Questions and Answers / Amal Jamal on Being an Arab in Israel Today

The Arab-Israeli political scientist, whose new book traces the development of the political identity of Israel's "indigenous" Arab minority.

Political scientist Amal Jamal is author of the newly published "Arab Minority Nationalism in Israel: The Politics of Indigeneity" (Routledge, 324 pages, $130 ). The book examines the changing status of Israel's Palestinian citizens from 1948 to the present day, but in also comparing it to that of indigenous groups in other countries, it offers a perspective rarely given a hearing in Israel. Jamal looks at the various ways that the state's laws and politics have marginalized the Arabs, beginning with the martial law in place from 1948 to 1966, and the fact that some 30 percent of the 156,000 Palestinians who remained in the state after Independence became internal refugees, having been displaced during the 1947-49 war and unable to return to their homes or towns (which were in many cases destroyed ) once there was a cease-fire.

Click here to purchase Arab Minority Nationalism in Israel: The Politics of Indigeneity

Amal Jamal

The ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict has made the state's relationship with its 1.3 million Arab citizens especially sensitive. This is particularly true for the past decade, which has seen the "events of October 2000" and the subsequent Or Commission and its findings, and also the "future vision" documents, in which several different groupings of Arab intellectuals and politicians laid out proposals for redefining the nature of the state and the status of its Arab minority. More recently, the government and Knesset have debated and in some cases passed a variety of bills that further limit the rights of non-Jewish citizens, and one major party has even called, in its election platform, for revoking the citizenship of some. These developments, together with the exposure of more Israeli Arabs to higher education and to international human rights theory, have heightened the frustration of many younger Arab citizens with the present situation and their demands for full equality. Jamal looks at all of this in his book, and describes the political landscape and the changes it is undergoing.

Jamal, who turns 49 this month, is a professor of political science at Tel Aviv University and head of its Walter Lebach Institute for Jewish-Arab Coexistence through Education. He lives in the town of Yarka, near Acre, and spoke with Haaretz from his car.


Q: What are the major streams of political thinking among Israeli Arabs today?

A: You can break them down to three coherent streams of thought. The first is the national approach. It takes off from the idea that Palestinian Israelis are part of the Palestinian nation, and thus any solution to the Palestinian problem has to include them. Its proponents feel that with the decision to divide the land, in 1947, an injustice was done to them. Their preference is for a single, democratic state in the region, but as a compromise, and because of the conflict, there's an acceptance of the need for a temporary division into two sovereign states, very close to the cease-fire lines following the '48 war. This approach opposes the exclusivity of the Jewish identity of Israel, claiming that it empties the Palestinians' citizenship of its content, and leaves them on the margins of Israeli life. It's represented in the Knesset by the Balad party.

Second comes the more communistic nationalist approach. It emphasizes the specialness of the Palestinian minority in Israel as a group that has been discriminated against based on ethnicity and class. It talks about two states: Palestine in the territories and an Israel that is egalitarian. It is represented by [the Arab-Jewish party] Hadash.

The third is the Islamic stream, which is strengthening. Israel's Islamic movement is divided into two branches: The Southern, the more pragmatic of the two, runs candidates for Knesset as part of the Ra'am party, if only to be in a position to protect the basic rights of the Arab public. The more dogmatic Northern branch says that we can't count on the state, that the Muslims have to be self- sufficient. There's loyalty to the framework of the state - respect for the law - but not acceptance of the need to work actively with the state. There's now a chance the two branches will reunite, and this could mean they'll stop participating in national politics. Ra'am is made up of the Islamic movement and the [Bedouin based] Arab Democratic Party and in the 2009 election it ran together with Ta'al, Ahmad Tibi's Arab Movement for Renewal.

The first two streams are secular, and explicitly accept the right of the Jews to national determination in Israel. The Islamic stream doesn't speak explicitly about the self-determination rights of the Jews, though it shows tolerance toward them.

Q: You talk in the book about an Israeli effort to create a distinct identity for its Arab citizens. Has this succeeded?

A: The effort to create a new identity of "Israeli Arabs" has failed. Most see themselves as part of the Palestinian people. At the same time, the center-right group of the Jews has also deemphasized the national identity of the Arabs [as Israelis], but rather lumps them with the Palestinian people, and sees as the solution [a virtual] population exchange, which means revoking citizenship without giving the population the right to decide on its future.

Q: When you look at the recent anti-Arab legislative initiatives, and Jewish talk about Arabs' lack of loyalty, do you think these reflect an abiding Jewish fear, or is it arrogance?

A: It's not only fear, or lack of trust - it's also a worldview. There are parts of the Jewish public that believe in their superiority and that are willing to use their power to force it onto the Arab public. Of course, part of the Israeli public is truly afraid as well, and this is connected to Jewish history. But the Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu play on and heighten this fear.

Q: The Jewish fear doesn't come out of nowhere. Politicians like Azmi Bishara, who accepted exile rather than face trial in Israel on charges of passing information to Hezbollah during the Second Lebanon War, and Hanin Zuabi, who participated in the Turkish flotilla a year ago and never passes up an opportunity to bash Israel, make Jewish Israelis feel threatened.

A: I haven't seen proof that Bishara did the things he is accused of. And I ask you: Why was the state able to apprehend Mordechai Vanunu and bring him back for trial, but not Bishara? I can only conclude that the state's information on Bishara is wrong, or that it is more comfortable with him abroad. But let's say that a politician has broken the law. Is this a reason to punish the law-abiders? Or to turn the question around: Have the law-abiders been treated fairly, or given an opportunity to influence matters of state? Whoever isn't part of the decision-making process is likely to become involved in ideological efforts and the like in an effort to influence his own public.

Q: You've referred to "Jewish self- determination" in the context of a single Arab-Jewish state. How can these things be reconciled?

A: We may accept that the Jews have a right to lead their lives, that the Hebrew language is strong and there's a Jewish culture. But that doesn't mean that Jews have to control all aspects of life in the state. Each group should have autonomy in certain fields. The state needs to be universally equal and civic, like Britain and the U.S. are for all their citizens. Welsh or Scots can be prime minister of Britain, and their nations also have collective rights. But this sort of arrangement requires two states. This will have to be decided by the Jews. If there isn't going to be a Palestinian state, there needs to be another solution.

Ethnic or religious identity should not be what determines one's rights. I know this may sound frightening - the idea that Jews cannot be privileged based on the identity of the state as Jewish - but it's an approach that has become dominant in the Western world. If the Jewish majority continues to operate as an ethnic group and to control all the state's resources and institutions exclusively, Arab-Palestinian citizens will keep raising their indigenous identity, deconstructing Jewish hegemony. This will eliminate the Green Line and rule out a two-state solution.

Q: Let's talk about national service. For many Jews, this seems to be a litmus test of loyalty, and for Arabs, perhaps for the same reason, there seems to be a stubborn refusal to consider it.

A: The national service question is an excuse, rather than a good reason, for denying civil rights to the Arabs. There should be no connection between national service and the granting of civil rights that have no security or political aspect. The country's Jewish towns have their infrastructure provided for whether or not their residents serve in the army. The Haredim get these rights also. But look, for example, at the Druze. They serve in the army. Do they have equal rights? What happened to their lands? Do they have they have bomb shelters, like the neighboring Jewish towns?

As soon as you say "national service," it's clear that the "nation" that is intended to be protected is the Jewish one. And bringing it into the discussion prevents us from discussing the main issues: the Israel-Palestine conflict, the nature of the state, etc. As soon as we begin to deal with these issues, we can discuss other, secondary ones. And I'll say this: If I feel like an equal in the state, there doesn't have to be a reason for any kind of sensitivity over some sort of national or civilian service.

Q: What has to be done to bring about equality?

A: The sovereign has to be the citizenry [in general], and not the Jewish people. Don't get me wrong: I have no problem with the state having a connection with the Jewish world. And I think that the immigration laws should take into account emergency situations or existential danger to citizens in other countries. But the right to become a citizen can't be based on the fact that one's ancestors 300 years ago had a Jewish grandfather or grandmother. It has to be based on providing a haven to anyone who has a connection to existing citizens and who is in danger. There has to be a civic immigration law, which is very different from the current Law of Return.

Democracy is not dictatorship of the majority; it requires respect of the minority. Jefferson addressed this when he warned against majoritarian despotism, and so did John Stuart Mill. Hannah Arendt distinguished between majority decision, which is democratic, and majority rule, which is tyrannical. If we look at recent laws passed by the Knesset, they are based on the automatic ethnic majority. They not only hurt the rights of the minority, they are actually a threat to Israeli democracy.

 Click here to purchase Arab Minority Nationalism in Israel: The Politics of Indigeneity