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The True Meaning of `Jewish Democracy`
September 23, 2010
Racism is a normal thing in a state that identifies itself as an ethnic democracy. Israeli officials forcefully declare Israel as the “Jewish democratic” state. Yet there is a basic contradiction between the principals of democracy and having a state built to cater to one of its ethnicities.
Minority inclusion, cosmopolitanism and universal protection of basic rights are the foundation of democracy, yet the values Israel’s leaders are espousing today are the polar opposite.
Whether the final result of the conflict will separate Palestinians and Israelis in two states or bring them together as citizens of one state, it is clear that Israel as it stands today is living in a hypocritical self-image.
Far from a democracy, the Israeli state can more accurately be described as an ethnocentric republic, or an ethnorepublic, that is a state that gives preference in democratic representation and empowerment to one race.
Recent statements by Israeli Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman call to revoke the citizenship of Arab citizens of Israel who refuse to declare loyalty to a Jewish state. He said the status of the 1.3 million Palestinian Arabs with Israeli citizenship should be a top issue to be addressed in the current round of peace talks with the Palestinian Authority.
According to him the “land for peace” formula, the decades-old basis of American-led peace talks, should change. Peace is not enough any more in his eyes, and a new equation based on an exchange of “territories and populations” should be used. Ostensibly Israel would give up territory near the West Bank with large Arab populations in exchange for the larger settlement blocs in the West Bank. Never mind what the Israeli citizens he is proposing to kick out want, citizens who he would be representing if he believed in democracy. Polls frequently show that the Arab residents of towns like Nazareth, Umm Al Faham and Tayibe have no wish to become citizens of a newly formed Palestinian state, especially if they would be forced to leave their homes. To them, if the Palestinian question is solved in the West Bank and Gaza their struggle for civil and political equality will go on.
This system of ethnic separation is prevalent on both sides of the Green Line, but most visible when at the crossings into and out of the West Bank. Checkpoints there are as (dis)functional as ever, giving us a perfect example of the discriminatory practices of the ethnocentric regime. The justification is simple Israelis say: to stop the import of weapons and militants. So how effective is the current system of checkpoints, and the magnum opus of the Israeli system of separation, the `security fence`?
It wasn`t until I got to see firsthand how the border security officers categorize people based on their appearance that I realized just how arbitrarily this forced separation is applied. A couple months ago I was on a trip with two Palestinian-Israelis, one a fair-complexioned man who could easily pass for a European Jew, a woman with darker skin, and myself, a pasty, 20-something-year-old. After a meeting in Ramallah, we drove north through the West Bank to the Halabish (Tel Za`tar) checkpoint near Tel Aviv.
I expected to have to get out of the car, open my bags, maybe have dogs sniff the trunk, or at least present my ID, but none of that happened. We didn`t even have to stop; the guards just looked at the three of us and waved us through. In fact, I didn`t even realize we were through the checkpoint until I noticed Tel Aviv growing on the horizon.
It was astonishing, here we were two Palestinian-Israelis and a Palestinian-American, passing back into Israel and the guards didn`t even check a single ID. Of course we didn`t have anything to hide, but how simple would it be for someone who looked similar to bring weapons, bombs, anything or anyone through. My companions explained all the signals the guards use to judge threat level; the French-made Citroen sedan which few Arabs drive, the yellow license plates issued to Israeli citizens, the fair skin, and, most importantly, our female passenger wasn’t wearing a hijab (Islamic head covering) which counts as an automatic invitation for thorough inspections at checkpoints.
The absurdity of the separation wall and all attempts to isolate the Palestinians within the West Bank was on full display. Though there are laws against any Israelis entering the Palestinian controlled areas of the West Bank, Palestinian citizens of Israel pass in and out all the time without a problem.
The true goal of the discriminatory practice: to keep Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews apart. If the majority of Jewish Israelis never see or feel the effects of their privileged status, why would they put pressure on the government to change?
Racism, when institutionalized by law and sanctioned by society, is a form of invisible, `soft power` that cannot be seen, but is universally felt by all those under it. For targets of racial profiling, it creates a sense of victimhood, helplessness and despair, while its beneficiaries are built up, empowered and willfully blind to the suffering it causes.
The winners in this kind of system lose their sense of human empathy because it is simply easier to close their eyes to the discrimination. It was seen in the pre-civil-rights American South, in French Algeria and in Apartheid South Africa.
Considering these precedents and the fractured and unstable state of Palestinian leadership, it seems almost impossible for a negotiated settlement to work that offers Israelis peace and security, while also giving the Palestinians sovereignty and justice.
The current negotiations won’t even come close to addressing this fundamental issue except in the form of an Israeli demand for recognition as a Jewish state which would only reaffirm the ethnocentric system and cement it in place for generations to come.
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