By Jewish Virtual Library

More than one million people, comprising 18.8 percent of Israel’s population, are non-Jews. Although defined collectively as Arab citizens of Israel, they include a number of different, primarily Arabic-speaking, groups, each with distinct characteristics.

Muslim Arabs, numbering some 780,000, most of whom are Sunni, constitute 76 percent of the non-Jewish population. They reside mainly in small towns and villages, over half of them in the north of the country.

Bedouin Arabs, comprising nearly 10 percent of the Muslim population, belong to some 30 tribes, most of them scattered over a wide area in the south. Formerly nomadic shepherds, the Bedouins are currently in transition from a tribal social framework to a permanently settled society and are gradually entering Israel’s labor force.

Christian Arabs, who constitute Israel’s second largest minority group of some 150,000, live mainly in urban areas, including Nazareth, Shfar’am and Haifa. Although many denominations are nominally represented, the majority are affiliated with the Greek Catholic (42 percent), Greek Orthodox (32 percent) and Roman Catholic (16 percent) churches.

The Druze, some 80,000 Arabic-speakers living in 22 villages in northern Israel, constitute a separate cultural, social and religious community. While the Druze religion is not accessible to outsiders, one known aspect of its philosophy is the concept of taqiyya, which calls for complete loyalty by its adherents to the government of the country in which they reside.

The Circassians, comprising some 3,000 people concentrated in two northern villages, 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.

Arab community life

Arab migrations in and out of the country fluctuated in response to prevailing economic conditions. Late in the 19th century when Jewish immigration stimulated economic growth, many Arabs were attracted to the area by its employment opportunities, higher wages and better living conditions.

The majority of Israel’s Arab population live in self-contained towns and villages in four main areas: Galilee, including the city of Nazareth, the central area between Hadera and Petah Tikva, and the Negev; others reside in mixed urban centers such as Jerusalem, Akko, Haifa, Lod, Ramle and Yafo.

Israel’s Arab community constitutes mainly a working-class sector in a predominantly middle-class society, a politically peripheral group in a highly centralized state and an Arabic-speaking minority in a Hebrew-speaking majority. Essentially non-assimilating, the community’s separate existence is facilitated through the use of Arabic, Israel’s second official language; a separate Arab/Druze school system; Arabic mass media, literature and theater and maintenance of independent Muslim, Druze and Christian denominational courts which adjudicate matters of personal status.

While customs of the past are still part of daily life, a gradual weakening of tribal and patriarchal authority, the effects of compulsory education and participation in Israel’s democratic process are rapidly affecting traditional outlooks and lifestyles. Concurrently the status of Israeli Arab women has been significantly liberalized by legislation stipulating equal rights for women and prohibition of polygamy and child marriage.

Accounting for more than 10 percent of eligible voters, the political involvement of the Arab sector is manifested in national and municipal elections. Arab citizens run the political and administrative affairs of their own municipalities and represent Arab interests through their elected representatives in the Knesset (Israel’s parliament), who operate in the political arena to promote the status of minority groups and their share of national benefits.

Since Israel’s establishment (1948), Arab citizens have been exempted from compulsory service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) out of consideration for their family, religious and cultural affiliations with the Arab world (with which Israel had a long dispute), as well as concern over possible dual loyalties. At the same time, volunteer military service is encouraged, with some choosing this option every year. Since 1957, at the request of their community leaders, IDF service has been mandatory for Druze and Circassian men, while the number of Bedouin joining the career army increases steadily.

Cultural life in the Arab sector

Cultural life in the Arab sector, both within the framework of the community itself, and as part of the country’s cultural mainstream, expresses the Arab population’s affinity to the Arab world as a whole and its status as a minority group in Israel. In the early years of the state, the works of Arab authors and poets were characterized by local, rural subjects popular in the conservative, semi-closed society of those days; contemporary literature incorporates traditional Arab influences with modern Western trends.

Arabic prose and poetry are translated into Hebrew, and Hebrew writings appear in Arabic translation either in book form or in one of several flourishing literary magazines. Music, theater, dance and art focus on creative activities which tend to integrate popular folklore traditions with various Islamic and Western art forms.

A number of Arab authors (Anton Shammas, Michel Haddad, Emile Habibi) and actors (Muhammad Bakri, Yusuf Abu Varda and Mauhram Khoury) have achieved prominence among the Israeli public, and performances by mixed Arab-Jewish folk dance and music ensembles draw enthusiastic audiences. A 1994 production of “Romeo and Juliet” by a troupe of Jewish and Arab actors from Jerusalem, performing in a mixture of Hebrew and Arabic, met with national and international acclaim and has toured widely abroad. Arabs take an active part in the country’s electronic media as producers, editors, announcers, commentators and performers, both in general radio and television as well as in Arabic programming.

As in the country’s other ethnic sectors, Arab cultural activities and preservation of the Arab cultural heritage are encouraged by various government and voluntary agencies which offer assistance, ranging from grants to writers and artists to providing support for museums and cultural centers.

Arab/Jewish dynamics

Israel’s Arab citizens, who constitute one-seventh of Israel’s population and one-seventh of the “Palestinian” people, exist on the margins of the conflicting worlds of Jews and Palestinians. However, while remaining a segment of the “Palestinian” people in culture and identity and disputing Israel’s identification as a Jewish state, they see their future tied to Israel. In the process, they have adopted Hebrew as a second language and Israeli culture as an extra layer in their lives. At the same time, they strive to attain a higher degree of participation in national life, greater integration into the economy and more benefits for their own towns and villages.

Development of intergroup relations between Israel’s Arabs and Jews has been hindered by deeply-rooted differences in religion, values and political beliefs. However, though coexisting as two self-segregated communities, over the years they have come to accept each other, acknowledging the uniqueness and aspirations of each community and participating in a growing number of joint endeavors.

Pluralism and segregation

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 are somewhat segregated and maintain their strong cultural, religious, ideological and/or ethnic identity.

However, despite a fairly high degree of social cleavage some economic disparities and an often overheated political life, the society is relatively balanced and stable. The moderate level of social conflict between the different groups, notwithstanding an inherent potential for social unrest, can be attributed to the country’s judicial and political systems, which represent strict legal and civic equality.

Thus, 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 democratic state.

© Israel My Beloved