Tashbih SayyedTashbih Sayyed, Ph.D., is editor-in-chief of <I>Pakistan Today</I> and <I>Muslim World Today</I>, California-based weekly newspapers. He is also president of the Council for Democracy and Tolerance and an adjunct fellow of the Hudson Institute.
Muslim Arab citizens of Israel do not have equal rights.
As our air-conditioned bus negotiated the mountainous curves of the road to the heart of the Galilee, I could not miss the rising minarets identifying a number of Palestinian Arab towns dotting the hillsides. The imposing domes of mosques underlined the freedoms that are enjoyed by the Muslims in the Jewish State. Large Arab residences, widespread construction activity and big cars underlined the prosperity and affluence of Palestinians living under the Star of David.
On my way from the City of David to the Royal Prima Hotel in Jerusalem, I asked my Palestinian taxi driver how he feels about moving to the territories under the Palestinian Authority. He said that he could never think of living outside Israel. His answer blasted the myth spread by anti-Semites that Israel's Arab citizens are not happy there.
Another Israeli Arab informed me that Arabs in Israel have equal voting rights. In fact, Israel is one of the few countries in the Middle East where Arab women can vote. In contrast to the non-Israeli Arab world, Arab women in Israel enjoy the same status as men. Muslim women have the right to vote and to be elected to public office. Muslim women, in fact, are more liberated in Israel than in any Muslim country. Israeli law prohibits polygamy, child marriage, and the barbarity of female sexual mutilation.
Moreover, I found out that there are no incidences of honor killings in Israel. The status of Muslim women in Israel is far above that of any country in the region. Israeli health standards are by far the highest in the Middle East, and Israeli health institutions are freely open to all Arabs, on the same basis as they are to Jews.
Arabic, like Hebrew, is an official language in Israel and is evidence of the tolerant nature of the Jewish State. All the street signs call out their names in Arabic alongside Hebrew. It is official policy of the Israeli government to foster the language, culture, and traditions of the Arab minority in the educational system and in daily life. Israel's Arabic press is the most vibrant and independent of any country in the region. There are more than 20 Arabic periodicals. They publish what they please, subject only to the same military censorship as Jewish publications. There are daily TV and radio programs in Arabic.
Arabic is taught in Jewish secondary schools. More than 350,000 Arab children attend Israeli schools. At the time of Israel's founding, there was one Arab high-school in the country. Today, there are hundreds of Arab schools. Israeli universities are renowned centers of learning in the history and literature of the Arab Middle East.
Aware of the constraints that a non-Wahhabi is faced with while performing religious rituals in Saudi Arabia, Kiran (my wife) could not hide her surprise at the freedoms and ease with which peoples of all religions and faiths were carrying out their religious obligations at the Church of the Sepulchre, at the Garden Tomb, at the Sea of Galilee, at the newly discovered Western Wall Tunnels, at the Western Wall, at he Tomb of King David, and at all the other holy places we visited.
All religious communities in Israel enjoy the full protection of the state. Israeli Arabs - Muslims, as well as many Christian denominations - are free to exercise their faiths, to observe their own weekly day of rest and holidays, and to administer their own internal affairs.
Some 80,000 Druze live in 22 villages in northern Israel. Their religion is not accessible to outsiders and Druze constitute a separate cultural, social and religious Arabic-speaking community. The Druze concept of takiyya calls for complete loyalty by its adherents to the government of the country in which they reside. As such, among other things, the Druze serve in the Israel Defense Forces.
Each religious community in Israel has its own religious councils and courts, and has full jurisdiction over religious affairs, including matters of personal status, such as marriage and divorce. The holy sites of all religions are administered by their own authorities and protected by the government.
A Hindu journalist who came to visit me talked about the openness that Jewish society represents. He told me that more than 20% of the Israeli population is non-Jewish, of which, approximately 1.2 million are Muslims, 140,000 are Christians and 100, 000 are Druze. Another non-Jewish Israeli told me that Christians and Druze are free to join even the defense forces of the Jewish State. Bedouins have served in paratroop units and other Arabs have volunteered for military duty.
The big houses owned by Arab Israelis and the amount of construction that was going on in the Arab towns exposed the falsity of propaganda that Israel discriminates against Israeli Arabs in land purchases. I found out that in the early part of the century, the Jewish National Fund was established by the World Zionist Congress to purchase land in Palestine for Jewish settlement. Of the total area of Israel, 92 percent belongs to the state and is managed by the Land Management Authority. It is not for sale to anyone - Jew or Arab.
The Arab Wakf owns land that is for the express use and benefit of Muslim Arabs. Government land can be leased by anyone, regardless of race, religion or sex. All Arab citizens of Israel are eligible to lease government land.
I asked three Israeli Arabs if they face discrimination in employment. They all said the same thing. Normally, there is no discrimination, but whenever homicide bombers explode and murder Israelis, some Israelis feel uncomfortable dealing with them. But that uncomfortable feeling is also very temporary and does not stay for long.
My first visit to Israel has not only consolidated my belief that Israel is vital for the stability of the region, but has also convinced me that the existence of Israel will one day convince the Muslims of the necessity of reformation in their theology, as well as their sociology.
A journey through the Israeli desert brought another important aspect of life to light. Prophets are not the only ones who can perform miracles - people who believe in themselves can also perform unbelievable acts. Acres and acres of sand dunes have been transformed into the best possible fertile land. Wheat, cotton, sunflowers, chickpeas, groundnuts (peanuts), mangoes, avocados, citrus, papayas, bananas and any other fruit and vegetable that Israelis want to consume is grown within Israel. In fact, Israelis have proved beyond any doubt why God promised them this land - only they could keep it green.
The land is described repeatedly in the Torah as a good land and "a land flowing with milk and honey." This description may not seem to fit well with the desert images we see on the nightly news, but let's keep in mind that the land was repeatedly abused by conquerors who were determined to make the land uninhabitable for the Jews. In the few decades since the Jewish people regained control of the land, tremendous improvement in its agriculture has been witnessed. Israeli agriculture today has a very high yield. Agriculture in Israel is very effective, and is able to cover about 75% of domestic needs, despite the limited land available.
Looking at the development and transformation that the land has gone through because of the Jewish innovative spirit, hard labor and commitment to freedoms for all times to come, I am convinced that it is true that God created this earth, but it is also a fact that only an Israel can keep this earth from dying.
[Part 2 of 2]
This article originally appeared in the December 2, 2005 edition of Muslim World Today.