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How one law exposes what Israel has always tried to hide

From the moment it was established, Israel granted its Jewish citizens privileges at the expense of Palestinians. The ‘nation-state bill’ reveals the choice Israelis have to make about the future of their country.

Thousands of young Jewish boys wave Israeli flags as they celebrate Jerusalem Day at the Western Wall, May 17, 2015. (Flash90)

Thousands of young Jewish boys wave Israeli flags as they celebrate Jerusalem Day at the Western Wall, May 17, 2015. (Flash90)

Years ago, American journalist Ted Koppel hosted a fascinating televised debate between Rabbi Meir Kahane, the far-right anti-Arab leader, and Ehud Olmert, then a fresh-faced Knesset member from the Likud party. As the Israeli parliament is set to approve the Nation-State Law, which would enshrine discrimination against non-Jews in Israel, it is worth going back and paying close attention to the debate.

Kahane laid out his political vision without qualms. “Israelis, and especially those in power, are afraid that I will ask them the following question,” he says calmly. “Do the Arabs in Israel have the democratic right to sit quietly, democratically, and give birth to enough children to become the majority? They are afraid that I’ll ask the question. In Israel, currently, without Kahane in power, there is a law that allows Jews to receive citizenship from the mere fact that they ask for it, and that does not allow non-Jews to lease state land. Kahane did not legislate these laws. These are laws that were originally passed by the Labor Party.”

Olmert, an exceptional rhetorician, found himself stumbling to respond, retorting instead to an embarrassing discussion of chance and probability. And for good reason. Free of the shackles of political correctness and democratic veneers, Kahane was able to reveal the true face of Zionism in Israel: an inherent, perpetual demographic war against its Palestinian citizens. If Israel seeks to be Jewish and democratic, it needs to actively ensure a Jewish majority.

It is surprising therefore that it was the clause in the Nation-State Law that allows for the establishment of Jewish-only communities that has brought about so much opposition. After all, the Zionist project in Israel, since its inception, was one of re-engineering the land. This forms the basis for the state’s attitude and treatment of Palestinians — whether it is ethnic cleansing in the West Bank, forbidding family reunification, the Law of Return, or the fact that since Israel’s founding, not a new single Arab town has been established, save for some Bedouin townships in the south, built to stop the Bedouin population from expanding.

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The Jewish public in Israel has learned to accept this deal, in which the civic character of the state are subjugated to its ethnic one. After all, that subjugation generally favors the Jewish population. The built-in privileges that Israel provides to its Jewish citizens — at the expense of its Palestinian citizens — are too numerous to count. But even if the inequality and injustice at the basis of this deal are not enough to cause Jews to seek out a different civil contract, we ought to pay attention to the fact that this re-engineering does not only affect its Arab citizens.

One can read the protocols of government meetings at the beginning of the 1950s, as the state prepared for waves of Jewish immigrants from Muslim countries. Those Jews were not part of the Zionist leadership’s demographic vision, and this in turn has informed the state’s attitude and treatment of Mizrahi Jews. This manifested in the begrudging way in which these immigrants were brought to Israel, as well as the way they were geographically spread out inside the country. The demographic vision was based not only on a country with as few Arabs as possible, but also one in which Mizrahim live on the margins, in the periphery, on its frontier. The state’s cruelty is the extension of that same exact worldview. In Israel’s demographic vision, there is no room for blacks — certainly those who are not Jewish.

Mizrahim walk around the Mamila neighborhood in West Jerusalem, 1957. Mamila, like countless other neighborhoods and communities, was empied of its Palestinian residents in the 1948 war. (GPO)

Mizrahim walk around the Mamila neighborhood in West Jerusalem, 1957. Mamila, like countless other neighborhoods and communities, was empied of its Palestinian residents in the 1948 war. (GPO)

This deal has forced Judaism itself to become the gatekeeper of the Jewish nation state. Because the Zionist state demands such a stringent filtration system, and because that role has been forced on Judaism, the latter must fulfill that role in the most conservative manner. While this might serve the needs of the state, it certainly goes against the needs of the many Jewish communities. This includes Ethiopians, immigrants from former Soviet states, ultra-Orthodox women, LGBTQs, non-Orthodox Jews, and others. This is the price that parts of the Jewish public pays for this miserable deal, which weakens our status as citizens for the sake of privileges based on our religious and national identity.

Over the years we learned to treat “Jewish and democratic” as axiomatic, to the point that undermining it is seen as an attempt to destroy the state. But there’s an alternative, and its name is a state of all its citizens. The Jewish public has hardly heard of it, since those gatekeepers make sure to silencer every real attempt to discuss the option. Recently, the Knesset chairman disqualified a discussion of a bill put forth by Balad MK Jamal Zahalka to recognize Israel as a state of all its citizens.

Leader of the Joint Kist, Ayman Odeh (R) with MK Jamal Zahalka, during the weekly Joint List meeting in the Knesset, June 1, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Leader of the Joint Kist, Ayman Odeh (R) with MK Jamal Zahalka, during the weekly Joint List meeting in the Knesset, June 1, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

That’s how dangerous the idea of full equality and recognition of the national rights of both nations that live here really is. There was no fear that such a law would pass — the fear is of something entirely different: the possibility that the Jewish public will start to understand that the “Jewish and democratic” deal does not pay off, and that a country based on real equality and democracy is not only in the interest of the Arab public, but of the Jewish one as well.

All those who are horrified by the new nation-state bill should re-watch the Kahane-Olmert debate. Over the years, the reality in Israel has proven that Kahane’s understanding of Zionism was correct. After 70 years, the time has come to internalize the fact that we have a choice: between a Jewish and racist state, and an equal, democratic one. There is no third way.

This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Bruce Gould

      “..or the fact that since Israel’s founding, not a new single Arab town has been established, save for some Bedouin townships in the south, built to stop the Bedouin population from expanding.”

      That’s because they don’t like to give building permits to Palestinians.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Tomere Kalman

      Yes, they are afraid of an all it’s citizens state for a very good reason – that’s not what this country is about.
      This is the only safe place in the world for Jews. That’s what Israel is all about.
      If you’re taking that back, and if the Palestinians will become the majority and control this state – who would defend the Jews? Where will we go? The Palestinians hate us and want us dead. Not all of them, but enough. Even if most aren’t now – who said that in an all it’s citizens country where Palestinians control it we will never see that come? Just look at history at times where Jews didn’t have a Haven to run to it and they were dependent on non-Jewish people.
      Really “good” things (like you want us to think) happened like the Holocaust, the Inquisition, Pogroms, murders, theft and many more amazing thing! What a good place could Israel, the land of the Jews, the only Jewish country, the “next” 20+ Arab country that you want it to become, the only real safe place right now for Jews, will become! 🙂

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        This seems stuck inside of a self-fulfilling prophetic loop. Why not break out of the loop? Why don’t you try treating the Palestinians with basic respect and decency and lack of blatant discrimination inside Israel, and withdraw your fifty year brutal occupation of their brothers to the East and agree to a minimally fair 2SS and see how many of them then hate you? I think you’d be surprised. No? You’re not willing to do that? I didn’t think so. Which leaves you then with the choice Orly describes in her last paragraph. There is no third choice.

        Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @Tomere Kalman: The question is what a “state for the Jews” actually looks like down here in reality. I’m with Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard:

        https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium.MAGAZINE-for-top-israeli-human-rights-lawyer-winning-is-a-double-edged-sword-1.5769069

        But my understanding of history, of politics, of how people behave, is that regimes that are fundamentally subjugating people, stripping them of rights, especially groups of people, are regimes that by definition are not sustainable. And a regime of this kind has to keep on nurturing and investing in the domination practices in order to keep things from exploding.

        Reply to Comment
    3. itshak Gordin Halevy

      We want a Jewish state where minorities can live in peace if they respect our sovereignty. Our Druze brothers do it. They are totally involved in Israeli life with ministers and generals.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Not quite, Halevy:

        Israel’s Loyal Druze Minority-and the Racist Beating of Tommy Hassoun
        http://jewishjournal.com/blogs/headjewincharge/154761/

        The Druze are a tiny, isolated, controllable minority and a natural, easy ally. And a model minority. Everything you say you want “minorities” to be. And yet even they face serious, permanent discrimination, both systematic and casual.
        The task regarding the 20% of Israelis who are Palestinian is going to be much more difficult and will involve much more work and building of good will, hard work, but Israel refuses even to make a minimal start, to pay a minimal price, like for example ending the pseudo-“sovereignty” of its occupation of their brothers to the East. I can guarantee you that were Israel brutally occupying the Syrian Druze for 50 years, their Israeli Druze brothers would not be such a model minority. You say you want something but put in absolutely no effort towards it, are not willing to pay the price, in fact make every effort against it. Do you think beating people into submission will gain their “respect”—and respect for what?
        “A Jewish state where minorities can live in peace if they respect our sovereignty” in fact reads as a creepy Orwellian euphemism for supremacism and the tyranny of the majority.

        Now, if you change your mind and decide to buck up and do the hard work necessary to make things work, consider that +972 Magazine is an excellent guide for you in your efforts. Help readily at hand.

        Reply to Comment

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