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Promoting equality
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Promoting equality

At a session Monday night at the General Assembly — the annual gathering of the Jewish Federations of North America — three journalists were asked to talk about civil rights in Israel. Aluf Benn of Ha’aretz worried that the Israeli government has not done enough to integrate its Arab minority, a test of a vibrant democracy. Steve Linde of The Jerusalem Post countered that Israeli Arabs had it better than in any other Arab country. Benn wasn’t having it. “They don’t live in any other country,” he said. “That comparison makes us feel better, but it is beside the point.” 

Relations between Jews and Arabs and Israel have deteriorated since the summer’s war in Gaza. Upset by the destruction in Gaza, many Israeli Arabs were harshly critical of their government in ways that alarmed many Israeli Jews. In the backlash that followed, Arab citizens faced harassment at work, and some lawmakers proposed legislation that would essentially outlaw unpatriotic speech. This week the situation worsened: Protests over the fatal shooting of a 22-year-old Arab Israeli by police led to violent, unacceptable protests. Prime Minister Netanyahu troubled advocates for shared society in Israel by talking of “the possibility of revoking the citizenship of those who call for the destruction of the State of Israel.”

Arab citizens make up some 20 percent of Israel’s population. Soothing tensions and restoring civility will not be as easy as clamping down on law-breakers or censuring free speech, however odious. It will need Israel’s authorities — the prime minister, the ministries of Education and Justice — to speak out against discrimination and promote full equality. It will take more contact among Jews and Arabs. And it will take average citizens and Israel’s supporters abroad to follow the lead of Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s president, who has been forthright in identifying inequality as a problem and seeking solutions. Marking the 58th anniversary of the killings of 49 Arab Israelis at Kfar Kassem, Rivlin said, “I hereby swear, in my name and that of all our descendants, that we will never act against the principle of equal rights, and we will never try and force someone from our land.”

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