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Law dividing Christians, Muslims is a classic colonial tactic

Instead of promoting equality and the non-racialization of citizenship in Israel, right-wing MKs are adopting a classic colonial law to weaken the non-Jewish community’s ‘threat’ to the country’s ethnic order.

The Palestinian village of Biram, Israel, December 29, 2012. Descendants of the original residents of the Palestinian village of Biram walk through an archway of what was once the destroyed village’s church. Today, the site has been declared as a national park. Residents of the village were forced out by the Israeli army in 1949 and have not been allowed to return since, despite a 1951 High Court decision upholding their right to do so. (Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

The Knesset this week enacted a new law that legally distinguishes between Christian and Muslim citizens of Israel regarding employment opportunities. Though the law does not make a significant impact on its own, more bills are expected to be introduced that emphasize the same distinction. The Knesset member behind the bill, Yariv Levin (Likud-Beiteinu), believes that such measures promoting the division of Palestinian citizens of Israel will allow the state to use the Christian community as “a counterweight to the Muslims that want to destroy the country from within.”

The process behind the law’s enactment typifies the absurd and anti-democratic nature of the Israeli government’s treatment of its Palestinian citizens. The law, which was written and endorsed solely by right-wing Jewish parties, was based on MK Levin’s fanciful belief that Christianity, a religious identity, has no compatibility with being Arab, an ethnic-cultural identity. Moreover, despite being an issue that directly affects them, the legislation was allowed to continue without the consent of Palestinian leaders, thinkers or the public – many of whom are Christian – to see if they even agreed to its bizarre premise.

The most striking thing about the law, however, is how blatantly colonial its aims are. It replicates a classic tactic applied by colonial rulers in Africa, the Middle East and other regions to separate local populations based on their sect, ethnicity or other identities. These differentiations were exploited to gain native allies, stir local rivalries for strategic goals, or project the state’s race-based ideology. Britain used it in Iraq, France in Algeria, Belgium in Rwanda, as did the apartheid regime in South Africa, to name a mere few.

History shows that these policies stain the affected populations with their severe political, social and economic legacies. But while we look back at these colonial agendas as a source of many of today’s conflicts and social inequalities, Israel appears to be keen on reviving them. In the face of Palestinian demands for equality and accountability for state discrimination, the government is adopting harsher measures to weaken the non-Jewish community’s “threat” to the ethnic order. Following a flood of legislative restrictions on the rights of Palestinian citizens, right-wing MKs have now moved to create separate sectarian classes to break the collective identity of the Palestinian minority.

This strategy to “divide and conquer” Palestinian citizens is not a new phenomenon in Israel, and has in fact been an active policy of the state since 1948 (read Hillel Cohen’s Good Arabs for an introduction). But this is the first time that such a concerted effort has been launched to consolidate this policy into official law. With growing incitement from high-level Israeli officials (see Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett’s recent statements), Arab citizens are facing an unprecedented wave of attacks against not only their rights as citizens, but against the very fabric of their identity. Palestinian organizations have correctly condemned the “political, colonial motives” behind the law and warned that they “foreshadow the enactment of more racist bills and policies.”

It may turn out that the damage of these sectarian laws will have less to do with their effects on Palestinian citizens, who have overwhelmingly rejected them, and more to do with crippling the idea that Israeli citizenship protects Palestinians from Jewish majoritarianism. Instead of promoting equality and the non-racialization of citizenship, the state has proven that it is willing to suspend all democratic principles and processes in order to maintain its discriminatory vision for society. It is no less alarming that extremist Jewish politicians can have the arrogance, let alone the power, to decide the identity of non-Jews in the country and split them into separate legal classes. The response to this dangerous initiative is therefore not only in calling for the immediate cancellation of this most recent law, but also in condemning the Israeli political culture that enables and encourages such colonial and racist legislation in the interest of defending the “Jewish state.” Identities should be embraced under a multicultural vision of state and society; they should not be factors determining to what extent a person can have their rights.

Amjad Iraqi is an International Advocacy Coordinator at Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. The opinions in this article are the author’s own and do not represent the views of Adalah.

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    1. dcomplez

      The “Palestinian” national identity is literally founded upon the principle of opposing a Jewish presence in Eretz Yisrael. It is perpetuated by lies and propaganda, and its manifestations in the Israeli Arab population is similar to the manifestations of Comintern-backed parties from the Stalin period. Instead of working to improve the state, they vote for representatives whose goal is the destruction of the state. The state has a duty to its citizens to prevent a takeover by an illiberal undemocratic government. That is, sometimes in times of great crisis, states must move stifle voices that would lead to a worse outcome.

      Orwell wrote in “Pacifism and the War” in 1942:

      Pacifism. Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist. This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side you automatically help that of the other. Nor is there any real way of remaining outside such a war as the present one. In practice, “he that is not with me is against me”. The idea that you can somehow remain aloof from and superior to the struggle, while living on food which British sailors have to risk their lives to bring you, is a bourgeois illusion bred of money and security. Mr Savage remarks that “according to this type of reasoning, a German or Japanese pacifist would be ‘objectively pro-British’.” But of course he would be! That is why pacifist activities are not permitted in those countries (in both of them the penalty is, or can be, beheading) while both the Germans and the Japanese do all they can to encourage the spread of pacifism in British and American territories. The Germans even run a spurious “freedom” station which serves out pacifist propaganda indistinguishable from that of the P.P.U. They would stimulate pacifism in Russia as well if they could, but in that case they have tougher babies to deal with. In so far as it takes effect at all, pacifist propaganda can only be effective against those countries where a certain amount of freedom of speech is still permitted; in other words it is helpful to totalitarianism.

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    2. Danny

      Nothing more to be said about Israel’s knesset that hasn’t been said. It is a cesspool of racism.

      I’d just like to paraphrase our venerable leader Benjamin Mileikowsky: “These members of knesset (e.g. Levin) are classic colonial racists in modern garb.”

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    3. Danny

      Nothing more to be said about Israel’s knesset that hasn’t been said. It is a cesspool of racism.

      I’d just like to paraphrase our venerable leader Benjamin Mileikowsky: “These members of knesset (e.g. Levin) are classic colonial racists in modern garb.”

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    4. Kolumn9

      This is getting silly. The Ottoman Empire, which ruled here before the British was built on the millet system which explicitly considered the Christians to be a separate community with separate representation. Last time I checked the Palestinian Authority and Jordan (among other Arab states) also had reserved representation for Christians in parliament. You obviously didn’t mention this because it would undermine the basis for the argument that this is a ‘colonialist’ invention, but this ‘framing’ of events is a general problem on 972mag so you are in good company.

      Then there is the demand for multi-culturalism while insisting that a step towards providing greater representation to religious and ethnic minorities is ‘colonial’ and ‘racist’. Apparently the only ‘non-racist’ approach is to insist that all Arabs are the same and to continue to pretend that the massive differences in socio-economic statuses between Christians and Muslims in Israel do not exist. Or alternatively, all changes to the status quo must go through the self-appointed guardians of “Israeli Arab society” who in any case are not interested in a serious dialogue on this issue because they have defined themselves primarily to be Palestinian and Arab nationalists and are quite happy representing and speaking in the name of *Arabs* in general. Any change in this status quo to allow for more diverse voices to be heard undermines them even if it is one that could benefit their constituents.

      Additionally, there is a claim here of novelty. As if this is the first ‘Arab’ community to have separate representation. This is an obvious oversight in the author’s argument given that the Druze are quite obviously a religious community and are Arabic-speakers who are represented separately in pretty much all matters in Israel.

      If you wish to really make a good argument against this law then go ahead and make one on the basis of how this law negatively affects any group of or individual Israeli Arabs. So far I have yet to see anyone make that argument and all we are left with is the kind of general anti-Israeli propaganda that this site is paid by their sponsors to provide.

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    5. BaladiAkka1948

      Thank you, Amjad, for insisting on the fact that this is an old colonial tactic of divide and rule.
      Funny (well, actually not so funny), that you posted a photo from Biram (Kafr Bir’im).
      As I mentioned in the comments on Mairav’s article: Shadi Halul, the spokesperson of the “Christian Officers’ Forum” (a ‘Christian leader’ according to one of the resident Hasbara-commenters here) who’s been widely quoted in the media for his support of this new law is actually a descendent of displaced residents of Kfar Bir’im. The villagers were displaced, the village (except the church) razed in 1953, and the land confiscated by the “State of the Jews”.
      As Yair Levin said: the Christian Arabs (who’re not even Arabs according to him) are “our natural allies”. I’m sure the displaced Christian residents of neighbouring Iqrit appreciate the ‘alliance’ too just as the inhabitants of Eilaboun and other Christian villages who were massacred and expelled during the Nakba. Canada Park is built on top of a Christian church in Imwas too, after it was conquered in 1967.


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    6. Having read the piece, several of its links, and the above comments, I think I see the division in views this law reveals. Supporters say that other countries in the region recognize faiths institutionally and there is no reason Israel should not either; so, e.g., K9 notes Jordan has reserved Parliamentary seats for Christian representation, as does the PA. Opponents want to decide their own internal divisions, say through the formation of parties, thus having the option of saying that some posited division is irrelevant. The fear is that the Knesset is forcing a division institutionally which may be unwanted by a majority of the larger category, here, Arab Israelis, and institutional divisions can create their own clientele.

      On the national right side, “Jew” can mean faith but need not, so one might argue as well that there should be two Jewish slots, one for those of faith, one secular; but this would then force a third Arab slot, for secular Arabs, giving Arabs three votes on this all important committee which, knowing nothing, I suspect has no power whatsoever. Since Jews undoubtedly have majority representation on this committee, one could simply mark one slot present for Jewish faith. So consistent application of right national logic should expand the Arab vote from not 1 to 2 but 1 to 3. If Arab identity trumps faith, this is a net plus for nationalists. K9 says

      “If you wish to really make a good argument against this law then go ahead and make one on the basis of how this law negatively affects any group of or individual Israeli Arabs.”

      Well, there are such harmed groups, those wanting to define minority status racial/ethnically rather than through faith. And this is why Bennett’s recent speech becomes important. From Haaretz:

      “Israel should have zero tolerance for the national aspirations of Israeli Arabs, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett said on Sunday. The minister added that Judaization of the Galilee and Negev are entirely in line with Israel’s values.”

      These two sentences say 1) Arab national identity cannot be enhancing while 2) the Negev of Bedouin residence can be molded to enhance Jewish presence over prior residents so 3) national Arab identity cannot be used to mobilize against this enhanced presence. In this light, the focal law of this piece is another way to prevent such mobilization generally.

      Combining all of this with Lieberman’s proposal to corporately strip Arab Israeli villages of citizenship, I conclude that Arab nationality may be evoked by the majority but not by the purported minority so designated as “Arab,” re-enforced by the Nakba law. That is, we can call you “Arab” but you can’t call yourselves “Arab” in any meaningful legal way. This is actually pretty impressive tactical logic.

      However, the national right does not apply this logic consistently. The proposal to raise voting threshold for representation in the Knesset will indeed initially decrease the number of Arab MK’s; but if Arabs coalesce into fewer parties, their representation could actually rise. Short term, however, it will decline, with some present Arab political players removed. Of course, even enhanced representation is unlikely to enter a coalition government.

      The present law riles not through any specific harm engendered directly, but as emblem of cumulative control over group formation and success in a structural minority, a bit like controlling Congressional redistricting to tip global representation. Arab Israeli groups are against this law because they are mostly structurally powerless, and this law pushes that in their face.

      And, generally, I do not know how to correct for this structural minority status save for strict neutrality in social and political rights as mandated by the Declaration of Independence. Providing slots on committees won’t get you there.

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      • Kolumn9

        I was going to reply seriously to your comment but then decided that no one understands what you wrote anyway so there is no point in bothering. I do feel sorry for you though given that you are trying to justify the position of those that wish to deny a voice to Christian Arabs in Israel. Even sorrier since you do so while apparently having done zero research into the matter outside of what you have read on 972mag. Do you need technical support? Is your browser just stuck on 972mag?

        The only thing you got right is that all this brouhaha is about a relatively powerless committee called The Advisory Committee for Equal Opportunity in which additional religious/ethnic minorities were granted representation in order to help better integrate them into the Israeli economy. This commendable act is what caused all this dark venom to be spewed in the direction of Israel.

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        • bob wisby

          “I was going to reply seriously to your comment but then decided that no one understands what you wrote anyway so there is no point in bothering”

          That’s harsh criticism, K9, but fair. Greg can take all day to explain himself sometimes. I imagine him pondering over his responses, consulting weighty legal tomes, perhaps with a pipe in his mouth.

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          • Good one, Bob. But no, I don’t have a pipe. Nor do I consult tomes. But I am old.

            You have succeeded where K9 has failed.

            Good bye.

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    7. bob wisby

      The title of this article is misleading. The ‘Israel’ project is not a colonial adventure. It is an adventure in ethnic cleansing. Colonization involves the exploitation of indigenous peoples by the occupying force, such as was practiced in India by the British. Israel wants nothing from the Palestinians except their eventual disappearance

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      • BaladiAkka 1948

        Actually the colonial enterprise has various goals: the colonization of North America was a colonization of land, pushing the indigenous populations further and further. The Zionist colonization of Palestine is just the same: the West Bank is just a contemporary example of the Far West.
        The indigenous Arab population within the State of Israel is still there because the ethnic cleansing wasn’t 100%, much to the regret of most contemporary leaders. It’s not that Ben Gourion, Rabin, etc didn’t do their best….

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        • bob wisby

          Exactly, Baladi.

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        • bob wisby

          Israelis of all stripes like to be called ‘colonials’; first of all, it sounds very grand, and secondly it puts their activities into an understood historical narrative. “Yes”, the can say, “We’re some kind of colonial power, just like the English and French and Portuguese etc…We’re nothing out of the ordinary. Why pick on us?” In this way, they avoid facing the fact that they aren’t ‘colonials’ at all and that what they are engaged in is something far more sinister. If The New World had really been ‘colonized’, in the same way India was, then today there would be hundreds of millions of Native Americans living and working in the US, instead of 280, living on a reservation somewhere.

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    8. Ginger Eis

      This is the way Lt. (res.) Shadi Halul, (a Christian leader) summarized how the Christian Community and Christian Israelis feel about the new law: “I’m proud to be Christian. We have a right to self-definition as well; we are entitled to recognition. We are supporting this bill. It makes justice for Christian needs and solves discrimination against them within the Arab community that the state has falsely put them in for 65 years. Christians have their own historical identity and heritage with a destiny different from Arabs and Muslims. If something happened to our beloved country Israel, we as Christians will have a harmful destiny, as we see now in Syria, with massacres, rape, church destruction, like what happened in Lebanon and Iraq before. We deserve the right to self-representation and identity with legal Christian representatives that understand our needs, to stop discrimination.”

      The new law is a fait accompli. Anyone who doesn’t like it should “go and drink from the sea of Gaza”!

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      • Piotr Berman

        hear, hear! Soon the Knesset of the beloved Israel will allow to display a Christmas tree, and, who knows, a nativity display during Christmas season?

        And the next bill, Christians will allow to bring to Israel spouses from Palestine, Lebanon etc.?

        As it is, the approach of the bill is schisophrenic: manufacturing a more stable Zionist majority by subdividing second class citizens. As long as they are second class, their “Zionism” will be fleeting.

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