The Star of David on Israel’s flag is no surprise in a Knesset member’s office. What seems unusual within Israel’s parliament is just two yards away: an engraved icon bearing an Islamic prayer in Arabic script.
“I am Israeli,” says Issawi Frej, an Arab member of the Knesset (MK). “I am a citizen here. I want to be here.” The Meretz-party representative also tells me: “The American people don’t understand that there are 1.5 million Palestinian Arabs who live inside Israel, and who are Israelis with rights. Americans think about the Palestinian Authority only, and no one thinks about us.”
Elected last January, Frej says he wants to increase economic growth in Israel’s Arab communities.
“We don’t want the National Insurance to give us a cart of money just to eat. We want to be part of the economy, to give to the economy, to translate our force and our power in order to give a push to the local economy. That’s what we want.”
Frej, the eldest of a dozen children and father of seven, is one of twelve Arab MKs. They and other Arabs hold prominent posts in Israel’s courts, diplomatic corps, and armed forces. While powerful Israeli Jews clearly outnumber powerful Israeli Arabs, journalists worldwide generally overlook the latter. Leaders like Frej disprove the tired, toxic rhetoric about “Jim Crovitz”–style conditions that Israel’s Arabs supposedly suffer at the hands of Jewish oppressors, as if Israel were Mississippi on the Mediterranean.
No one can dismiss these Arab Israeli parliamentarians as window dressing. During the 120-seat Knesset’s debate on allowing a national referendum on a future Palestinian accord, Arab Israeli MK Jamal Zahalka told government minister Yuval: “You’re an enemy of peace. We were here before you, and we’ll be here after you.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who attended the debate, snapped: “The first part is not true, and the second part will never happen.” Zahalka and two other Arab Israeli MKs then protested the measure by standing silently at the Knesset podium. Zahalka also taped his mouth shut, leading MK Penina Tamanu-Shata to quip, “Careful with the mustache.”
While these Arab MKs’ comments may rankle most Israelis and their American friends, such dissent confirms Israel’s status as an open and vibrant constitutional republic, unlike so many closed dictatorships in this chronically diseased neighborhood.
Meanwhile, Salim Joubran, an Arab, has been on Israel’s 15-member Supreme Court since 2003. Abdel Rahman Zuabi also served there for a fixed term in 1999. Arab judges populate Israel’s district courts. George Kara led a three-judge panel in 2010 that convicted former president Moshe Katsav of rape.
“We have had Arab ambassadors and consuls-general for decades,” Israeli foreign-ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor tells me. “We now have two Druze ambassadors, in Norway and the Dominican Republic” — respectively, Professor Naim Araidi (a Druze poet and literature scholar) and Bahij Mansur (a career diplomat). Palmor adds that “Arabs are particularly well integrated in the public-health system, with many Arab doctors holding important positions in Israel’s 24 public general hospitals and in the Ministry of Health.”
Arabs excel in Israel’s military, some even as generals. Lieutenant Colonel Magdi Mazarib is an Islamic member of Israel’s 260,000-strong Bedouin Arab minority. He also is the Israel Defense Force’s top-ranking tracker. Many of the IDF’s 1,655 Bedouins use their nomadic skills to detect infiltrators along Israel’s borders, especially in the north. They can inspect rocks and sand and determine where and when a foe has trespassed.
“This is our country,” Mazarib told Agence France-Presse last April. He added that he does not fear the Star of David on Israel’s banner, despite being Muslim. “The flag of England also has a cross on it, and the Jews are fine with it,” Mazarib said at a memorial site for the 182 Bedouin soldiers who have died fighting for Israel.
What about the back of this shekel? Bahrain’s Jewish population numbers only 38, but three of them serve in parliament. Houda Nonoo, a Jewish woman, announced Thursday that she is finishing her term as that Persian Gulf state’s ambassador to America. Also, Serge Berdugo is Morocco’s Jewish minister of tourism. Still, Jewish officials in the Arab world are rarer than menorahs in Mecca.
Though Israel’s Jews and Arabs clash, they also cooperate far more than most journalists admit. In his Ramadan greetings last July, Prime Minister Netanyahu described his country’s Muslim citizens as an “integral part of Israeli society.” He also said he attaches ”great importance” to their “role and contribution to the economy and in all aspects of life in Israel.”
As if to illustrate Netanyahu’s warm words, Issawi Frej nods his head just to his left at his Knesset spokesman, a recovering newsman named Moran Richman. “I am Israeli,” Frej says. “Moran, he is Jewish, and he is Israeli. Both of us are Israeli. This country should include both of us, and both of us should take care of this country.”
— Deroy Murdock is a Manhattan-based Fox News contributor, a nationally syndicated columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service, and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University. Murdock visited Israel last summer on a media tour sponsored by the Manhattan-based America-Israel Friendship League.