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.”