Though Israel was envisioned by the founders of Zionism as a home for the Jewish people after two thousand years of statelessness and persecution, that vision also included coexistence with the local non-Jewish populations. Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, specifically called for integration and warned against racism in his vision of the Jewish state. Ze’ev Jabotinsky, leader of the more nationalistic stream of Zionism, also advocated integrating the local Arab population as equals. In the years leading up to the creation of Israel, both Jews and Arabs who lived in the area benefitted greatly from the improving economy, social services and overall quality of life. In fact, many Arabs immigrated from surrounding areas in pursuit of these benefits.
When Israel was founded in 1948, its Declaration of Independence specifically called on its Arab inhabitants to “participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship”, and on the neighboring Arab countries to “establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help… for the advancement of the entire Middle East”.
Today, non-Jewish citizens of Israel constitute about 25% of the population, with 20% being Arabs. Arab Israelis have equal voting rights and their own political parties, serve on the Israeli Knesset, Cabinet, and Supreme Court; hold diplomatic positions; actively participate in the Israeli music and arts scene; and represent Israel on the national soccer team, including winning the Israeli national championship. They are granted all fundamental civil liberties, including freedoms of religion, speech, and assembly, and in fact enjoy more civil rights than Arabs living in any other Middle Eastern country. Israel is also the only country in the Middle East where Arab homosexuals can live without fear of prosecution, which is why many Palestinian gays have fled for Israel. Many Arab Israelis have spoken out in favor of Israel, and against allegations of an Israeli apartheid. Such claims have also been refuted by many others, including by Richard Goldstone, former Justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, who presided over the UN report concerning the 2009 Gaza war.
Arab Israelis are generally not required to serve in the military, though some do volunteer. Members of the Druze and Circassian communities are drafted like Jewish citizens, at the request of their own community leaders.
Discrimination against Arab citizens of Israel does exist, though on a level comparable to that found in many other Western countries, and certainly far less than the discriminations to which Palestinians living in most Arab countries are subjected. In certain respects, Arab Israelis have more rights than some who live in Europe, such as the rights to wear hijabs.
As a general indicator, a recent Harvard study found that 77% of Arab Israelis would rather live in Israel than in any other country. Many Arabs have also stated that they would much rather live in Israel than under Palestinian rule.
“Palestine must be built up without violating the legitimate interests of the Arabs... Palestine is not Rhodesia... 600,000 Arabs live there, who before the sense of justice of the world have exactly the same rights to their homes as we have to our National Home.”
- Chaim Weizmann, President of the World Zionist Organization (and later the first President of Israel), 1925