Embracing apartheid

December 17, 2014

Anti-Arab racism on display among ordinary Israelis and official hatred espoused by Israeli politicians is a toxic soup, explains Sarah Levy.

THE CABINET of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu passed an inflammatory “Jewish nationhood” bill in late November, giving further impetus to an outpouring of racial hatred and violence directed against Arabs. The law would reinforce the second-class status of Arabs inside Israel by defining Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people,” not a state of its citizens; demoting Arabic from its place as an official language; and restricting the right to immigrate and receive citizenship to Jews only, among other things.

Tensions were already running high due to months of heightened attacks by Jewish extremists on the Al Aqsa Mosque as well as Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat’s policy of “collective punishment” directed against the predominantly Arab communities of East Jerusalem. Now, public discussion of laws designed to entrench Israel’s Jewish character has further legitimized anti-Arab violence, creating an increasingly dangerous environment for Arabs and Muslims within a state that is becoming more and more openly apartheid in nature.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

The rising wave of anti-Arab violence followed Israel’s rightward political lurch before, during and after its devastating assault on Gaza this summer, and Palestinians are taking action to protect themselves and their families.

As of December 12, for example, at least 100 Arab bus drivers who worked for the bus company Egged had quit—about a third of the company’s Arab drivers—severely disrupting public transportation in Jerusalem. The wave of resignations comes after a several-day strike by Arab drivers following the racist murder of their coworker Yusuf Hassan al-Ramouni, who was found hanged inside his own bus on November 16.

Since then, drivers say that they have faced daily instances of violence, which the police have done little about, causing many to fear for their lives. “I worked for Egged for six years,” driver Arafat Tahan told Haaretz. “It was good work. But it’s better to earn less money and not come home in a body bag.”

Arab taxi drivers have also reported feeling unsafe on the job after many have either been physically assaulted or verbally attacked. The blanket violence against Arab drivers is in addition to the more random street violence against Palestinians that has also spiked in recent weeks, including:

-- On December 6, a Palestinian worker from Nablus was killed and others were assaulted when three unidentified gunmen attacked a workers’ apartment complex in Qalansuwa in the Center District of Israel.

On December 7, two Israelis assaulted Palestinian workers at a gas station in a village near Jerusalem, leading to their hospitalization.

On December 8, a mob of settlers stabbed a 12-year-old Palestinian boy in the thigh and shoulder near Hebron.

IN THE most symbolic of these race-fueled hate attacks, three Lahava youths broke into Hand in Hand, a K-12 Arab-Jewish bilingual school in Jerusalem, on November 29 and set fire to two first-grade classrooms, according to Haaretz newspaper. They also covered the walls with slogans such as, “There is no coexistence with cancer,” “Death to Arabs,” and “Enough with assimilation.”

While Israeli politicians were quick to condemn the incident, several parents noted the hypocrisy of their words, given their support for more systemic violence against Palestinians and more recently the support of some of these politicians for the Jewish nationhood bills, which parents see as fueling such anti-Arab attacks.

Ilene Prusher, whose son attends Hand in Hand, wrote in Haaretz:

Politicians don’t need to light small fires in schools; they’re busy lighting much bigger ones. The government’s attempts to pass some version of a “Jewish nation-state law” have only added to an already acrid atmosphere. It is a movement which serves as a slap in the face to people who have for years been working towards Arab-Jewish equality. The slap says, you’re wasting your time—you’re even part of the problem.

The Jewish nationhood bill would finally resolve what has always been a contradiction regarding Israel’s status as a “Jewish state” that also promoted itself as democratic by giving its Jewish component formal priority over its democratic component.

In late November, the Israeli cabinet, in a 14-to-6 vote, approved the bill, which is a proposal for a basic law titled “Israel, the Nation-State of the Jewish People.” Two centrist parties in the coalition government voted against the bill. Parliament still has to approve the bill for it to become law, which will have to wait until elections take place in March.

Although the details of what this would mean, if passed, are still being discussed, proposed elements include “demoting Arabic—spoken by the fifth of the population who belong to the country’s Palestinian minority—from its current status as an official language” and making “‘Jewish tradition’ and ‘the prophets of Israel’ a primary source of legal and judicial authority.”

The proposed bill has led to heated debate within Israel’s political establishment, with politicians including Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, Yair Lapid, Tzipi Livni, and the government’s chief legal advisor Yehuda Weinstein opposed to the measure while others, including most notably Prime Minister Netanyahu, are in full support.

In a heated parliamentary debate on November 24, two Palestinian members of the Knesset were booted out of the meeting after a raucous altercation that included Balad Party’s Jamal Zahalke calling Deputy Speaker Moshe Feiglin of the Likud Party a “fascist.”

Even the editorial staff of Haaretz has come out against the bill, warning that, if passed, the measure would remove Israel “from the community of democratic nations and give it a place of honor instead beside those dark regimes in which minorities are persecuted.”

YET FOR all the stir the bill has caused within Israeli society, critics of Israel’s policies more broadly have noted that at least immediately on the ground, such a bill would hardly affect Palestinians who are already severely discriminated against by a myriad of legal, administrative and bureaucratic means.

Instead of a constitution, Israel relies on a set of what it calls “Basic Laws” that include its declaration of independence and several foundational laws, all of which are premised on the idea that Israel is a “Jewish state.” Legally, there is no such thing as Israeli citizenship; instead nationality is defined as “Jewish.” Hence, the 1.5 million Palestinians living in Israel don’t have full citizenship since they are predominantly Muslim, not Jewish. Palestinians living in Israel instead derive their citizenship from a separate and inferior law, the Citizenship Law of 1952.

As Adalah, a legal human rights organization that represents Israel’s Palestinian minority, has documented, there are more than 50 basic rights granted to Jewish nationals that are denied to non-nationals.

This is separate from the situation faced by Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, whom Israel legally defines as “residents,” with less rights than citizens, and whose residency status can be revoked at any time; Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank; and of course Palestinians living in the open air prison of Gaza.

Palestinians in all four areas are rarely granted permits to build while nearby settlements expand freely, and of course Palestinian refugees internationally are denied their UN-recognized Right of Return, while Jews living anywhere in the world are emotionally and economically encouraged to move to Israel and become full-fledged citizens under Israel’s Law of Return. (For more on how Israel discriminates against its Palestinian citizens, see the Palestinian Boycott National Committee’s recent statement.)

“The common assumption [when people are discussing the recently proposed Jewish nationhood bill] is that, aside from the occupation, Israel is a normal, Western-style democracy that is now under threat from Netanyahu’s bill,” wrote journalist Jonathan Cook.

Saleh Mohsen, a lawyer at Adalah, elaborates on the point. “There is no principle of equality in Israeli law, and Netanyahu’s proposed law will do nothing to change that,” he said. “Legally, it simply consolidates the existing discrimination, making it even harder for us [Palestinians] to challenge and try to reverse the many already discriminatory laws in Israel.”

YET EVEN if a Jewish nationhood bill wouldn’t change much on the ground for Palestinians, its existence signifies a continuing rightward shift in a state that has become more openly racist in recent years.

Although Netanyahu was originally elected as a centrist political figure, Cook explains that the prime minister has found himself “increasingly outmaneuvered by political challengers on his right.” Netanyahu’s recent decision to call for elections in March is intended to get rid of two centrist parties that are currently part of his coalition government and replace them with a coalition of far-right parties. This is intended to lock in Netanyahu as the unquestioned leader of the right-wing camp.

While extremists in Israel have been getting more extreme, anti-Arab views have simultaneously made their way into the mainstream of Israeli society with the political center also shifting to the right.

A 2012 poll conducted by Professor Camil Fuchs, one of Israel’s respected pollsters, found:

A clear majority in the Jewish public (59 percent) wants the government to give preference to Jews in the admissions to jobs in the public sector, half of the public wants the government to generally treat Jews better than Arabs, and over 40 percent would like to see separate housing and classes for Jews and Arabs.

The survey also found that almost half of Israeli Jews (47 percent) want Arab citizens (who make up 20 percent of Israeli citizens) to be stripped of their citizenship rights, and to be made part of the Palestinian Authority. It is an idea that Avigdor Lieberman and other elements of the right have been pushing for some time.

By this summer, more than 95 percent of the Israeli Jewish population supported the war on Gaza.

As Noam Sheizaf wrote in 972 Mag, this kind of anti-Arab sentiment and support for anti-Arab policies:

reflect the widespread notion that Israel, as “a Jewish state,” should be a state that favors Jews. They are also the result of the occupation, which has completely dehumanized the Palestinians in the eyes of Israelis. After almost half a century of dominating another people, it’s no surprise that most Israelis don’t think Arabs deserve the same rights.

Additional proposed laws reinforcing these sentiments have emerged just since this past October, including a proposed law that would ban Arab workers from riding what were previously mixed buses and another that banned Arab workers from constructing bomb shelters in city kindergartens, something a majority of Israelis supported.

But the interplay between racist sentiments and racist laws works both ways. It’s not simply a racist population that is pushing the government further right. Recall this summer how Israeli officials reportedly knew that the three kidnapped Israeli teens were dead, yet hid the evidence in order to stir up an anti-Arab “bring back our boys” campaign that conveniently bled into majority support for the brutal war on Gaza weeks later. Official Israeli politics fuel popular Israeli anti-Arab sentiment, which in turn justifies the positions of politicians, and vice versa.

As the mother of one of the Hand in Hand school attackers proudly and openly told Ynet News after her son was found suspect, “It’s disgusting that Jews and Arabs learn side by side… If we didn’t have a country governed by law, I would have done the same.”

Yet according to Menachem Klein, a professor of politics at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv, there is a deeper motivation behind the bill: how to deal with the “demographic challenge” of Palestinians living in a single “Greater Israel” that would include the Occupied West Bank if Netanyahu continues to reject any partition of the territory. Klein pointed out that if this were the case, half the population of such a state would consist of non-Jews, leading to problems for Israel.

Klein told Middle East Eye:

Palestinian citizens are part of that 50 percent. They support the creation of a Palestinian state, making them in Netanyahu’s eyes part of the enemy camp. They put the identity of an enlarged state at risk…This bill puts ethnicity above citizenship and is one tool to circumvent this threat. It means anyone who identifies with the Palestinians is a traitor. That is why Netanyahu tells Palestinian citizens to move to the Occupied Territories. Because in his view most of them are enemy agents.

Today, like in the aftermath of this summer, international activists should use Israel’s open embrace of apartheid and racist policies in both the legal and social sphere to point out the farce of Israel’s “Jewish democracy” and to motivate and build the movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS).

As Omar Bargouti said in a December 2 speech at Columbia University, in which he referred to the Israeli government as the BDS movement’s “biggest closet supporters in the world”:

I can understand the frustration of the extreme right in Israel. “Why is the whole world, even the U.S., against us with this new law? Why are they so mad? We’ve been doing it all along, we’re just making it a bit more formal…”

What Netanyahu and his far-right government are doing is resolving this oxymoron. It cannot exist any longer. Let’s be very honest, forget democracy. This is an ethnocracy…this is a Jewish supremacist state. So—no pretense of democracy. And that’s a very important development because it’s revealing Israel’s true nature. The last mask of Israel’s so-called democracy has been dropped.

Further Reading

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