Clarity as to the reality
The open racism of Netanyahu is preferable to the platitudes of liberal Zionism, argues Tony Greenstein
I realise that this may shock some of my friends. Why, some may ask, would someone who the Jewish Chronicle calls a veteran Jewish anti-Zionist,1 someone whom the president of the Board of Deputies, Jonathan Arkush, attacked for his “long record of noxious behaviour”,2 support Netanyahu’s flagship policy of legislative racism?
Yes, the Jewish Nation-State Bill is racist and it is a declaration that Israel is officially an apartheid state. However, I prefer that Israel openly admits what kind of state it is rather than hiding behind circumlocutions such as “the only democratic state in the Middle East”. I agree with Abed Azab3 when I say that I prefer the enemy who stabs you in the front rather than waiting till your back is turned. At least that way you have a chance of defending yourself.
Back in May I wrote that Israel has officially declared itself an apartheid state.4 I stand by what I wrote, but I also welcome the brutal honesty and openness of the coalition government. Which was more preferable in South Africa? The hidden apartheid of Jan Smuts before 1948 or the open apartheid of Dr Malan and the Nationalists after 1948?
In an article in the Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz, it is argued that the bill, “which would have a constitution-like status, would prioritise Jewish values over democratic ones”.5 Forgive me if I am wrong, but isn’t Israel already a Jewish state? When given the choice between the democratic path and the Jewish road, then Zionism has always chosen the latter.
We are told: “One controversial clause, which would permit the establishment of communities that are segregated by religion or nationality, was criticised last week by president Reuven Rivlin.”6 Perhaps president Rivlin knows something that I don’t. Haven’t Jewish-only communities always been the norm in Israel? How many Arabs have belonged to the Jewish-only kibbutzim or moshavim? Or the hundreds of Jewish communities that were established in Israel post-1948? Did Rivlin call for disbandment of the Jewish National Fund, whose sole purpose is to ensure that the 93% of Israeli land which it owns or controls is reserved for the use of Jews? Have any of the left Zionist parties, from the Israeli Labor Party to Meretz, called for the winding up of the Jewish Agency and the repeal of the 1952 Jewish Agency Status Law?
There has been a massive controversy over “one controversial clause”, which “would permit the establishment of communities that are segregated by religion or nationality”. Now forgive me for asking, but isn’t this what happens already? Did not the supreme court rule in 2000 in Kadan against such practices? Yet did not the knesset pass the Acceptance Committees Law, which effectively overturned Kadan? Of course, this law did not specifically mention that Arabs were not acceptable. It did not have to. The committees can adopt whatever criteria they want to when rejecting applicants.
According to rabbi Gilad Kariv, CEO of the Israeli Reform movement, “the nation-state bill is going to tarnish the Israeli law book”. Is this not excellent news? A law book that includes, according to Adalah, the legal centre for Arab minority rights in Israel, over 65 racist and discriminatory laws is apparently going to be tarnished by this one law.7 Surely this is a cause for celebration?
Has rabbi Kariv not heard of the 1950 Law of Return, which grants me the right to ‘return’ to a land I have only visited once, but denies that right to Palestinians whose families since time immemorial resided in Palestine? Or perhaps the good rabbi has not heard of the 1950 Absentee Property Law, which allowed property belonging to Arabs, even if they were in Israel during its war of independence, to be confiscated and its owners to be classified as ‘present absentees’ and thus forfeit their lands?
According to Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the New Israel Fund, the bill is a “danger to Israel’s future”. How can this be? What Sokatch means is that the bill is a threat to the Jewish nature of the Israeli state. It helps reveal the structure behind the democratic facade.
Sokatch began reciting a familiar fairy tale:
Beginning with Israel’s declaration of independence ... the principle of the equality of all people have formed the democratic foundation of the state. This law is completely incompatible with those values. It ... provides a legal basis to discriminate based on religion, race and sex.8
Who would have guessed that at the very moment that David Ben Gurion was reading out these pious homilies over 300,000 Arabs had already been expelled from their homes and villages and that another half million were destined to share the same fate? Who would have believed that this ethnic cleansing would be accompanied by up to 30 massacres? That Israel’s Arab population would continue to live under military law until 1966?
So Netanyahu’s bill is welcome, if only to lay Sokatch’s myths to rest. To bury the lie about Israel’s formation. For sure, the declaration of independence waxed lyrical about developing Israel “for the benefit of all its inhabitants” and creating a state “based on freedom, justice and peace”, which would “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race or sex”, and “guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture”. It can be safely said that all these noble sentiments were honoured in the breach.
Israel’s Arab citizens enjoyed none of the rights that Ben Gurion talked about in the declaration. On the contrary, the Mapai government proceeded to enact a series of racist laws whose purpose was to effect the dispossession of the Arab minority and legalise the theft of their land.
I can only assume that Sokatch is unaware of the existence of the Absentee Property Law, the Law of Return, the Nakba Law, the Citizenship and Entry Law, etc. This new law does little more than clarify the existing situation. Why is that not welcome? An honest racist is always more preferable than a dishonest one. Admirable though they were, the sentiments in the declaration of independence have never been incorporated into Israeli law.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, explained the motivation behind the criticism of the bill. The Jewish Nation State Bill “will make Israel an open target on the world stage for all those who seek to deny the Jewish people our right to a homeland”.9 Precisely. His criticism is made in defence of the status quo in Israel.
In other words, the bill will make explicit that which has always been implicit. When rabbi Jacobs speaks of denying Jews their “right to a homeland”, what he really means is their right to continue to colonise Israel and Palestine. Because I and millions of Jews in the diaspora already have a home. It is where we live - in Britain, America, France, etc. We do not need a second home. The “Jewish people” - a figment of the imagination of anti-Semites and Zionists through the ages - do not need a Jewish state. What would be of benefit though is that in the 21st century the Israeli state normalises itself and transforms itself from a state of the Jews to a state of all its people. Ethno-nationalist states died out in Europe in the 1930s and 40s with the defeat of fascism. It was only in Israel and South Africa that such a political formation survived.
When rabbi Jacobs complains that the bill “hurts the delicate balance between the Jewish majority and Arab minority”, he is engaged in sophistry. What balance would that be? The balance that led to the uprooting and demolition of the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev in order to make way for the Jewish town of Hiran?10 Or perhaps he means the edict of Shmuel Eliyahu, chief rabbi of Safed, forbidding Jews to rent rooms or apartments to Arabs?11 Perhaps this “delicate balance” was evidenced in the freezing of plans for expansion in Kfar Vradim after Arabs were successful in nearly half the bids for new housing?12 Or was it the demonstrations in Afula after an Arab family successfully bought a house there?13
The 14 groups making up the Jewish Federation of North America argued that the bill would eliminate “the defining characteristic of a modern democracy”, such as “protecting rights for all”.14 The problem is that the rights of Israeli Arabs have long since gone unprotected.
For example, in the history of the Israeli state just one Jewish demonstrator has been killed by the police (in 1951), who have repeatedly killed Arab demonstrators. The murder of school teacher Yakub Musa Abu al-Kiyan in Umm al Hiran last year, who was left to bleed to death, was particularly egregious.15 In any normal democratic state the village would not, of course, even have been demolished. The police firing on an innocent man would have led to a judicial inquiry. Instead the murdered man was first demonised as an Islamic State terrorist and, when it was proved that the policeman who died was killed as a result of an out-of-control car, there was a cover-up. The life of Arabs in the Israeli state is cheap compared to Jewish life.
It should be obvious that what has aroused the ire and anger of the major American Jewish organisations is not the systematic discrimination that Palestinians, both within and without Israel, have suffered. Their real concerns are for the damage that has been and is being caused to the reputation of Israel by Netanyahu’s open racism as evidenced by this Bill.
The American Jewish Federation’s objection is not to separation and segregation, but writing this segregation down in law. From schooling16 to maternity wards,17 Israel is a segregated society. It is a society where an Arab poet can be arrested, jailed and convicted for writing a poem,18 yet a leader of Lehava, Benzi Gopstein, remains free despite threatening to burn down churches and mosques.19 Israel is a society where the leader of the Northern Islamic Leagues, Raed Salah, can be jailed on disputed evidence for alleged anti-Semitism,20 yet the authors of Torat HeMelech, which explains how to kill non-Jews legally, according to halacha, remain at liberty.21
It is therefore to be regretted that the clause which sanctioned “a community composed of people having the same faith and nationality to maintain the exclusive character of that community” has been replaced with a clause calling for “strengthening the Jewish presence in predominantly Arab Israeli areas”. The latter refers to the policy of Jewish-only settlement, Judaisation, of areas such as the Negev and Galilee. However, it is best not to spell this out.
The Jewish Nation-State Bill offers unprecedented clarity as to the reality of what a Jewish state means in practice. That is why the Jewish Federation of North America, which has not been known for championing the rights of Palestinians, took fright. For our part, we should not be afraid.