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and to discuss the Or Commission’s conclusions from a contemporary perspective.
In October 2000, 13 Arab-Israeli citizens of the Northern and Central Districts of Israel were killed in confrontations with police forces while demonstrating against MK Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Tempel Mount and protesting against what they considered as ongoing discrimination and governmental neglect. In response to the public’s outcry and total shock, in the immediate aftermath of the events, the Israeli government assigned a State Investigation Committee in early November 2000, chaired by Justice Theodore Or (the committee later came to be known as the Or Commission).
The Commission pointed out a series of deep-rooted causes that had created an explosive atmosphere among the Arab community in Israel, and constituted the foundation for those grave Events. The factors noted by the Commission included government neglect in addressing the needs of the Arab community, on the one hand, and an escalation of the political and emotional reactions in the Arab community, on the other. The Commission members described the neglect of the Arab community as “one of the most important and sensitive domestic issues on the national agenda,” and recommended a realignment in the attitude of the police toward the Arab citizens.
According to Prof. Shimon Shamir, a member of the Or Commission and the conference keynote speaker, the mandate of the investigative body was perhaps an unprecedented assignment in terms of the number of events it investigated. In comparison to other commissions, which examined one event each, such as the Assassination of Prime Minister Rabin, the members of the Or Commission agreed to go further. The objective was to investigate the factors that brought about the October 2000 events, studying the situation “from scratch,” and considering the contributing realities of the social-political background, which had never been dealt with in the past. While the publication of the Commission’s findings in 2003 was an enormous accomplishment following much hard work, the response that the Commission generated ensured that the topic would stay in the academic and public discourse, for many years to come.
The Konrad Adenauer Program for Jewish-Arab Cooperation was among the first to respond to the urgent need of the Israeli society to process these events, initiating conferences and yearly lectures, facilitating discussions and creating a public discourse on these serious issues.
At the opening of the conference, Prof. Uzi Rabi, the recently appointed director of the Konrad Adenauer Program for Jewish-Arab Cooperation, underscored the tremendous importance of this conference, highlighting the fact that it takes place at a central juncture in the relations between Jews and Arabs in the Middle-East in its entirety, and during a time of complex and comprehensive regional changes, with which the entire global community will deal for many years to come.
The conference was divided into three sessions. Each session analyzed the subject matters from different, although intersecting angles.
The first panel, “The Or Commission's Recommendations in the Test of Reality,” discussed the Or Commission, which, as an investigative committee, was charged with the task of looking into the events and to examine whether or not any aspects of the Commission’s findings had been implemented in the seven years after its publication. The speakers also discussed the October events in the greater context of the complex and tension-ridden Arab-Jewish relations in Israel, and the role of the state therein. The majority of the speakers noted that the events did not occur in a vacuum. Rather, an examination of recent history together with the difficulties faced by a multicultural state, serve to further complicate the state’s ability to provide good governance to the citizens.
The second session, “Political and Ideological Perspectives,” supplied analysis and debate of the political and social changes in the Arab society in Israel, and their significance in the aftermath of the October 2000 events. It also dealt with the significance of the events from different perspectives, discussing whether they had marked a turning point in the Arab sector. In order to explore this topic, the speakers elaborated upon the issue of Palestinian national discourse within Israel and the contributing factors, which determine the course of dialogue and debate. Generally, the speakers agreed with the first panelists that in the Israeli-Palestinian context, these events did not occur in isolation. Rather, each successive breaking event in the history of these two peoples on one piece of contested land, contains elements of history that have yet to be settled, revealing wounds that have not yet healed. Additionally, the speakers addressed the Palestinian national discourse and showed how watershed events such as those of October 2000 influence not only the direction of this discourse within Arab-Israeli communities and politics but also the connection to their Palestinian counterparts living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
The third session of the conference, “Jewish-Arab Relations in Israel – Future Prospects,” introduced several points of view in order to assess where Jewish-Arab relations stand today. They also explored the role of civil society in the evolution of these dynamics, within the framework of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and current events that presently shape the political debate in the country. The speakers highlighted the contentious issues of nationality, statehood, and the right of each side to self-determination. In the competing national struggles of the Palestinians and the Jews, these concepts are framed and used on the battleground for the legitimacy of one people’s rights over the other. It is telling of the protracted nature of this conflict that these principles, which are usually characterized as ways by which ethnic communities can actualize their geographical, nationalistic aspirations, are continually questioned in the case of Israelis (Jewish) and Palestinians.
The last session offered two members of the Israeli Knesset the opportunity to respond to the day’s discussions and add their insight from their respective positions within the Israeli Parliament. MK Orit Zuaretz (Kadima) and MK Afou Agbaria (“Hadash”,Democratic Front for Peace and Equality), co-chairs of the Knesset Lobby for Promoting Ties Between Jews and Arabs in Israel, shared with the audience the major political challenges they face as Knesset members when trying to bring to fruition the needs and demands of their constituencies, as well as the country as a whole. The fact that these two policy makers attended the conference achieved one of the major objectives of the conference. That is, the aspiration to influence decision makers by bridging the academic world and civil society with decision makers, who will share the information they received from the day’s events with their colleagues in Jerusalem, and, ideally, influence policy in a positive fashion for all of Israel’s citizens, as mentioned by the director of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung in Israel, Dr. Lars Hänsel.
A majority of the speakers shared the opinion that more must be done to reduce the glaring gap that exists between Israel’s Jewish and Arab populations. Echoing this sentiment, Prof. Shlomo Hasson of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem stated that long-term exposure to systemic inequalities is a major contributing factor leading to violent outbreak in societies in conflict. In fact, Prof. Hasson added that the lack of advancement in the implementation of the Or Commission recommendations directly adds to the deterioration of Arab-Jewish relations in the state today. All these facts emphasize the responsibility that political leaders of Israel – Arab and Jewish alike – must take upon themselves to implement structural changes to state institutions in order to improve this reality.
In the framework of its Program for Jewish-Arab Cooperation at the Tel Aviv University, the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung in Israel will seek to maintain this important issue on the public Agenda.