Jonathan Cook: the View from Nazareth -

Along the fault line

Catalyst – 20 November 2006

What does citizenship mean in a state that defines itself as Jewish, and to what extent can such a state really be democratic?

What, for example, is the relationship between a Jewish state and the seven million Jews who live as citizens of other countries, mainly the United States, Russia, Argentina, Canada, Britain and France? To what extent does their influence, as non-citizens, in the running of the Jewish state compromise its claims to being a normal liberal democracy?

And even more problematically, how does a Jewish state relate to the fifth of its population, 1.3 million citizens, who are not Jewish but Palestinian Arabs? These Palestinians, absorbed by Israel following the 1948 war that established the Jewish state on the Palestinian homeland, are the descendants of the small number of Palestinians not forced from their homes during the year-long fighting. Although most continue to identify themselves as Palestinian, preferring to be called Palestinian citizens of Israel, the state identifies them as ‘Israeli Arabs’ – a term some of them find as offensive as black Americans might today at being called ‘negroes’.

Officially, this Palestinian minority inside Israel, comprising three main religious-ethnic groups (Muslim, Christian and Druze), enjoys rights of citizenship just like Israeli Jews. Their legal status is entirely separate from their Palestinian kin outside Israel’s recognised borders, in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza, who have almost no rights under Israeli law. They cannot enter Israel, except in exceptional circumstances, and are governed instead by rules imposed by the Israeli military authorities.

In practice, however, the citizenship of Israeli Arabs is not the same as that of Israeli Jews at the most fundamental level of belonging to the state.

Israeli Jews are often willing to concede that Israeli Arabs are discriminated against: they are likely to be far poorer, the unemployment rate in their communities is far higher, their towns and villages are under-funded by the central government, and their schools inferior in every respect. There are also large areas of the private and state-run economy that Israeli Arabs are not allowed to work in. Many Israeli Jews justify this discrimination to themselves on ‘security’ grounds, arguing that, as most Arab citizens do not serve in the army, they cannot expect the same rights.

But this just scratches at the surface of the problem. These differences are merely reflections of far more profound forms of inequality; and the remedy would require an overhaul of Israel’s very constitutional framework, changes that almost all Israeli Jews are opposed to.

The problem, in essence, is encapsulated in the popular phrase used to describe Israel: a ‘Jewish and democratic state’. Few observers feel comfortable denying Israel’s status as the ‘only democracy in the Middle East’.

But defending such assumptions is far harder, which is why those who support Israel’s current citizenship structure tend to rely on sound bites rather than argument. For example, a former head of Israel’s supreme court, Meir Shamgar, once famously declared: ‘The existence of the state of Israel as the state of the Jewish people does not negate its character, just as the Frenchness of France does not negate its democratic character.’

It is worth deconstructing Shamgar’s statement to see whether being a Jewish and democratic state is really such a straightforward matter.

For starters, a country’s being Jewish is not the same as its being French. ‘Jewish’ might be being used in either a religious or an ethnic sense, but neither is the same as ‘French’. The problem is revealed the moment we try to imagine how it might be possible to naturalise as a Jew without converting to Judaism. No one, after all, is required to convert to being French. Calling a Jewish state ‘democratic’ seems to be as oxymoronic as calling a self-declared Catholic or Afrikaner state ‘democratic’.

Israel’s supporters, however, have another sound bite in their armoury: it is anti-Semitic to refuse to recognise that ‘Jewish’ can also refer to a national identity as well as a religious or ethnic one. They argue that the Jews are a nation just like the French are one. Or in a familiar axiom: Israel allowed the Jews to become ‘a nation like other nations’. But a significant proportion of Jews refuse to treat their Jewishness as a nationality: secular anti-Zionist Jews see their Jewishness at best as an ethnic identity. A large number of Jewish religious fundamentalists, including the ultra-Orthodox or Haredim, believe Jewish identity is inseparable from the practice of the religion of Judaism. It is hard to imagine many French citizens denying their Frenchness in these terms.

Even more problematic, it is unclear who exactly is being counted as a national in the Jewish state. France is the sum of all French citizens. But the state of Israel, according to its founding laws, belongs not just to the people who are its citizens, but to the Jewish people wherever they live and whatever other nationalities they consider themselves to be. Or as the Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling notes: ‘The state is not defined as belonging to its citizens, but to the entire Jewish people.’

The legal basis

This murky definition of citizenship, and the problems that result from it, are most clearly revealed in three areas of law.

The first is the use of a complex system of personal status classification to separate citizenship from nationality, two categories of belonging that in most states are indistinguishable. Rather than offering citizens one single national identity, ‘Israeli’, the authorities have created a list that includes 137 possible nationalities – anything, in fact, apart from ‘Israeli’. So a citizen may be identified as Jewish, Georgian, Russian, Hebrew, Arab, Druze, Abkhazi, Assyrian or Samaritan. But not Israeli.

This peculiar system was necessary, at least in part, because Israel’s leadership wanted to avert any danger of the presence of non-Jews (that is, Arab citizens) compromising the state’s ‘Jewishness’, in the sense of its belonging to the Jewish people. Were ‘Israeli’ to become a true nationality – as distinct from a classification of citizenship – it would mean that Israeli Arabs would have superior rights inside the Jewish state to Jews in the Diaspora, Jews who have not taken up Israeli citizenship.

This is why, when one Israeli Jew petitioned the supreme court in 1971 to have his nationality as stated in the public records changed from ‘Jew’ to ‘Israeli’, Chief Justice Shimon Agranat rejected the application, stating that ‘such a separatist approach should not be seen as a legitimate approach’. His ruling was upheld in 2004 when another similar petition was rejected.

Underpinning this distinction between nationality and citizenship is a second law, passed by the Israeli parliament in 1950, known as the Law of Return. By giving the right to any Jew anywhere in the world to come to Israel and automatically receive citizenship, this early piece of immigration legislation recognises a two-fold difference in rights: between those of Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel; and between those of Jews and Palestinians in the Diaspora.

According to the Law of Return, Israeli Jews are entitled to bring their relatives to Israel, whereas Israeli Arabs are not. Similarly, any Jew anywhere in the world, even those who have no relatives in Israel, may come to Israel and become a citizen, whereas Palestinians in the Diaspora cannot, including the hundreds of thousands who lived in what is today Israel until they were forced out in the 1948 war.

Recent legal changes to a related piece of legislation, the Nationality Law, make it impossible for Israeli Arabs to marry Palestinians in the occupied territories and bring them to Israel. Effectively, it is now impossible for such couples to live together unless they move abroad. Most critics of the policy believe it is designed simply to reduce the number of Palestinians who might claim Israeli citizenship.

The third area of law applies to a set of international Zionist organisations, including the Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund (JNF). These bodies pre-existed the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, with the Jewish Agency being a kind of early parliament and the JNF responsible for buying land in what was then British-ruled Palestine.

When the state of Israel was created, some Jews argued that these organisations ought to be disbanded as they were designed to protect the interests of Jews settling in Palestine, preferring their rights over those of the indigenous Palestinian population. It was suggested that such Zionist organisations had outlived their usefulness now that Jews had a state to protect them instead. Rejecting this view, Israel’s founders gave them a quasi-governmental status in the new state, even though they weren’t subject to the laws that applied to government. There were good reasons why Israel decided to do this.

These organisations’ charters obligate them to discriminate in favour of Jews, even those Jews who do not have Israeli citizenship, and, conversely, to discriminate against Israel’s Arab citizens. The JNF, for example, owns 13 per cent of the land in Israel (or 70 per cent of land zoned for development) and makes this available only to Jews, including British or American Jews should they wish to immigrate.

As a result, Arab citizens are excluded from living in hundreds of areas in Israel, including rural communities like the kibbutzim and moshavim, which control vast swathes of farm land. They have no recourse to the courts. This system has created a form of geographical segregation between Jewish and Arab citizens, the latter being restricted either to 120 or so Arab areas on less than three per cent of Israel’s territory, or to separate, ghetto neighbourhoods in a handful of what are misleadingly known as ‘mixed cities’.

Israel has refused to allow any new Arab communities to be established since 1948, and refused to recognise dozens of others that predate the state’s creation. The latter are known as ‘unrecognised villages’, and are refused all public services, including water, electricity, telephones, roads, schools and clinics.

Development inside all Arab communities is tightly controlled by the government, leaving these towns and villages overcrowded, with few chances to develop businesses or industry. Because of severe limitations on building, many homes are considered illegal by the state and threatened with demolition.

Different rights for different people

Although a few critics accuse Israel of practising apartheid inside its own recognised borders, most commentators refuse to level this charge. This is mainly because Israel does not indulge in the more familiar aspects of what used to be South African apartheid, or what is sometimes referred to as ‘overt’ or ‘petty’ apartheid. Jewish and Arab citizens are allowed to sit on park benches together, they share public toilets, they eat in the same restaurants, they go to the same shopping malls. Moreover, although Arab citizens have no rights to live in Jewish communities, they can – at least in theory – visit them. There are no checkpoints or roadblocks restricting their movement, as there are for Palestinians in the occupied territories.

But though there is no petty apartheid in Israel, there is what might be termed ‘grand apartheid’. In Israeli law, Jews have absolute and exclusive rights to control and own almost all the land and resources (including water) inside Israel. The significance of this form of discrimination was explained in 2002 by the then prime minister, Ariel Sharon, during a Knesset debate. He observed that Israel’s Arab citizens enjoyed ‘rights in the land’ – or tenants’ rights – whereas ‘rights over the Land of Israel are Jewish rights’.

The government has nationalised 93 per cent of its territory for this reason (including the 13 per cent owned by the JNF), holding it in trust for the Jewish people rather than for its own citizens. A Jew in London or Brooklyn therefore has more rights to most of the land in Israel than an Israeli Arab born and raised in an Arab area like Nazareth. An Israeli Jew not only has many more choices about where he or she lives, but can also access farm land and cheap water for agriculture and businesses that are off-limits to Arab citizens.

These hierarchies of citizenship and nationality – which effectively make Israeli citizenship subordinate to Jewish nationality – have led a new generation of Israeli academics to reconsider what kind of state Israel is, just as in the 1980s a generation of revisionist historians swept away the old myths surrounding Israel’s establishment in 1948.

At the forefront has been the political geographer Oren Yiftachel of Ben Gurion University in the Negev. He classifies Israel as an ‘ethnocracy’ rather than a liberal democracy, arguing that the institutionalised discrimination against Israeli Arabs, the ‘Judaising’ of public space, the enduring interference of the Jewish Diaspora and Zionist organisations like the JNF in Israel’s affairs, as well as the lack of defined borders and the influence of the extra-territorial settlers who live in the occupied territories, disqualify Israel from being a democracy.

Yiftachel recognises that Israel has some of the characteristics of a liberal democracy, such as the rule of law, universal suffrage and a free press, but argues that it fails deeper tests. ‘Ethnocracies, despite exhibiting several democratic features, lack a democratic structure’, he says.

In recognition of the institutionalised inequality at the heart of the Jewish state, Israeli Arabs began a campaign for political reform in the late 1990s, under the slogan ‘a state of all its citizens’. The majority of Israeli Jews, however, reject the demand for political and social equality. In a series of opinion polls taken between 1980 and 1995, for example, about 60 per cent of Israeli Jews believed the Jewish character of their state was more important than its democratic character.

All the Jewish political parties reject the demand for equality between Jews and Arabs, leaving only three small parties – two Arab parties and the joint Jewish and Arab Communist party – to argue for a state of all its citizens.

Today, the campaign is largely interpreted by the Jewish majority as an attempt to destroy Israel as a Jewish state, and is therefore seen as treasonous. The Israeli media, politicians and rabbis regularly refer to the country’s 1.3 million Arab citizens as a ‘fifth column’ of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. When 13 unarmed Israeli Arab demonstrators were shot dead by the police force in their towns and villages at the start of the intifada in October 2000, many widely assumed – erroneously, as later investigations showed – that they were trying to overthrow the state.

Israeli Jews also fear the presence of Arab citizens in the Jewish state for another reason: the Arab population is growing faster than the Jewish population. Within a decade or two, a third of Israelis may be Arab.

This is frequently referred to by Israeli Jews as the ‘demographic timebomb’, and has led to debates among policy-makers about how to increase the size of the Jewish population, mainly by encouraging Jews from abroad to immigrate, and reducing the Arab population through emigration incentive schemes.

A recent proposal, considered by both Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon, is for Israel to cede a small area known as the ‘Little Triangle’, which is densely populated with Arab citizens, to the Palestinian Authority, probably in a swap for occupied Palestinian land on which large Jewish settlements have been built.

Other senior politicians are also talking about stripping Israeli Arabs of their rights to vote for the national parliament, the Knesset, thereby ending any political influence they may one day gain through force of numbers. In September, Effie Eitam, head of the National Religious Party, said: ‘We will have to take another decision, and that is to sweep the Israeli Arabs from the political system.’

Another popular party, Yisrael Beiteinu, led by Avigdor Lieberman, favours forcing Israeli Arabs to leave the country, a policy euphemistically known in Israel as ‘transfer’. The party recently joined the government coalition of Ehud Olmert. Together with Eitam’s faction, the two parties now comprise a sixth of the parliament.

But their ideas probably have much wider appeal. A leading left-wing MP and former cabinet minister, Shulamit Aloni, recently noted: ‘One cannot escape the impression that the racist and brutal declarations by Effie Eitam gave public expression to government policy over the years.’ Certainly, unless Israel’s leaders can resolve the inherent tensions in its citizenship structure, the future looks bleak for Israel’s Arab citizens.

Back to Top

You can also read my Blog HERE. To join discussions about my work, please visit my Facebook or Twitter page.