A Jewish social entrepreneur wanted to get me involved in a social-educational project for Arab students. When we spoke two weeks ago, mainly about politics and society, he said to me: “I’ve always wanted to understand why Arabs don’t vote. When I read your last column, I received a partial answer, but I still think it’s the right thing to do and important to go out and vote.” I explained to him, in lofty language and with the aid of complex political analyses and by citing national issues, that we (how to put it gently) have a different perception of the democratic right to vote and be elected.
The question of Arabs not exercising their right to vote in the upcoming Knesset election is a loaded issue for Jews, particularly in the center-left camp. I can understand why they feel so perplexed and even appalled. They feel that this country is theirs, it was founded for them and for their benefit and is as committed to them and their welfare as they are to it. As they see it, when they vote, they are affecting the fate of the country, and therefore their own fate. What chutzpah for the Arabs to be so dismissive of such a right that has fallen right into their laps!
Let me try to explain. The same week I had my conversation with the social entrepreneur- Riad Mahamid, a 49-year-old attorney and father of three from Umm al-Fahm, fell off a boat and drowned in Lake Kinneret. For several days, he has been missing. While the Arab news sites published reports around the clock, the headlines in the Jewish media were small to nonexistent. On Wednesday, there were no reports at all. The official searches had been halted even before that.
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Instead of the government doing all it could, it was the man’s family and volunteers, mainly Arabs, who came from all over Israel to try to find him. Concerned citizens, professional scuba divers, people on horseback, people with motorboats and special equipment that could help locate him. Hamama Jarban, “the national lifeguard of Arab society,” who always is the first volunteer to search for people missing at sea, also came. All of these people said the way the authorities handled the search was negligent and that the navy was dragging its feet.
There’s a saying in Arabic: “Take the thorns from your hand with your own hand.” This is the answer to the entrepreneur who asked why Arabs don’t vote in the elections: Because of the feeling of civic orphanhood. Because of the difference in the government’s treatment of the case of Fida Kiwan and that of Naama Yissachar. With the former, it didn’t care, and with the latter – the authorities did all they could to secure her release. Or, when Russia launched its war with Ukraine, and the Arab students there were the last to be rescued from the Ukraine-Poland border, and the intervention of Arab Knesset members was needed in order to ensure their evacuation.
This sense of civic orphanhood is shared by most Arab citizens. Orphanhood, meaning: This country is not yours, it was not founded for you, it is not meant to look after your needs, and if it ever does so – then only after it first looks after the Jews.
So, one can endlessly discuss Yair Lapid’s latest comments (he won’t sit in a government “with extremists”), about Benjamin Netanyahu’s newest incitement campaign, or about the fear of a totally right-wing government, including the code name for it – “Itamar Ben-Gvir.” But in order for Arab citizens to go out and vote, they need to feel like they belong. That if they are drowning, there will be someone who tries to save them.