To be an Arab in Israel is to be a second-class citizen. While in theory Arab Israelis are treated equally, the reality of everyday life is vastly different. The Association of Civil Rights in Israel says that more than half the poor families in Israel are Arab families. And several new laws passed by the Israeli Parliament, including a controversial oath of loyalty, are designed to further alienate Arab Israelis.

It’s a grim life, but according to a recent decision of the Refugee Review Tribunal, such systemic discrimination does not necessarily amount to persecution.

The tribunal refers to Article 1A(2) relevantly defines a refugee as any person who:

“…owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

The decision, handed down on October 1, considered an application by a Muslim man (let’s call him P) who was born in Lebanon, but lived in Israel from 2000 until last year when he came to Australia.

According to the evidence he provided the Tribunal, when P moved to Israel in 2000 with his family he immediately suffered discrimination. The residents of the block of flats P lived in objected to his presence on the grounds that not only were P and his family not Jewish but they were also Muslim. At school, P says, other students stared at him because he was “a stranger and they knew he was Muslim and not Jewish”. P was subjected to verbal and physical abuse and the situation did not improve when he and his family moved to another town.

When P left school, he changed his name to a Hebrew name but he was harassed when his employer found out he was a Muslim Arab. “On one occasion, he was travelling to work on a bus when he heard an Israeli soldier saying to his colleagues how he had violently assaulted a Muslim woman in Gaza, how he hated Muslims and how he loved killing them,”  the Tribunal notes in its decision.

P told the Tribunal he had “…wasted nine years of his life in Israel. He could not practice his religion or express his political opinion. He wanted to return to Lebanon but he could not because his father is wanted in Israel and he could be arrested for carrying an Israeli passport. Eventually, the applicant and his brothers decided to leave the country and come to Australia.” P told the Tribunal that did not wish to return to Israel because there he “faced the kind of racism he could never have imagined.”

He did not wish to return to the “nightmare” he was living in Israel.

But the Tribunal, despite accepting that discrimination against Arab Israelis such as P in Israel is well documented, found that P did not fit the status of a refugee.

“The Tribunal appreciates that regular and petty acts of discrimination of the kind described by the applicant are most unpleasant, undesirable and psychologically uncomfortable. However, whilst persecution involves discrimination that results in harm to an individual, not all discrimination will amount to persecution … Without wishing to understate the unsavoury nature of the applicant’s experiences and having considered his personal circumstances, including his young age and lack of any evidence to suggest any kind of frailty, the Tribunal is not satisfied that the discrimination the applicant faced and its psychological impact, assessed cumulatively, reaches the standard of persecution within the meaning of the [Refugees] Convention,” the Tribunal ruled.

Perhaps the most debatable issue raised by the Tribunal’s decision was that it argued that while the entrenched discrimination against Arab Israelis is a reality, this does not necessarily amount to persecution.  “While [P] may not have the same opportunities and may not be treated as Israel’s Jewish citizens by the authorities or other citizens, the Tribunal is not satisfied that his treatment would amount to persecution if he were to return to Israel,” the Tribunal found. To some this might sound very much like persecution.

Peter Fray

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