By Dave Kopel
April 1989. More by Kopel on Israel.
You don't have to be Jewish to be a patriotic Israeli, an Israeli Arab leader informed a Colorado audience March 27. Zeiden Atashi, a leader of Israel's Arab community, told a forum of Hispanic educators that Israel is a "mosaic of ethnic communities."
The speech by Zeiden Atashi, formerly a member of Israel's Knesset (parliament), underscored Israel's growing interest in building relationships with American minority groups -- which Israel believes are becoming increasingly influential part in America.
The Hispanic Education Leadership Forum co-hosted the event, along with the America-Israel Friendship League. Organizer and Denver School Board member Rich Castro noted that Hispanic Education Leadership Forum is moving into a more prominent role in foreign policy issues.
Zeiden Atashi explained that both the U.S. and Israel are made up of minorities, and that Israel itself is a minority in the Middle East. He hoped that U.S. minorities would identify with Israel as a minority struggling for life.
Atashi belongs to the Arab Druze community, which follows a religion partly derived from Islam. Israel, said Atashi, also includes a large Christian Arab community, and an even larger Islamic Arab community. All in all, 17% of Israel's citizens are not Jewish.
Atashi said that he does not "feel inferior as a minority in Israel." As a Druze, Atashi was subject to the same mandatory service in the Israel Defense Force as are Jews. Christian and Moslem Arabs, Atashi added, are not drafted, but may volunteer.
While Arabs face no discrimination within the army, Atashi did feel that informal (and illegal) discrimination does exist in some parts of Israel's civilian economy. Jewish immigrants from Morocco, Yemen, and other Arab nations also face similar problems, observed Atashi, because they are significantly less educated than Jews from Europe.
A question-and-answer session with the Hispanic leaders discussed Israel's programs for assimilating immigrants.
Israel offers all immigrants the option of living in an absorption center for six months. There, the immigrants can learn Hebrew, and adjust gradually to Israeli culture.
Atashi praised Israel's "unlimited socialism for all," with the best welfare and "health care system in the world." Education is high-quality and mandatory; and the special efforts to make sure that "deserters" (drop-outs) are given vocational training and work. As a result, argued Atashi, Israel has achieved in 30 years a degree of integration that the West took 100 years to achieve.
Atashi noted with pride that an Iraqi Jew heads Israel's national labor federation -- even though the Iraqi Jews who arrived in Israel in the 1950's were almost totally illiterate.
Similar absorption efforts are underway for Israel's newest immigrants, the Black Falasha Jews from Ethiopia.
Asked about the Palestinian uprising in the West Bank, Atashi said he felt "complete distrust" for Yassir Arafat, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Atashi observed that while Arafat has used more moderate language in recent months, he has been unable to rally a majority of the P.L.O. behind a moderate approach. If Arafat does build a P.L.O. majority that will accept Israel's right to live in peace, Israel should negotiate with him, said Atashi. Nevertheless, he cautioned that Israel should look at Arafat's deeds, rather than his words.
While Atashi felt that most Americans have a good understanding of the situation in Israel, he condemned U.S. media for presenting a distorted and overly brutal portrayal of Israel's response to the war in the West Bank.
Atashi's most controversial statement, though, was his report of the advice he had given his daughters: to have 15 children each. "I want to play with children, not pets," Atashi explained.