The Fighting Between Arabs and Jews Reminds Us We're Still a Minority in the Region | Opinion

Israel and Hamas have agreed to a cease-fire. As of Friday morning, Israelis can now emerge from safe rooms and communal shelters across the country. But while this round of fighting was short by some standards, lasting just 11 days, its impact could last much longer. For the barrage of attacks from Gaza was accompanied by intense Arab violence within Israel, for the first time in decades.

Throughout this latest round of fighting, Arab Israelis pillaged and vandalized Jewish property in what are known as "mixed" Arab and Jewish towns such as Akko, Haifa, Lod, and Ramle. In some cases, they engaged in brutal and deadly lynching. While there were also attacks by Jewish Israeli mobs, the overwhelming number of attacks were carried out by Arab youths.

Far more than the attacks from Gaza, these attacks within Israel's borders touched the deepest historical fears of Israel's Jews and enforced our sense of being under siege. And they reminded us of something that few outside of Israel seem to understand: Despite representing the majority of the citizens living within the sovereign territory of Israel Jews, many Jewish Israelis view themselves as a minority amidst an Arab majority.

These mental frames are the result of both history and geography. Historically, Jews have been shaped as a people by the experience of being a minority—a persecuted one—while Arabs have been shaped by the experience of being a dominant majority across the Middle East.

It's hard to overestimate the depth of the impact this has had. Much of what is considered typical of Jewish life, from holiday rituals to culture to humor, has been shaped by the persistent historical experience of being a minority in danger. Jews are deeply cognizant of their numerical vulnerability, which is no theoretical matter. Precisely because Jews are so few, they have historically existed at the mercy of the majority peoples among whom they've resided. When that numerical majority was kind to the Jews, Jews prospered, and when the numerical majority no longer has an interest in having Jews in its midst, expulsions, pogroms and genocide followed.

The Nazi Final Solution to the Jewish Question put this numerical vulnerability of the Jewish people in its most stark—and literal—form: When Nazi leaders gathered in the serene Villa Wannsee to develop the Final Solution, they methodically listed the number of Jews living in each of the territories controlled by the Nazis across Europe and in the recently invaded Soviet Union. Even territories that were still unconquered by Nazis like England were listed. 48,000 Jews in Bulgaria were listed with the 1,300 Jews of Norway and the 2,994,684 Jews of The Ukraine. And in a neat column, the numbers of all the Jews were added up to yield 11,000,000. It was a number that clearly appeared doable to the Nazis. They were able to conceive of a Final Solution to the Jewish Question in the form of industrial mass extermination precisely because to them, the total number of Jews was such that the operation could be carried out. And indeed, within three short years, the Nazis had efficiently completed more than half their goal.

Arab Israelis
Israeli forces detain a group of Arab-Israelis in the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Lod on May 13, 2021, during clashes between Israeli far-right extremists and Arab-Israelis. AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images

This sense of historical vulnerability is enhanced by geography. While Jews are the numerical majority within the State of Israel, zooming out into the region reveals they are a tiny minority in a predominantly Arab and Islamic region, in which generally unarmed minorities are doomed to expulsion or massacres.

Again, this has not been a theoretical concept for Jews. Despite taking no part in war, Jews were completely expelled from across the Arab and Islamic Middle East and North Africa when the Arab failure to strangle a nascent Israel in 1948 created the risk that Jews might become uppity and no longer "know their place" as the Dhimmi subservient peoples as they were for centuries under Islam. Within a decade, Jewish communities, which predated the conquests of Islam, were gone.

And this experience is something Arabs just do not have, at least not in the Middle East. Ever since the Arab conquests turned the region and North Africa into Muslim and Arab, Arabs and Muslims have been the dominant and even exclusive majority across the region. And while there have been conflicts between the Sunni and Shiite sects, these are a far cry from a tiny minority living amongst another alien religion.

This makes Israel unique, in that it's a country where Arabs live as a minority. It thus represents the "natural" order of things upended, and so it does not matter that Arabs are full citizens of Israel in a country that meets the European Union standards for the equal treatment of national minorities (language, education, holidays); the natural order must be restored. But Israel is unique in another way: It remains one of the few countries in the world that is home to a national minority that belongs to a regional majority at war with the country in which they live.

Just consider how Western countries treated their citizens of Japanese and German descent during WWII, or how they treated Communists during the Cold War, to get a sense of what it means for Israel's Jews to live with a substantial Arab minority over decades of never-ending war and conflict with the Arab world.

Understanding this minority-majority inversion is critical to grasping the paradox that stumps many observers of Israel, even the sympathetic ones, of what appears like a massive gap between Israel's military and economic power and the overwhelming sense of vulnerability that pervades Israeli Jewish thinking. Zooming out resolves this tension: It is our numerical vulnerability in the region that we feel so deeply, that demands we build our military and economic might to prevent the overwhelming majority in the region from successfully acting on its numerical dominance, as it has on multiple occasions.

In recent months, The Trump-brokered Abraham Accords, the quiet on all fronts and the prospect of Arab-Jewish political cooperation created a palpable sense that Israel's Jews might finally be emerging from decades of siege and could finally live in the region while maintaining sovereignty, rather than as a minority at the mercy of others. But the events of the past few weeks have pierced that sense that Israeli Jews could leave behind their existence as a besieged minority in a hostile region. Israeli Jews were forced to confront the reality that it is still possible to unite large parts of the Arab and Islamic world (and their allies) against the fundamental grievance of Jewish power and self-determination, of which all other stated grievances are but symptoms.

Perhaps with time and with exhaustion, Arab acceptance of Jewish self-determination in the region will finally enable Jews in Israel to exhibit the confidence and openness of a comfortable majority in their own state and free Arabs to become a truly integrated minority in a Jewish state. Until that time, we may ponder the particular majority-minority aspects of Jewish-Arab relations in Israel and the region and marvel that the situation is not far far worse.

Einat Wilf is a former member of Knesset in the Labor Party and co-author of "The War of Return: How Western Indulgence of the Palestinian Dream has Obstructed the Path to Peace."

The views in this article are the writer's own.