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So Long as Israel Enshrines Jewish Supremacy in Law, It Can't Be a Liberal Democracy

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An Israeli policeman tries to take a Palestinian flag from a woman as youth from far-right Israeli groups participate in a flag march at Damascus Gate, just outside Jerusalem's Old City last month
An Israeli policeman tries to take a Palestinian flag from a woman as youth from far-right Israeli groups participate in a flag march at Damascus Gate, just outside Jerusalem's Old City last monthCredit: AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS

Last week, those of us in Israel who value equality and democracy, and are prepared to fight for them, enjoyed a humble yet significant victory.

Thanks to the persistence of thousands of Palestinian families, human rights organizations and the Joint List, as well as felicitous disputes between the two right-wing blocs in the Knesset, split between the coalition government and the opposition, the racist Citizenship Law amendment banning Palestinian family reunifications failed a vote to be extended for the first time since it was introduced in 2003.

Israeli governments, aware of its racist nature, kept it as a "temporary" amendment rather than having to justify it as a standalone law.

But what I witnessed as a member of the Knesset in the discussion preceding the vote, along with the Supreme Court’s decision a few days later to uphold the Jewish Nation State law, demonstrates that there is still a long way before Israel can really be considered to be a country where all citizens are equals before the law.

It is patently clear that Israel has consistently refused to come to terms with the Palestinian people in general, including the 1.8 million Palestinian citizens of Israel. From negating the Nakba to the approval of racist laws, Israel insists that, between the river and the sea, only Jews have the right to "self-determination."

Ra'am: Mansour Abbas, Labour: Merav Michaeli, Kachol Lavan: Benny Gantz, Yesh Atid: Yair Lapid, Yamina: Naftali Bennett, New Hope: Gideon Saar, Yisrael Beitenu: Lieberman, Meretz: Nitzan HorowitzCredit: HANDOUT/ REUTERS

This exclusivist discourse is the basis for dozens of laws that have built up a system of institutional discrimination against 20 percent of the country’s population. It is also reflected in hateful incitement and inhuman comments.

As I argued against the ban on Palestinian family reunifications during the plenary, Likud MK Dudi Amsalem interrupted me, saying: "Nobody tells you whom you should marry, we’re just telling you don’t bring them here." Even Foreign Minister Yair Lapid went out of his way to explain that, "There is no need to hide from the essence of this law. It is one of the tools designed to ensure the Jewish majority in the State of Israel."

Kudos at least for the moment of honesty. After all, for years the state has argued that the amendment was there for "security reasons." But both explanations are part of the same racist logic: When Palestinians fall in love, they become a security threat - or a demographic threat.

There are enough votes in the Knesset to approve racist laws. Today they can even count on some Arab MKs willing to do whatever they need to stay in power in government. And we should expect a new attempt to enforce their racism on us, targeting once again our families and the right of children to live with their parents.

From our perspective, as the Joint List, the broader discussion shouldn’t be about bargaining for minor "exceptions," but about the principle: The State of Israel should treat all its citizens as equals regardless of their religious, national or ethnic origin.

Even without the amendment banning Palestinian family reunifications, the Citizenship Law is already racist. It gives any Jew anywhere in the world the "right to nationality by birth" but sets up numerous obstacles in the way of Palestinians to do the same. 

I can’t deny that rather than feeling disappointed about Ra’am party head Mansour Abbas, from whom I wouldn’t expect anything, I was particularly outraged at Meretz, a party that, despite its Zionist identity, has challenged racist laws in the past, including appealing to the Supreme Court against the ban on Palestinian family reunifications.

In the past, Meretz was a key force behind the opposition to this racist law. Yet now, they’ve became part of the Bennett-Lieberman government, and appear to have calculated their position in terms of political gains rather than about the rights of thousands of families.

A Palestinian flag flutters on a hilltop in the town of Beita, near Nablus, in the occupied West Bank, as a lift truck hangs a Star of David on poles at the settler outpost of EvyatarCredit: JAAFAR ASHTIYEH - AFP

Let’s be clear: Human rights cannot be "universal" but with exceptions when it comes to Palestinians, no matter the excuse. Just look at who defended the law from the government side, particularly Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, who represents perfectly the agreement on racism that unites vast swaths of Israel’s government and opposition.

Today the Knesset has only one bloc that truly works for full equality and justice for all Israeli citizens and residents, whether Jews or Palestinians, and it is the Joint List. In 2018 one of its constituent factions, my Tajamu/Balad party, presented a draft Basic Law to truly affirm Israel as the "state of all its citizens."

Regretfully, the Knesset and then the Supreme Court prevented it even being discussed. This is the same court that has endorsed the perpetuation of institutional racism and discrimination through the Jewish Nation State Law, as well as other laws. The law of "all its citizens" should serve as a basis to move ahead as an inclusive project that respects the rights of all of Israel’s citizens in accordance with Israel’s obligations under international law, norms and signed treaties.

Israel should not continue to enjoy preferential treatment as if it was a "liberal democracy" by the EU and other Western powers while its policy priorities are about imposing Jewish supremacy between the river and the sea, rather than implementing full equality for all its citizens, and ending the occupation.

Save me the old slogan of Israel being a "Jewish and democratic state." Israel’s history and practice proves this is a fallacy. Israel is, instead, a "Jewish and demographic state," and this was the message that emanated last week, shamefully, from both the Knesset and the Supreme Court.

Sami Abou Shahadeh is a Palestinian historian, leader of Balad/Tajamu party and member of the Knesset for the Joint List:. Twitter: @ShahadehAbou

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