Can the COVID-19 Crisis Become a Turning Point Toward a Shared Society in Israel?

In Israel, as in other parts of the world, the COVID-19 virus crisis is not only a health challenge

 Jewish and Arab members of the coronavirus team at Rambam Hospital in Haifa, Israel. Coutesy of Dr. Yasmin Diab (second from right)

The day before COVID-19 became a tangible reality in Israel, we attended a meeting with a group of education specialists about how to train public school teachers to prepare today’s youth, soon to be tomorrow’s citizens, for a truly shared society for Jews and Arabs alike. A society that all citizens belong to, and that equally respects and includes their identity, language and heritage. The meeting was a success, and we began reviewing our next steps for advancing this program at Israel’s teacher training colleges, as part of our ongoing cooperation with the Heinrich Boell Stiftung in Israel. The following day, the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, schools closed until further notice, and the entire education sector switched to distance learning mode. We had to rethink our plans.

At Sikkuy -  The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality, we focus on advancing public policy change for equality and partnership between Arab and Jewish citizens. We work mainly with the senior leadership in government and public organizations, aiming to create large scale social change. But they were all now distracted by COVID-19; we had to immediately adapt our strategies to this unfolding crisis and figure out how to turn the dual health and economic crises into a window of opportunity. Although this major crisis emphasized and even amplified the gaps and discrimination Arab citizens face in Israeli society, it also showed rare potential to galvanize a new kind of solidarity between Jews and Arabs in Israel. For the first time, all Israeli citizens founds themselves on the same side of a struggle against a major threat, working together on the frontlines. There were many challenges and problems to deal with, but also some new and quite rare opportunities.

In Israel, as  in other parts of the world, the COVID-19 virus crisis is not only a health challenge. The government response to the pandemic mirrored the daily social and economic discrimination toward Arab citizens and other minorities in crucial fields such as budget allocation, infrastructure development, public health, education and welfare services. Decision makers first addressed the needs of the Jewish majority. Only then – and only after significant pressure from Knesset members, civil society organizations including Sikkuy, and the public – did they begin adapting crisis-driven policies to minorities. The needs of disadvantaged groups in society – mainly Arab citizens in outlying areas – were not taken into consideration at the outset; it was an afterthought, and even then, was inadequate.

The crisis did more than highlight the discrimination that still exists between the Jewish majority and Arab society: It reinforced crisis-response governance practices, thereby marginalizing values essential for building a shared society for Jews and Arabs. COVID-19 saw Jews and Arabs working together in the health and welfare systems - an unusually high proportion of health professionals in Israel are Arab citizens, at times exceeding their proportion of almost 20% of the general population. But the emergency-driven mindset made it harder for organizations such as Sikkuy to pursue initiatives promoting Jewish-Arab partnership or dialogue, and sidelined most if not all ongoing initiatives to increase the presence and representation of Arab citizens in pedagogical curriculums and Arabic language studies and to reinforce education for a shared society.

The media, for example, rushed to report mainly on what was happening in Jewish cities in the center of the country. Most of the pundits were Jewish (and nearly all male). Coverage of the situation in Arab society and interviews with Arab health experts (who again, are easy to find) was virtually nonexistent during the first month of COVID-19. (Based on the Representation Index, a project led by Sikkuy and the Seventh Eye website, only 2.2% of the experts who appeared in newscasts during the first month were Arabs.) While most Israelis were glued to their television screens watching the news, the exclusion of expert Arab voices and of ordinary Arab citizens from the media reinforced the perception among the general public, that Arabs are not part of that public and are excluded from the COVID-19 virus conversation and decision-making circles. In response, Sikkuy pressed media outlets to make room in their coverage for Arab voices and professionals and to highlight their role in the effort to flatten the curve.

COVID-19 also highlighted the huge gaps between the Jewish and Arab education systems. Arab students remained far behind in their access to technology and remote learning, the amount of curriculum that was available for them in Arabic, and sometimes even in terms of access to electricity and an Internet connection. For Jewish students, distance learning meant a focus on "core studies" – sidelining subjects crucial for promoting a shared society, such as Arabic language or culture and encounter sessions between Jewish and Arab schoolchildren. From the outset, with the support of the Heinrich Boell Stiftung, we reached out to decision makers in the education ministry, urging them to stop the erosion of shared society values in school programs, recognizing that even in crisis, these subjects belong and must remain at the curriculum's heart.

Exclusion of Arab society was evident also in the government efforts to educate the public about the COVID-19 virus crisis through public media. The representation of Arabs in government-produced material targeting Arab society was stereotypical and superficial. Under pressure from civil society and Arab leaders, government ministries initiated a public outreach campaign ahead of the month of Ramadan, out of concern that large family gatherings would increase contagion – but the materials and the messaging for these campaigns were hastily assembled, and the results were degrading toward Arabs, and particularly Arab women. The dissemination of such materials damages progress toward a shared society; it reinforces patriarchal attitudes that objectify Arab women and helps perpetuate unequal relations within Arab society itself, not just vis-à-vis the Jewish majority.

These issues notwithstanding, this crisis also embodies an opportunity for promoting a more shared and fair society in Israel. This was the first nation-wide crisis in which Arab and Jewish citizens took part in a shared effort to confront a common threat and stood in solidarity with each other. COVID-19 may have been the first struggle where Jews and Arabs found mutual interests and worked side by side. Given the prominence of Arab citizens in the medical and health field, for the first time Arab citizens had a leadership role in the response to a crisis. This contribution was widely recognized in the public conscience - through social media debates and mainstream news coverage. It left a new and unprecedented imprint on the public discourse.

More importantly, COVID-19 was the first crisis where the situation did not primarily feed feelings of alienation, polarization and racism but rather solidarity and a sense of social and civic partnership. Although there were isolated instances of attempts to blame Arab citizens (and even more so, ultra-Orthodox Jews) for having flouted instructions or spreading contagion, these were the exception rather than the rule, and we worked to reduce them. In public discourse, most Jews stressed an appreciation for the role of Arab citizens in the health system, admiration for how well they had coped, and recognition of the degree to which the residents and leaders of Arab towns were abiding by official covid-19 virus-related regulations. Many also expressed solidarity with Arab business owners and employees who had lost work as a result of the crisis, in recognition that the economic crisis affected both Arabs and Jews in a similar way.

Moreover, the successful response by Arab mayors, Arab Knesset members, and Arab leaders also bids well for the promotion of a shared society and appreciation for the legitimate role and status of Arab citizens in Israeli society. The majority of Arab citizens heeded emergency regulations that kept the rate of contagion low, and as a result the very same Arab leaders and politicians who had been politically vilified during the last election rounds, were now perceived as crucial to the effort to halt the spread of the virus and praised for their important and professional cooperation with authorities and government bodies.

The positive social trends observed during COVID-19 could serve as a springboard toward the creation of a truly shared society in Israel. The challenge remains converting  the cooperation and solidarity that seeped through during the crisis into everyday life. During the crisis, Arab society gained visibility and legitimacy, but this was felt mostly in the context of health. The question remains whether it will be possible to create similar legitimacy and partnership in areas that are more political in nature, and legitimacy not only for individuals but for the whole Arab collective including their identity and culture overall. The Jewish public lauded Arab medical teams and Arab leaders for their part in containing the virus and fighting the pandemic. It remains to be seen whether it will learn to accept Arab society, identity, language and culture - not only as fellow citizens, but also as equal and legitimate partners, both at the decision-making table and in molding public discourse. Only thus will we achieve a shared future.

The Covid-19 virus emergency has clearly shown how Jewish-Arab solidarity and partnership can be an important social asset for progress and a source of great strength for Israeli society. If we can show that this holds true in other, more political and social arenas, it would be a giant step forward toward a healthier, more equal, and more partnership-oriented society.