The Jewish state of Israel is a diverse nation that has absorbed people from more than 140 countries. Among its population are about 1.5 million Arabs, including Israeli Knesset member Ahmad Tibi, who in a May 23 Times interview lashed out at Israel, using inflammatory words like "racist" and "fascist." As is his style, Tibi failed to back up his white-hot rhetoric with hard facts.
In 1947, Arab leaders rejected a United Nations resolution to form an Arab state alongside a Jewish one. This caused the displacement of some 600,000 Palestinian refugees. From that point forward, Arab nations have denied these Palestinians and their descendants citizenship and basic civil rights, including the right to own property, get an education or take out loans — rights held by Israeli Arabs.
Arab Israelis, who make up about 20% of the nation's population, enjoy equal rights, government representation and protection in Israel. They live freely in all parts of Israel, can use all public facilities, attend Israel's top universities and are contributing members of society. By no means is Israel the epitome of perfection, but we do aspire for equality for all our citizens. According to the Abraham Fund Initiative, since Israel's establishment in 1948, the number of schools in the Arab Israeli school system increased by more than fifteenfold; Hebrew schools grew by only five times. The number of classes offered in the Arab Israeli system increased more than seventeenfold, and since 1961 the literacy rate of Arab Israelis jumped from 49.6% to 90%, a clear indication of the educational opportunities offered to all our citizens.
Not only are Arabs treated equally as individual citizens, but their minority status is also recognized in some aspects by the government, with Arabic being an official language in Israel (alongside Hebrew) and Israeli Muslims having their own jurisdiction on religious issues (Sharia law) pertaining to members of their community, just like Jewish religious law at the Rabbinical courts. Additionally, Arab Israelis are citizens with full voting rights and can serve as elected members of the Knesset, as lawmaker Tibi does. It is true that Arab Israelis hold about 10% of the Knesset seats, a number that is disproportionate to their population. Perhaps this is because Arab Israelis are opting instead to vote for non-Arab parties or exercising their democratic right not to vote at all.
In his interview, Tibi made it clear that he has no intention of serving as a bridge between Israeli Arabs, Palestinians and Israeli Jews. But he also made it clear that he would never give up his Israeli citizenship or passport for a future Palestinian identity. And why would he? Would a Palestinian parliament allow a member to travel freely to an enemy state, such as the Arab Knesset members' recent public visit to Libya? Would a Palestinian parliament allow one of its members to serve as an adviser to a hostile government? For those who may not know, Tibi served as Yasser Arafat's adviser on Israeli affairs while simultaneously serving as a member of the Knesset.
Tibi knows that no Arab country would afford him the freedoms that the Jewish state does. After all, Arab Knesset members are even allowed to travel to Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas, the terrorist organization that vows to exterminate the Jewish state. Israeli Arab lawmakers travel there to express their support, then return to their Knesset offices to make their case to Israeli and international media. Is any such freedom available in the Arab world? Of course not! Tibi knows this; he relies on such freedoms to do his work.
Finally, allow me to reference Ishmael Khaldi who was — until recently — Israel's deputy consul general in San Francisco. Khaldi is a Bedouin who now serves as an adviser to Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman; he will visit Los Angeles in June to speak about his personal experiences. Below is an excerpt from what he said in a San Francisco Chronicle interview in March 2009:
"I am a proud Israeli — along with many other non-Jewish Israelis such as Druze, Baha'i, Bedouin, Christians and Muslims, who live in one of the most culturally diversified societies and the only true democracy in the Middle East…. By any yardstick you choose — educational opportunity, economic development, women and gay's rights, freedom of speech and assembly, legislative representation — Israel's minorities fare far better than any other country in the Middle East."
I may not agree with Tibi's comments, but I do recognize the importance of his right to express his opinions. The freedom of expression, granted to Tibi by the only democratic state in the Middle East, is one that is also enjoyed by all Israeli citizens — Jews and Arabs alike.
Jacob Dayan is the consul general of Israel in Los Angeles.