Israel must address the needs of its Arab citizens

Fifty years ago, American Jews helped lead the fight for equal rights in this country. Can Israeli Jews do no less in their own?

Israel faces big problems with its Arab population. Numbering more than a million, Israel’s Arabs struggle with poverty, unemployment and a sense of second-class citizenship.

That’s not to take away from the efforts Israel makes on their behalf: Arab Israelis have access to health care, education and political representation far exceeding neighboring Arab countries.

But that is no cause for complacency.

As Israel’s Arab population grows, the problems grow exponentially. A widening economic disparity between Arab and Jew cannot be tolerated. We have already seen some Israeli Arabs side against Israel to riot and even to commit acts of terror.

Israel must do everything possible to minimize this potential threat, and the best way is by lifting up its Arab minority. Aside from humanitarian considerations, it is clearly in Israel’s interests to enhance equality for all its people.

That’s why Jewish activists here and in Israel, including leaders of the New Israel Fund and the Jewish-Arab Task Force, have been working to solve these problems and ameliorate disparities.

As a j. story on Page 15 suggests, it won’t be easy. Plenty of Israel’s Jews face similar financial hardship and unemployment. Pulling already strained resources away from Jews and putting them towards Arabs will require political courage, something in low supply these days.

Diaspora Jews must help. Federations and other organizations can increase involvement, both in providing direct aid and in promoting harmony between Arab and Jew.

What choice do we have? Demographers predict the Israeli Arab population will reach 2 million by 2020, which means the Jewish majority will have shrunk from 80 to 65 percent.

This speaks to the ongoing debate among Zionists as to what kind of a Jewish state is desired: secular, religious, multicultural, international? Israel could go in many directions.

Still, nothing changes the salient facts on the ground. Israeli Arabs are citizens and thus entitled to all the benefits of citizenship.

No one can blame some within the Jewish world for casting a suspicious eye. We have been burned before. Fears of a fifth column, of a threat within, are not to be discounted out of hand.

But we are bigger and better than that. Israel is a land we want always to be proud of. How it resolves the challenges of its Arab minority provides an opportunity to extend that pride.