Jewish and Arab pupils talk of unity, but Israel has never been so divided

The voices of nationalism and separation are growing louder as rightwing populism dominates and tensions continue to escalate

The boys file in first: noisy Jewish teenagers in kippahs, students at Jerusalems Himmelfarb high school. The girls come next, most wearing headscarves Israeli Arabs from the Ort school for girls in Lod.

There is a call for quiet and the final group of visitors files in to sit on the platform Israels president, Reuven Rivlin, and the education minister, Naftali Bennett.

The first question addressed to the dignitaries comes from 16-year-old Baraa Isa, one of the Ort school girls. Is it possible, she stands to ask, that you can add or change something of the national symbols of the state so we can identify with them. So we can feel part of society?

Rivlin answers with reference to a line from the Israeli national anthem, HaTikvah, The Hope, and how it says that a Jewish soul still yearns a song and line problematic for many of Israels Arab citizens. The question you are asking needs to be on the national agenda in the next generation or two, he says. This is a dilemma we cant ignore. It needs to be addressed by leaders, by members of Knesset who were chosen by the people.

At this point, we have to base the existence of the state of Israel on a Jewish state, and a democratic one. We have to hold on to and strengthen the Zionist dream, which often causes friction with those citizens who are not Zionist.

The event at the Himmelfarb school, part of an initiative by Rivlin to build bridges between Israels communities, stands in sharp contrast to the current atmosphere in Israel, where those whose voices are loudest seem more interested in emphasising separation and nationalism. That has fuelled fears of a widening division between Israels Jews and Arabs as Israel has moved ever further to the right since Binyamin Netanyahu was returned for his second spell as prime minister in 2009 a period marked by a heightened political rhetoric against Israeli Arabs.

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Jewish and Arab pupils from the Ort school in Lod and the Himmelfarb school in Jerusalem wait for the countrys president, Reuven Rivlin, at an event to encourage closer contacts between the two communities. Photograph: Peter Beaumont for the Observer

This trend has been highlighted in recent months by polls, comments and initiatives by rightwing politicians on issues as diverse as whether Arab medical staff should work in Israeli maternity wards, on housing and even who is acceptable as a teacher.

Most stark were the findings earlier this year by the US Pew Research Centre in its report, Israels Religiously Divided Society. The bleakest sections of this depiction of the multiple social divisions in Israeli society were those dealing with relations between Israeli Arabs who are a 20% minority in Israel, or 1.4 million out of a population of 8.5 million and Jews.

Among its headlines were the claims that 79% of Jews questioned believed that they should get preferential treatment, with the same survey finding that nearly half of Israeli Jews agreed to some degree that Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel with roughly one in five Jewish adults strongly agreeing.

It has been underscored by a growing and vocal anxiety even among some figures on Israels right over trends in society and democracy, as Israels politics have become more nationalist, not least after Netanyahu brought the ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman into his coalition as defence minister. The reality is that even before Liebermans return to Netanyahus newly configured government the most rightwing in Israels history a series of initiatives by rightwing ministers had focused attention on issues of race and identity.

Among them have been a new 500-page civics textbook To Be Citizens in Israel produced under Bennetts watch in May, which has been accused of largely editing out Israeli Arabs and their experiences. The books message is impossible to mistake, argued a Haaretz editorial condemning it after it was unveiled. Jewish identity, as expressed in the states definition of itself and in the public sphere, takes priority over civic identity. This mainly reflects the views of an orthodox, conservative, rightwing strain of Judaism.

The text contains no model of shared life between Jews and Arabs. The Jews rights are clear; the Arabs place is restricted; and the walls separating them are only raised even higher. The racism that is ripping Israeli society apart receives almost no mention.

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Israel police detain an Israeli Arab during clashes in Nazareth in October. Photograph: Baz Ratner/Reuters

The furore over the book which superseded one that rightwing parties such as Bennetts complained was too critical of the state has not been an isolated incident. In December, Bennetts ministry removed a book, Dorit Rabinyans Borderlife, that depicted a love story between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man, from the curriculum of Israeli secular state schools. A proposed amendment to Israels basic law effectively its constitution that would make it possible for the Knesset to expel members, has also been criticised by Israeli Arab parties, who believe it was aimed at reducing their representation.

Outside the realm of political rhetoric, another factor has been at work a deep sense of mutual anxiety and suspicion fuelled, in part, by the recent wave of violence between Palestinians and Israelis that began last autumn and whose influence has leached into communal relations in Israel.

In the most recent incident, video emerged of five off-duty Israeli police officers, out of uniform, savagely beating an Israeli Arab supermarket worker in Tel Aviv after he queried why one was asking for his ID. The question that remains open, however, is how much politicians talk of separation reflects reality and how much it simply mirrors the increased prominence of rightwing nationalist politics in Israel, as the country has been moving to the right.

And behind that question lies a more fundamental one how toxic the politics of identity and division, opportunist and populist as they sometimes are, might prove to Israels democracy.

While Israel is far from alone in experiencing the rise of rightwing populism it is also being witnessed in the US and Europe what makes it different is the context of the long Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories that has persisted since 1967. Indeed, it is precisely the shared sense of identity and history and family ties between Israeli Arabs and Palestinians in the occupied territories unsurprising because they were the same people in pre-Israel British Mandate Palestine that for some on the Israeli right makes Israeli Arabs seem suspect.

Dahlia Scheindlin, a pollster and political analyst, says she and her colleagues started noticing a far more overt discourse about the issue in 2009 and have only recently tried to quantify what it means. I think this is more visible, in part, because it has been legitimised by the current politics. You started seeing more rhetoric around race and ethnicity when Lieberman began emerging as a political force after 2006, when he ran with his own party, she said.

He was talking about his population exchange plan [to transfer Israeli Arabs into a future Palestine]. Even then it was clear he felt it was legitimate to target Arabs in Israel. Later he would be talking about no citizenship without loyalty. He was very, very explicit and comfortable on that platform. And as Lieberman started to advance legislation around that, Likud [Netanyahus party] got scared. All societies have a latent xenophobia. Lieberman tapped into it.

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Israeli youths holding mock guns relive the battle for Jerusalem during the six day war in 1967. Photograph: Abir Sultan/EPA

And Liebermans message perhaps beyond even the divisive legislation that his party championed was no more clearly expressed than in a television debate during last years elections when he attacked Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint Arab List in the Knesset, and one of the most prominent critics of discrimination against Israeli Arabs. Why did you come to this studio and not to a studio in Gaza? Lieberman railed at him. Why arent you standing for election in Ramallah [the main city in the occupied Palestinian territories] rather than in the Israeli Knesset? Why are you even here? Youre not wanted here.

The sense of a growing division on both sides, experts say, has also worked in counterintuitive ways. One hope was that the slow emergence of a new and better-off Israeli Arab middle class might lead to more social mobility and integration. Instead, there is some evidence that the opposite has happened, with new spending power concentrating in gyms and malls, for instance, in Israeli Arab towns and neighbourhoods, reinforcing the separation.

But not everyone is convinced that the growing incidence of xenophobic discourse not least on social media on both sides and the recent evidence of a move to rightwing nationalist policies are necessarily embraced by a majority of Israelis.

Sammy Smooha, an anthropologist and sociologist at Haifa University, who has long studied attitudes in Israel via his Index of Arab-Jewish Relations in Israel, points out that despite an April poll suggesting that 49% of Jews would not want an Arab living in their apartment building, some 90% of Israeli Arabs live in Israeli Arab towns and neighbourhoods anyway. He adds, too, that the most visible and strongly expressed views are confined to the nationalist ends of the spectrum, among both Jews and Israeli citizens of Palestinian origin.

I have spent years trying to understand what is going on in the middle, among the silent majority. There is a willingness there on the part of Jews to accommodate Arabs in schools and neighbourhoods, he said. And Arabs express a willingness to be accommodated in Jewish towns. There is a big gap between attitudes and reality of separation. Is it getting worse over the years? Yes, to some extent I can see that in my surveys for the past 13 years there is less willingness, but still there is still a large willingness.

There is more public expression of hostility on both sides yes.

Paradoxically, on the Israeli Arab side, both Smooha and Scheindlin argue that that has been encouraged by the emergence of a better-educated and wealthier group in Israeli Arab society who are far more willing to speak out about discrimination. Smooha echoes the question asked by 16-year-old Baara Isa in the Himmelfarb school. In the west, there is a civic nationalism that creates an entity say the French people or the American people an idea of people-hood regardless of religion and ethnicity, where all citizens have a common stake. In Israel, that does not exist. There is no civic nation in Israel. Arabs are attached to an Arab national idea and Jews to the Jewish nation.

He agrees with Scheindlin on the influence of Israels ever more right-leaning politics. The current state of the political dialogue is very influential and it is very animating.

What he is less certain about is how far and in what direction that rhetoric is actually carrying Israelis.And for his part, Israels President Rivlin a rightwing politician and member of Netanyahus Likud party, under whose auspices the event at the Himmelfarb school took place has bluntly dramatised what he sees as the growing problem.

Speaking last year at an event to encourage Israels biggest companies to employ more Israeli Arabs in managerial positions, he asked: How many of us Jews know colleagues at work who are Arab? How many of us have true friends who are Arab? How many of us know the agenda of the Arab public, or the differences dividing their society?

A huge gap has grown over the years between two societies that live next to each other and with each other, and yet are blind to each other We must admit the painful truth: namely, that for the majority of Jewish-Israeli society, the Arab public occupies a blind spot.

After Rivlin and Bennett had left the Himmelfarb school, Baraa Isas headteacher, Shireen Natur, remained in the playground with some of her girls for photographs. She hopes that initiatives like Rivlins will crack some of the ice. We are separated. We are really divided. There is racism on both sides. The problem is when you dont know the other and you are afraid, separation is the result.

You know I used to be a Hebrew teacher. For 14 years. Things will only change when Arabs can teach Hebrew in Jewish schools, and Jews can teach Arabic.

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