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Israel’s politicians target minorities: The ‘demographic time bomb’

International Herald Tribune – 27 November 2002

The adoption of the dovish Amram Mitzna as leader by Israel’s Labor Party opens up the central fault line between Israel’s left and right for the elections: the question of whether Israel should stay in the Palestinian territories or begin some kind of separation.

Although this row overshadows all else – at least in the foreign media coverage – another debate is raging that will play an equally important part in determining the outcome of the election and hence the face of the next coalition government. It is the urgent question of how to preserve the ethnic purity of the Jewish state, how to prevent Israel from being dominated by non-Jews.

This question is related to the occupation of Palestinian territory. Should Israel finally eradicate Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, it may be forced to annex the West Bank and Gaza, along with the inhabitants. These 3 million Palestinians could then justifiably demand citizenship, including the right to vote and the same freedoms enjoyed by settlers to choose where they live, including possibly a return to their pre-1948 homes in towns such as Haifa and Jaffa.

For the time being, at least, such disturbing scenarios can be safely ignored. But the “demographic time bomb,” as Israelis call it, is already ticking loudly in the case of non-Jews who live inside the state. Israel’s 5 million Jews share their country with 1 million Arab citizens, 300,000 non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union who arrived with Jewish spouses, and a similar number of Third World guest workers, many of whom remain in Israel illegally.

Many of Israel’s Jews fears that their control of the state may soon be undermined both by the Arabs’ higher birth rates and by non-Jewish immigrants and foreign workers intermarrying with Jews.

Several of the parties that form the backbone of the current government – and are likely to play the same role in the next – are already putting attacks on these vulnerable groups at the center of their election campaigns. The religious ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which currently holds 17 of the 120 seats in Israel’s Parliament, is the biggest, but smaller rightist parties like Moledet, the National Religious Party and Yisrael Beitenu are also playing the racism card.

The most notorious platform is that of Moledet, which under the leadership of Rabbi Benni Elon is advocating “transfer,” a coy term for expelling from their homes both Palestinians and Israel’s Arab citizens. While Elon happily talks about making the lives of Arabs so miserable that they will “voluntarily” leave, his partners in the national-religious bloc led by Avigdor Lieberman prefer more misleading euphemisms, such as “resettling” Palestinians in neighboring Arab states.

But it is not just in the political margins that this kind of racism thrives. Both Elon and Lieberman developed their platforms while serving in the cabinet, where talk of transfer found fertile ground among several ministers from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Likud party.

So deeply have these ideas permeated the political culture that any non-Jew is now seen as a legitimate target for racist innuendo or threats from across the political spectrum.

Government policies toward the three minorities have contributed to the climate.

Arab citizens were recently identified as a “problem” that required the establishment of the Demography Council, a government body comprising academics, gynecologists and lawyers that is charged with devising ways to increase the Jewish birth rate. Understandably, the Arab population has inferred that Israel now officially considers Jewish babies good, Arab babies bad.

The thousands of immigrants who left the former Soviet Union during the 1990s are also less than welcome. Since their arrival the interior ministry has been fighting through the courts to prevent these “Russians,” as they are labeled, from being issued with ID cards identifying them as “Jewish” nationals. Without the cards, these immigrants remain second-class citizens, unable to marry Jews or be buried in state cemeteries. Their offspring are destined to be tarred in the same way.

But perhaps the most cynical treatment has been reserved for the foreign workers, doubtless because they lack the vote. Sharon set up an Immigration Authority under police supervision to expel thousands of them from the country. Israeli critics have pointed out Sharon’s hypocrisy: His business friends, who gain commissions on each new worker they bring to Israel, were mainly responsible for swelling the number of foreign workers.

The racist tone of the Immigration Authority’s new media campaign, paid for by the state, has outraged human rights groups, including the Religious Action Center, which says that the ads incite hatred against guest workers. The campaign’s title is a play on words in Hebrew meaning both “Foreign labor” and “Idol worship,” and the campaign accuses foreign workers of harming the character of the Jewish state by “marrying our women.”

The Religious Action Center warns that Israel should be especially sensitive to making the mistake of societies that in the past have “blamed their woes on the stranger, the Other.” It is a message unlikely to find a receptive audience during this election.

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