While it’s true that the Jewish and Arab public’s right to demonstrate in support of equality does not depend on the absence of Palestinian flags at a demonstration, or even on the question of whether the demonstrators, Arabs or Jews, support Israel’s right to be the state of the Jewish people. Civil equality before the law is a simple democratic principle that does not depend upon the citizens’ political views. But mustering broad public support for equality does depend on other human factors, and these must be taken into account if one wants to wage a serious fight in support of the cause.
Many Israelis feel that the outpouring of fury over the Nation-State Law shows that, underneath the Arab public’s justified anger over genuine discrimination and unfair allocation of resources, there is something that runs much deeper and wider. That is opposition not only to the occupation of the West Bank, but to the very right of the Jews to continue to maintain the state of the Jewish people in territory considered by the Palestinians and by the Arabs as a whole as their land, considered to be land that was stolen from the Arabs.
Unlike his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas opposes violent struggle, and the Arab community in Israel certainly only supports legitimate means of resistance and civil protest. But it needs to be clear to the Palestinians and to Arab Israelis that their outcry over inequality is not seen by the Jewish public as such a simple thing.
The Jews’ unique history led to the reestablishment of a state for a persecuted people that had lacked a political entity, a state that would be dedicated to saving the Jewish people and that would also enact a small number of laws designed to buttress the Jewish people’s right to defend itself and its survival. They notably include legislation such as the Law of Return, the objective of which is to guarantee citizenship and the protection that it provides to Jews the world over who wish to live in Israel. The same goes for resolute opposition to a right of return for Palestinian refugees to the State of Israel.
None of this is accepted by a majority of Palestinians, who from their standpoint, naturally feel that they should not have to pay the price for the Jewish anomaly. But the Law of Return and opposition to the Palestinian right of return in and of themselves do not pertain to the fundamental idea that all citizens of the state are entitled to equality. If a future Palestinian state were to declare that all those who consider themselves Palestinian refugees are entitled to return to the new Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, Israelis would empathize with it.
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The refusal to understand or accept what is unique about Jewish history and the limitations resulting from that is sabotaging the possibility of an important united front between the two peoples. This is particularly a shame because there is a fairly easy fix. Stipulating the existence of equality for all citizens should be an inseparable part of Israel’s Basic Laws, the laws that have constitutional status.
That is the case whether it is reflected in an explicit amendment to the new Nation-State Law or as an explicit provision in the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty, or by enacting the main points of the Declaration of Independence as a Basic Law, instead of or in addition to the Nation-State Law. But this will require goodwill, and not only on the part of the Jewish public.
Those who do not recognize or acknowledge the unique problematic aspect of the Jewish people’s complicated history will not be able to achieve a genuine and constructive dialogue with the Jewish public, and such an alliance in support of total civil equality is vital for both national groups. If Israel’s Arab citizens want to achieve true equality, they would do well to first come to terms with the unique story of Israel as the state of the Jewish people.