Times Paints Grim Picture of Israeli Arabs

As far as the New York Times would have you believe, the picture of Arabs in Israel is exceedingly grim. According to a lengthy article in the Jan. 17 edition, Arabs constitute a "long-marginalized minority" that is increasingly "alienated by Israel's right-wing government," and that has to endure "treatment that is discriminatory and undemocratic." ("As Israeli Vote Nears, Arab Apathy Is a Concern" by Jodi Rudoren, page A3).

Bolstered by selective interviews with disaffected Arabs, Rudoren, the Times' Jerusalem bureau chief, tells her readers that Israel's treatment of its Arab citizens raises "real concerns over the health of Israeli democracy."

Arab turnout in Tuesday's election may drop to 51 percent, she writes ominously. She also quotes Ahmad Tibi, an Arab lawmaker, who charges that "in Israel, there is discrimination in every part of life -- education, infrastructure, unemployment."

But is this ultra-gloomy assessment accurate? Far from it. Arabs in Israel are on an equal plane when it comes to legal, civil and political rights. Yes, there are remaining gaps on the economic and social scene, but these gaps have steadily narrowed. In fact, Israel's Arabs enjoy far better lives and better living standards than their counterparts in neighboring countries.

Here are a few realities Rudoren chooses to omit:

● Arab life expectancy in Israel has increased by 30 years, reaching 78.5 years in 2009.

● Arab infant mortality rates have been slashed from 56 per 1,000 live births in 1950 to 6.5 in 2008. In sharp contrast, the mortality rate of infants in Arab/Muslim countries is much higher -- 24.9 in Algeria, 30 in Egypt, 40 in Iraq, 41 in Iran.

● In 1961, fewer than half of Arab children in Israel attended school, with only 9 percent acquiring secondary or higher education. By the end of the century, four decades later, 97 percent of Arab children attended schools; 46 percent completed high school studies and 19 percent obtained university/college degrees. Since Israel's founding, while the Arab population grew tenfold, the number of Arab schoolchildren has multiplied 40-fold.

● Fifty years ago, only 4 percent of Arab teachers held academic degrees. By 1999, the figure was 47 percent. Meanwhile Arab adult illiteracy rates dropped from 57 percent to 7 percent.

● By 2006, Arab households actually surpassed their Jewish counterparts in ownership of refrigerators, deep-freezers, washing machines, televisions, and cellular phones.

In sum, is there still a need for greater private and public progress for Israel's Arab minority? Absolutely yes. But progress over the last 65 years has been remarkable -- and rebuts the grim anti-Israel caricatures perpetuated by the New York Times.

As usual, in Tuesday's elections, there will be three traditional Arab parties vying for votes and together they expect to gain about a dozen seats in the Knesset. Arab lawmakers unfortunately have been on relentless campaigns to radicalize their constituents and playing Palestinian victimhood politics, instead of focusing on everyday needs and problems of Israel's Arab population. Fortunately, there reportedly will be a fourth Arab party devoted this time solely to bread-and-butter issues - a long overdue and welcome shift in Arab politics in Israel.

Leo Rennert is a former White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief of McClatchy Newspapers

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