's non-Jewish citizens versions of the very humiliation, deprivation and injustice from which it celebrates its own liberation on Pesach.

Rather than embodying the lessons learned as oppressed Israelites, too many Jews have allowed themselves to forget that the Haggadah commands us to see ourselves as if we were enslaved by Pharaoh and to commit ourselves to constantly lead the struggle against all forms of subjugation.

In this context, how can we explain the destruction of the homes of three Bedouin families in Umm al-Sahali earlier this month? Even if Israel truly has a vital interest in destroying these illegally built homes now — an extremely specious claim — how can one justify surprise demolition? And why are residents being offered full compensation for their homes, temporary housing and, most curiously, an opportunity to keep the land in their possession for agricultural use? What is the Interior Ministry trying to prove?

The actions of the police in dealing with the subsequent demonstration only magnified the problem. The use of undue force against these Israeli citizens, many of whom serve in the military, only brought additional humiliation to unsuspecting residents and further harmed the already delicate relationship between Jews and Arabs in the country.

This most recent demonstration of Israel's oppressive attitude toward its Arab citizens, however, is just the tip of the iceberg, the latest event in a dismal 50-year bipartisan record of neglect, ignorance and insensitivity. The policy toward "unrecognized" Arab villages is but one of the many injustices.

In recent months, and in the face of a severe housing shortage cutting across the Arab population, the government has been scrambling to implement a wide variety of measures to further restrict Arab citizens' right to live where they please. With the blessing and encouragement of National Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon, vast tracts of land are being handed over to a tiny number of Jews to establish private farms in the Negev. Claims of Jews who staked out small parcels of land in the Galilee by building homes or businesses are being recognized retroactively. While nearly half the illegal construction in the country is carried out by Jews, 90 percent of the buildings destroyed belong to Arabs.

Notwithstanding the blatant hypocrisy of recognizing the illegal claims of Jews while razing Arab homes, the language of these transactions is both anachronistic and virulently discriminatory. The deal currently in the works between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jewish Agency Chairman Avraham Burg would transfer 25,000 acres from the state to the Jewish Agency, which can make allocations only to Jews in the name of "redeeming" and "Judaizing" land that is "occupied."

An Arab couple was recently denied the right to purchase a home in the Jewish settlement of Katzir, in the Galilee, by transferring the land to the Jewish Agency. The High Court refused to rule in this case. In Nazareth, there is nowhere left to build, but when Arabs expressed interest in the "build your own home" project slated for Upper Nazareth, the project was canceled altogether. A state that protects and cares for all its citizens equally would never carry out and justify land policies like these.

These high-profile, anti-democratic actions may grab headlines, but the day-to-day impact of similarly oriented policies in other spheres generally fails to attract the attention of the Jewish majority.

Even as grave weaknesses are revealed in the Jewish educational systems, the situation in Arab schools is far worse. Inattention and lack of funding often translate into poor teaching and a severe paucity of basic resources. The gross disparities between the math scores of Arab and Jewish students nationwide, released this month, testify to the results of this neglect.

Israel's treatment of its Arab citizens is a measure of its humanity and its democratic character, as well as its commitment to the Jewish values of justice and tolerance. Unless these values, which receive so much attention at this time of year, are experienced on a daily basis, Israel is neither fulfilling its basic responsibility to all its citizens nor its obligations to its Jewish inheritance.

Similarly, justice for Palestinians across the Green Line is an indicator of our understanding of the importance of our own freedom and independence. Failure to implement peace agreements and continued provocation in the form of settlement expansion and land expropriation must be evaluated in these terms as well.

On Pesach, as we commemorate and celebrate our ancestors' successful struggle for self-determination and justice, we must also heed the concomitant, universal obligation of the holiday. All Israelis must use this opportunity to educate themselves about these modern-day injustices and reaffirm their obligation to take concrete action to assure that others within our midst enjoy the privileges for which the Jewish people have struggled so arduously throughout their own history. Otherwise, this millennia-old holiday has little meaning.