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The Smell of Apartheid: Israel`s Citizenship Law
Yacov Ben Efrat

The government has approved the proposal for an amendment to the Citizenship Law, according to which anyone requesting Israeli citizenship will have to declare loyalty to Israel as a “Jewish and democratic” state. This amendment is perceived by many to be an unnecessary provocation against the country`s Arab population, even though it is ostensibly directed towards neither Arab citizens nor Jewish citizens, but towards those seeking citizenship, including Arab spouses requesting citizenship for the sake of family unification.

Columnist Nahum Barnea described it in sharp words: “The proposed law doesn’t just seem racist; it is racist. It compels non-Jews to declare they will be loyal to the Jewish state, but does not demand the same of Jews. Jews are exempt, because the Haredi rabbis are not willing to declare their loyalty, not to the Jewish state and certainly not to the democratic state. The results are harsh. It’s still not the racist Nuremberg laws, but it smells the same” (Yedioth Aharonoth Supplement, October 8, 2010).

In the Declaration of Independence and the Basic Laws (which serve Israel as a kind of constitution) Israel was declared a Jewish state long ago. The state’s symbols, the Star of David and the Menorah, leave no room for doubt. Thus too the other laws such as the Law of Return, and various temporary provisions and standing orders, which give preference to Jews above non-Jews. What, then, led the justice minister to propose the amendment now, an amendment which will affect just a few thousand people each year, most of whom are not Arabs and do not question the state’s Jewish character?

In fact, behind this amendment there is a hidden message regarding a debate sparked some five years ago between representatives of the Arab population and the state. The conflict began when former Knesset member Azmi Bishara set up a party under the slogan “A state for all its citizens”, which opened the way for Arab parties and institutions to challenge the state and expose the structural contradiction in its self-definition as “Jewish and democratic.” This philosophical clash between the Arab minority and the state served to oil the wheels of Avigdor Lieberman, today Israel’s foreign minister, whose party won 15 seats in the last general elections with its slogan “No citizenship without loyalty.”

In 2006, the Arab Monitoring Committee and the Committee of the Heads of the Local Arab Councils published a document entitled “The Future Vision of Palestinian Arabs in Israel.” According to this document, “The definition of the state as a Jewish state, and the use made of democracy to serve its Jewishness, excludes us from its ranks and places us in opposition to the nature and essence of the state in which we live.”

The “Vision” document raises the question of whether Israeli democracy can really include the Arab minority and treat it with full equality. The document is a response to the alienation that Israel’s Arab citizens have felt for over 60 years. It is not the definition of Israel as a Jewish state which led the Arab leadership to challenge the state, but the institutionalized discrimination which the Arab population suffers. Democracy cannot exist in a state of institutionalized discrimination. The real issue is not about changing the national anthem or the flag, but the fate of tens of thousands of young Arabs who see their future expropriated by the state.

The violence spreading in the Arab towns and villages, the daylight murders in Nazareth and Lod, these things express the collapse of the Arab education system, the rising unemployment, the poverty, and the powerlessness of Arab local authorities who are unable to supply even basic services.

Lieberman isn’t really interested in ascertaining the loyalty of those seeking citizenship. He wants to question the loyalty of the entire Arab population. The amendment to the law is just a beginning. Last month in the UN General Assembly he already presented his vision for the state, according to which the land populated by Arabs should be transferred from Israel to the Palestinian Authority in exchange for West Bank settlements.

If Netanyahu and his government continue to provoke the Arab population they will turn the state into an Apartheid state, which will pull the rug from under the claim that Israel is both Jewish and democratic. The demand to define Israel as “a state of all its citizens” stems from the fact that in defining itself as “Jewish and democratic” Israel has failed to apply the second part of the equation. The “Jewishness” comes at the expense of democracy. Now, instead of taking the Arab demand for equality seriously, the government provokes again – not only will you not get a state of all its citizens, we intend to continue to exclude you and to discriminate against you in all areas of your life.

One could expect, perhaps, that a state recently accepted into the OECD, a state trying hard to integrate into the global economy, which presents itself as “the only democracy in the Middle East,” would change its attitude towards its Arab population. Reports from the Bank of Israel and various authorities, and the conclusions of the Orr Commission which investigated the events of October 2000, create the illusion that the state is in fact trying to address the problems of education, employment, health and other issues which the policy of discrimination has produced. However, between recognizing injustice and doing something to remedy it, there stands a rightwing government trumpeting a nationalist and racist ideology. The efforts of the present government to exacerbate the conflict also result in skepticism, self-seclusion and extreme nationalism among Arab citizens.

The clashes surrounding the character of the state have another aspect which has not been given sufficient attention. In fact, Israeli society is deeply divided today – not just between Jews and Arabs, but between Jews and Jews. The state advances discriminatory policies against all workers, whether Jewish or Arab: labor-contractor employees, college teachers, artists, truckers, industrial workers, and migrant laborers with their children. Their rights to a secure place of work with social benefits are withheld. “Jewish” Israel in fact serves just a rich minority, a handful of families who received property and assets from the state, and use them for their own benefit without social obligation or public responsibility. Thus, Lieberman’s position as the watchman of Jewish Israel sits happily with the fact that he is up to his ears in investigations on suspicion of corruption. And he is not alone – many politicians do likewise, on the one hand competing for the honor of most rightwing, on the other hand feathering their nests by groveling to the tycoons.

There is certainly a reason to discuss the character of the state. However, the vision that must be debated concerns the future of all the workers, Jews, Arabs and others. The only truly democratic state will be one whose resources are equally and justly distributed. Such a state will no longer need the definition “Jewish,” which perpetuates a false solidarity among Israel’s Jews and institutionalized discrimination against its Arab citizens.

Translated by Yonatan Preminger

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