This post appeared on my own blog in 2010, the year I began blogging. But it’s timeless, and therefore I thought it might be of interest to readers here:
What those who shrilly and ignorantly denounce Zionism as “racism” and Israel as an “apartheid” state overlook is that Israel from the dawn of statehood strove for the welfare of minorities within its borders. They have full citizenship rights with Jews, and of course Israel was the first state in the Middle East in which Arab women had the vote. In 1948 sheikhs bore messages of goodwill towards the new state from Bedouin in the Negev; Druze joined the Israeli army; the local head of the Maronite Christians expressed his community’s friendship. Responsibility for the welfare of the minorities was entrusted to Bechor (or Bekhor) Shitreet (sometimes transliterated Shitrit), who was born in Tiberias in 1897 to a long-settled Sephardi family of Moroccan background. A rabbi by training, he taught in the Alliance Israélite Universelle school in Tiberias, joined the police in 1919, and became head of the Tel Aviv police force in 1927. A future Mapai Party member, he was a signatory to Israel’s Proclamation of Independence, and from 1948 until 1966, the year before his death, he sat in successive Israeli Cabinets.
In the following article, entitled “Arabs in Israel”, which appeared in the London Jewish Chronicle (31 December 1948) Norman Bentwich, Professor of International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who worked tirelessly to bring relief to Arab victims of the war inflicted on Israel by its Arab neighbours, describes what was being done for the Arab minority in Israel. Bentwich came from a well-known Jewish family (his father Herbert was a veteran British Zionist leader, and his Australian cousin Lizzie Bentwitch [sic] was the mistress of General Sir John Monash, the great Australian Jewish military commander during the First World War) and had been an official in Palestine during the early years of the Mandate. The Jewish Chronicle observed that his non-partisan “strictly factual account” was “a much needed corrective to the tendentious reports which the traducers of Jewry have so widely circulated”. I reproduce it below without further comment (incidentally, the two watercolours were painted in 1947 by the American illustrator Dean Cornwell during a trip to the Holy Land):
‘The attention of the world has been drawn to the plight of the half-million Arab refugees from Israeli territory and from Jerusalem. But little attention has been paid to the treatment of the 70,000 (or, according to later reports, 100,000) Arabs who have remained in Israel or who have returned to their homes. Yet the story is worth telling. For the young Israeli Government is setting an example of care for its minorities. As soon as it was constituted, it set up a special Ministry of Minorities with the function of securing equal rights for all citizens and freedom of religion, language, education, and culture. The Minister is a native-born Jew from Tiberias, from an Oriental family; he was for many years an officer in the Palestine Administration, first in the Police, and then a magistrate. Mr Shitreet is at the moment also the Minister for Police, but he gives his heart and mind to his other portfolio.
Of the Arabs who are in Israeli territory, the majority are in the northern area. They live partly in towns: Haifa, 6,000; Acre, 4,000; Nazareth, 5,000; etc, and partly in the villages of the occupied territory of Western Galilee. In the south, three to four thousand are in Jaffa, a smaller number in Ramleh, and Lydda, which was captured in July, some thousands of Beduin [sic] in the Negev, who have given their promise of loyalty, and a few hundreds in the Jewish-controlled part of Jerusalem.
In the towns of mixed population and in places near the front line, the Arabs are restricted for security reasons to one area, and can only move outide it with a permit. In fact, they are still narrowly confined. In the villages they are much less restricted. The stress of war has led to the occupation of many Arab homes, which were quite deserted, and of whole quarters of outer Jerusalem. Those homes and quarters have been largely occupied by the new immigrants, who are entering the country with amazing rapidity. One of the tasks of the Conciliation Commission of the United Nations will be to aid in bringing about some settlement of the displaced persons of both nations.
The Ministry of Minorities is concerned with the well-being of the Arabs who dd not flee, or who returned from flight, and with the assurance of their political, economic, and cultural rights. The Arabs who registered in the census will be entitled to vote in elections for the Constituent Assembly, and may, if they wish, have their own candidates and their own electoral list. So far, only the combined two Communist parties have put forward Arabs as well as Jews. In one municipality, Haifa, the Arabs still remain members of the Municipal Commission with the Jews, and in Nazareth an Arab magistrate has been appointed. Arabs who are willing to work on the roads or in other public enterprises are employed by the State, and receive the same wage as a Jew doing that kind of labour. The simple labourer gets a wage of nearly thirty shillings a day, which is far higher than anything he had in the days of the British Administration, even allowing for the great rise of prices. A few Arabs who are regarded as trustworthy are in the Israeli Army. The Ministry has been concerned in the last months to bring Arab port workers from Acre to Jaffa, where they are needed; and also to organise the Arab cultivators (fellahin) for the gathering of the orange crop. It has, too, encouraged other fellahin to cultivate vegetables, of which there has been a great scarcity in the country.
The Health Ministry, working with the Minority Ministry, has established a clinic for Arabs in the southern and northern areas, and has carried out recently a vaccination of all the Arab population in order to check an epidemic of smallpox which threatened. A few Arab doctors who remained in the country are employed; and there is a demand that more shall be given the opportunity.
Perhaps the most striking work in the Ministry is its effort to develop cultural life, in the midst of the uneasy truce, for the Arab population. It has already established some fifty primary schools in the towns and villages, with free education. A former Jewish Inspector of the Mandatory Education Department is in charge of the schools; another, an Oriental Jew, with a thorough knowledge of Arabic, assists him. The Ministry has also established one or two Arab clubs for reading and recreation, and has promoted a daily Arabic newspaper, El Yom (The Day). This is the first Arabic daily to appear in Israel. Several of the staff are Arabs, who have full freedom of expression; and some educated Arabs write to the Palestine Post, the English daily, voicing grievances about rent and employment, and the like.
A remarkable cultural enterprise is the establishment in Jaffa of an Arab library, which includes close on 100,000 books and periodicals salvaged from private houses that were deserted and broken into during the fighting. It includes, too, some Arab manuscripts from the ninth and tenth centuries, which may have value for scholars. The books and manuscripts are being catalogued by a Jewish scholar of Baghdad. The library is housed in a private mansion of one of the richer Arabs of Jaffa, and there is a project of making it a cultural centre. The whole cost to the Government so far has been only a few hundred pounds.
In Jerusalem 30,000 books were similarly salvaged and handed over for safe-keeping to the [Hebrew] University of Jerusalem. It is likely that the owners of the books will come to identify their property and collect it back; but the action of the Ministry will have prevented looting and destruction, and it has received the appreciation of the Arab population.
It is notable that the proportion of Arabs to the total population of Israel (one-tenth) is about the same as the proportion of the Jews to the total population of Palestine in 1920, when the British Mandate was given. It is to be hoped that the protection and well-being of the minorities, which is inevitably conditioned by the circumstances of the war, will become more and more a constructive activity of the Government of Israel, and so prepare the way for happier relations. What is being done today is in striking contrast to the treatment of the Jewish minorities in Arab states.’