Al-Ahram Weekly – 8 – 14 July 2004
The State of Israel is both “democratic and Jewish”, a first-ever Israeli constitution is set to declare. In a two-part article Jonathan Cook lays open a contradiction in terms
An Israeli Knesset committee is currently formulating a constitution for Israel — the first such attempt in its 56 years. The task was abandoned early in the state’s history, after the country’s founding fathers feared that giving a precise definition to the state’s character would tear apart the fragile consensus between secular and religious Jews and that a Bill of Rights would enshrine in law rights it wanted to deny the Palestinians. Instead, the founding document of the state, the Declaration of Independence, made a promise: that Israel would “uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of religion, race or sex”.
The Law, Justice and Constitution Committee is now holding regular sessions to establish a comprehensive set of Basic Laws which will comprise the constitution. The consensus among the Jewish committee members is that the preamble to the document will proclaim the state to be both “Jewish and democratic”. The assumption is that an overwhelming majority of Knesset members will back such a constitution if it is put to a general vote of the parliament. The sole Arab committee member, Azmi Bishara, is not participating in the deliberations because he believes that such a formulation is nonsensical: the state cannot be both Jewish and democratic at the same time. Instead he is demanding that Israel become a state of all its citizens.
So who is right? Let us consider Israel’s track record in fostering democracy. We will not test its record in the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza, where a military regime rules over a disenfranchised and occupied population of some 3.5 million people. Rather, let us restrict the judgement to its record in governing the population within its own borders, and in particular the one million Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship. How have they fared in what the Knesset wishes to call a Jewish and democratic state?
Security services: In the past 56 years, Israel has refused to cancel the “emergency status” it inherited from the British mandatory government. The emergency provisions effectively maintain Israel on a permanent war footing and allow for a range of austere measures that contradict the principles of democracy. Such a status was reaffirmed by the Knesset for a six-month period in May. At the time even the conservative Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee criticised the government for insisting on renewing the complete raft of emergency regulations, including some 18 which are not related to security.
Security-related powers include administrative detention (imprisonment without charge or trial), censorship and wiretapping. Inside Israel these measures are directed largely against Palestinian citizens, covertly maintaining a regime of intimidation and control over them — a continuation by other means of the military government that ruled over them during the state’s first two decades.
At regular intervals, the minority has also been reminded that the state will not tolerate any dissent from Palestinian citizens. To date, the security services have committed three atrocities against them, the first against villagers out working in their fields, and the last two incidents involving the killing of unarmed civilian demonstrators. Each event has been inflicted on a new generation of Palestinian citizens, presumably with the intention of warning them that organised action in pursuit of their rights will not be accepted.
The first massacre happened in 1956 outside the village of Kafr Qasem, close to the Green Line with the West Bank, which was then under Jordanian rule. The military government declared a curfew on the village with only a couple of hours’ notice and without informing the inhabitants. When those working out in the fields tried to return to Kafr Qasem in the early evening, 49 of them were shot dead in cold blood by soldiers.
The second atrocity happened in 1976 when Palestinian citizens in the Galilee tried to protest against the state’s confiscation of vast areas of their farmlands on the pretext that they were needed for military purposes. The police entered the centre of the demonstration, in the town of Sakhnin, killing six protesters.
The third and most recent incident occurred in October 2000 when the government sent into Arab towns and villages armed police and anti-terror sniper units to shoot live ammunition into crowds of protesters demonstrating against the bloodshed of the Intifada. Twelve local citizens and one man from Gaza were killed.
There has been almost no attempt to hold the officers responsible for these atrocities, or their commanders. There was a show trial of the Kafr Qasem soldiers during which all the charged were given pay rises and their commander was fined the nominal sum of one piaster. No inquiry was ever held into the deaths in Sakhnin. The October 2000 killings were at least investigated by a judge, although no one was ever charged for the deaths. Supreme Court Justice Theodor Orr admitted that the police had a history of treating Palestinian citizens as “an enemy”. But one of the key police commanders he admonished has subsequently been promoted.
The policy of brutality continues. The political lobbying group Mossawa has called for an investigation into the killing of 15 Palestinian citizens by the security forces in mysterious circumstances since the eruption of the Intifada. There are regular reports of Palestinian citizens being attacked by the police or arrested without reason. In February some 1,000 policemen entered the village of Beaneh in the Galilee to demolish five homes. During several hours they terrorised the local population, severely injured council officials who tried to negotiate, fired tear gas into the grounds of a kindergarten and verbally abused and pointed a gun at the principal who tried to remonstrate with them. (For details of the incident see the report “Let Them Suffocate” by the Human Rights Association in Nazareth.) In the south, in the Negev, a paramilitary police force called the Green Patrol is the strong arm behind a wave of house demolitions directed against the Bedouin. It has also repeatedly entered their villages to “enforce” the aerial spraying of their crops with toxic chemicals.
But violence is not the only weapon being used to control the Palestinian minority; their status within the society is reinforced through humiliating searches and checks when they are outside their communities. The most notorious occur at the border crossings and at the airport where they are often subjected to lengthy questioning and intimate searches by the security services. Although the pretext is security requirements — which are not applied to Jewish citizens — experience shows security is usually a secondary consideration: in early 2004 Lutfi Manshour, editor of the leading Israeli Arab newspaper As-Sinara, abandoned a flight in which he was to accompany the Israeli president after he was forced to undergo a body search; and Amir Makhoul, the director of the biggest Israeli Arab non- profit organisation, Ittijah, was taken away for lengthy questioning at the airport.
Media: Israel has never enshrined in law the right to freedom of speech and under an emergency regulation inherited from the British mandate — the Press Ordinance of 1933 — the government can close newspapers at will and without reason. This measure has been used repeatedly since Israel’s creation against dissident Arab media: the Communist Party’s newspaper Al-Ittihad in 1953 and Al-Fajar in 1981 were closed on the grounds of “endangering public safety”; and As-Shiraa in 1983, Al-Aahad and Al- Meathak in 1986, and Al-Bian in 1994 were shut down on the grounds of “being funded by a terrorist organisation”. In reality, they were closed either because they espoused Palestinian nationalism or genuine coexistence or because they were receiving money indirectly from Palestinian organisations.
The main purpose of the measure has been to silence those parts of the Arab media that adopt critical positions. In December 2002 the emergency law was used to close Sawt Al-Haqq Wal- Hurriya, the weekly newspaper of the extra-parliamentary wing of the Islamic Movement. The movement, under its leader Sheikh Raed Salah, has surged in popularity in recent years and uniquely has been organising campaigns to highlight discrimination and political threats to the minority. The interior minister closed the paper, which has been published since 1989, on the grounds that its articles “endanger public safety” by inciting against Jews, Zionism and the state of Israel. The editor and a columnist are both due to stand trial in September, under a new law charging them with inciting against the state.
More generally, Arab journalists are both informally and formally excluded from access to even lowly positions within the Hebrew media. The Israeli Broadcasting Law defines the media’s role as one of representing Jewish society, reinforcing Jewish, Hebrew-speaking culture and establishing a bond between Jews living in Israel and the Diaspora. The Broadcasting Law ignores the significance of the Palestinian minority, its culture and identity. Only a small fraction of public radio and TV output is intended for Palestinian citizens. In addition, according to the Ilam media centre in Nazareth, only one per cent of media workers are Arab. Currently Haaretz, Israel’s “leading liberal daily newspaper”, employs just one Arab journalist, a sports writer.
Even those rare Jews who do speak out face an almost impossible task. The two biggest circulation newspapers, Yediot Aharonot and Maariv, both recently sacked leftwing Jewish journalists who too openly criticised the policies of the government, including the highly regarded reporter Meron Rappaport. All articles dealing with security issues — a term in Israel that covers vast areas of public policy — must be submitted to a military censor. There is no appeal against his decision.
In a revealing aside, the Haaretz newspaper reported a few weeks ago that for several years the Israeli Broadcasting Authority (IBA) has been setting up illegal roadblocks in Arab areas, at which drivers are stopped and required to pay fines for not having TV licences. Nearly $5 million has been confiscated from Arab citizens on the threat of impounding their cars or refusing to return their identity papers. In some cases the debts owed by drivers were fabricated by IBA officials. These roadblocks, which only operate in Arab areas, are entirely illegal but have been staffed by policemen.
Language: Although officially Arabic is a state language, its standing is far lower than both Hebrew — the other state language — and English — a non-state language. Few Jews learn more than basic Arabic at school, whereas Palestinian pupils are required to take Hebrew as a main subject until high school graduation — the bagrut exam. Extra points are earnt in the bagrut for excellence in Hebrew but none are earnt for Arabic, making it much harder for Palestinian citizens to enter university.
There is a regular flow of stories about Arab workers being sacked for using Arabic in the workplace, including in March by McDonald’s Israel. These stories represent the tip of an iceberg according to Arab labour organisations such as Sawt Al-Amal. Although there have been recent successes in the courts to enforce the inclusion of Arabic on road signs, most still give precedence to Hebrew and English — even in mixed Jewish and Arab cities. The court’s decision was prompted by the judges’ concern that a lack of signs in Arabic was leading to traffic accidents. In addition, the absence of pavements, poor road layout and badly maintained roads in Arab areas mean Palestinian citizens are more than twice as likely as Jewish citizens to die in road accidents. Public meetings are held in Hebrew, as are all court hearings. There was a recent attempt by the state to make Arabic speakers pay for their translation costs in court cases.
Education: Israel separates the education of Jews and Arabs until university entry. This is justified on the grounds that the two peoples have different languages and cultures and that they mostly live in separate geographical areas. However, it also justifies separate allocation of resources. Because of higher Arab birth rates, Arab pupils comprise a third of the total school population but their schools receive just seven per cent of the education ministry’s budget. This unequal funding is compounded by the much lower budget allocations to Arab municipalities, which also contribute to the school budget.
A report by Human Rights Watch in 2001 identified systematic discrimination in education resources that disadvantages Palestinian children: class sizes are much bigger; there are fewer textbooks and many of them are inadequate; buildings are in far worse condition; there is a widespread lack of kindergartens, vocational programmes and remedial classes. The standard of special education for disabled children is particularly hashly criticised. In contrast, a substantial number of Jewish children — secular and religious alike — have benefited from a system of double funding of schools run by the ultra- Orthodox, which receive money from the budgets of the education and religious affairs ministries. Their elementary schools, which teach a form of fundamentalist Judaism, now account for the education of a quarter of all Israeli children.
The security services have taken an uninterrupted interest in shaping the education of the Palestinian minority, to ensure that Arab children cannot learn about their heritage and history or gain insights into their national identity. As one senior Shin Bet official told Haaretz recently of the security service’s traditional policy: “The Shin Bet not only determined and intervened in the appointment of principals and teachers, but even decided who the custodians and janitors that clean the bathrooms in the Arab schools would be.” It still has a department dedicated to vetting teachers and investigating incidents of what it perceives to be “political” activity: discussions of Palestinian history or identity.
The curriculum taught to Arab children is also different from that taught to Jewish children, even when there is no apparent justification for the difference. So for example, world literature is not usually taught in Arab schools, including authors such as Shakespeare, Chekhov or Molière. Mahmud Ghanayim, head of the Arabic Language and Literature Department at Tel Aviv University, fears the exclusion of world literature is part of “the government’s attempt to create an Arab student who is not open to the world”. This deficiency is not remedied by the inclusion of great Arabic literature. The curriculum, unchanged since 1981, excludes the most famous Palestinian poets, Mahmoud Darwish, Rashid Hussein and Samih Al-Qassem, as well as Palestinian writers such as Ghassan Kanafani. The sole Jewish member of the 1981 committee that selected the literature list vetoed any works that might “create an ill spirit”. Paradoxically, Darwish is available — if rarely taught — in the curriculum of Jewish schools.
The history curriculum for Arab children was set by a Jewish-dominated committee in 1982 and barely touches on Palestinian history. A revised trial edition, published in 1999, which devotes more space to the Palestinian experience, is almost never used in schools. According to Said Barghouti, the former supervisor of history and civics in the Arab sector, the education ministry never published the textbooks. However, a new textbook has been produced for the civics curriculum — the first which will be the basis for both Jewish and Arab children. In Hebrew it is entitled Being Citizens in Israel: A Jewish and Democratic State ; in Arabic it is called Being Citizens in Israel and minor editorial changes mean the Jewish features of the state are downplayed. However, the Education Minister Limnor Livnat has been insisting that Arab schools be forced to identify strongly with the state’s Zionist mission. Schools that don’t fly the Israeli flag or make children sing the Israeli national anthem — which includes words identifying the state with the Jewish people — have been threatened with budget cuts.
Although there is integrated education at the college and university level, Arab students are still hugely marginalised. Although Arab students comprise about a quarter of Israelis in that age group, they are only eight per cent of the university student body. Entry is made much harder by the matriculation exams that use a points system which gives higher value to the Hebrew language than Arabic. Psychometric scores used in selecting candidates also discriminate against Arab students because they are culturally biased against them and rely on the English language, which Arab children learn as a third language, after Arabic and Hebrew. Admissions interviews too are always conducted in Hebrew. A revised admissions system, in place during 2003, was abolished in November last year after officials admitted that it was benefiting Arab schoolchildren from poorer families. In the words of the admissions authority, this was seen to be at the expense of Jewish children.
The percentage of Arab lecturers at the universities is even lower than the number of students, standing at only one per cent. The places of many lecturers and professors at the universities are funded by a state security body, the National Security Council, and many lecturers are required to teach at military and police colleges as part of their work. Campus protests by Arab students are severely circumscribed. Haifa University, where a large number of Arabs study, requires several days notice for demonstrations and has repeatedly suspended or expelled Arab student leaders. Waving a Palestinian flag at these demonstrations can lead to arrest by police. In addition, attempts to create an Arab university have so far been blocked by the state.