Is a Divided Israel Turning Into Yugoslavia?

Shlomo sand
Shlomo Sand
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Protesters demonstrate against evictions in Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, last month.
Shlomo sand
Shlomo Sand

It is said that after Napoleon conquered all of Europe and killed millions of soldiers, he noted that you can do anything with bayonets except sit on them. In more recent times, when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, I thought, naively, that Israel had begun to learn the basic lesson of the famous Corsican: You can occupy and oppress, but every action by a foreign power also has its limits. Ultimately, in modern times, if you don’t destroy or expel people who have no sovereignty or have meaningless and fraudulent sovereignty, they will rebel again and again.

The latest flare-up in Gaza was sparked with the help of two matches. The first resembles the one that ignited the uprising in October 2000: a disrespectful attack at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which is not only a key religious site but also a clearly nationalist symbol.

After Gaza, an Israeli-Palestinian struggle for identity: Aluf Benn, Noa Landau and Anshel Pfeffer

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The second match constitutes a kind of innovation. The demand to evict Arab residents from their homes in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood – based on the legal claim that Jews owned the property before 1948 – was like plunging a needle in a festering wound, and a shocking manifestation of outrageous injustice. You demand that refugees leave their homes despite the fact that you appropriated their previous homes during the Nakba, along with hundreds of thousands of others, without even thinking about compensating the owners. Such is the temerity of a foolish conqueror, which might lead to the torching of all the houses built here over the last 100 years. Indeed, it seems that the fire has already begun to spread.

At first, the East Jerusalem residents rose up, which was not surprising. Some 380,000 Palestinians reside in the “eternal Jewish city.” They make up about one-third of the urban population, having lived without political or civil rights for 54 years now. Israel, which annexed them, did everything so as not to give them Israeli citizenship. It openly and demonstrably applied mythological glue to unite the inanimate stones, the high walls – but not living human beings. They, after all, are not Jews.

But actually the real surprise this time around has been the Palestinian Israelis. The ones that have citizenship and enjoy full political equality in the State of Israel. Of all people, they, who for years were the hewers of wood and the drawers of water – that is, the laborers and the service providers – have recently “in their droves” begun to fill positions in hospitals, pharmacies and universities. How is it that now, of all times, when the first signs of integration and socioeconomic progress can clearly be seen, that a broad and violent rebellion has been born, which is beginning to resemble a civil war?

About 180 years ago, the liberal philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville sought to understand the French Revolution based on a new insight: It was progress toward equality before the revolution that set the stage for that great eruption and especially for the demand for full political equality during the revolution.

“When inequality of conditions is the common law of society,” he wrote in “Democracy in America,” “the most marked inequalities do not strike the eye: when everything is nearly on the same level, the slightest are marked enough to hurt it. Hence the desire of equality always becomes more insatiable in proportion as equality is more complete.”

This realization is valid for Israel at this time. The increasing Israelization of Arab citizens, their knowledge of the Hebrew language, the improved social status some of them have, and even their hesitant integration into the world of media, together with the continued occupation of the West Bank – all this has produced new sensations and new conclusions.

You can’t be equal, you never will be equal, in a country that clearly declares that it is not yours. Israel, as opposed to other liberal democracies, is not the state of all its citizens but the state of all the world’s Jews (who don’t even want to live there). The meaning of “Jewish democracy” resembles that of other terms with an internal contradiction, such as “white democracy” in the United States or a “Gallic-Catholic republic” in France.

In any nation-state in the world, a national anthem is selected that is meant to unite and inspire all citizens, regardless of their religion, skin color or origins. In Israel, the anthem openly and coarsely alienates some of its citizens, because, after all, not everyone has a “Jewish soul [that] yearns.” The State of Israel is prepared to take in anyone who can prove the Jewishness of their mother, or who has converted according to Jewish religious law. Palestinian Israelis cannot unite with their first- and second-degree relatives who were uprooted from here in 1948 and live in refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza.

Since the borders of Israel were established in 1967, some 700 new Jewish communities have been established, but not a single Arab one (except towns for Bedouin who have been expelled from their lands). Although about 21 percent of Israel’s citizens are Arab, there is not one Arabic-speaking university. (In contrast – to the glory of Israel – there is a Hebrew-speaking university in what is obviously Palestinian territory.)

Although Israel presents itself to the world as a secular, liberal country, a Jewish woman cannot marry a non-Jewish man here, because there is no civil marriage. To wed her chosen partner, she must travel to another country that does not intentionally try to prevent the marriages of Jews and non-Jews.

We could point out many more unequal or exclusionary elements inherent in the infrastructure of the Jewish state (the so-called nation-state law is no innovation in this respect, but has only exposed and highlighted these elements), but we should be aware that critical discourse of this nature has been virtually useless, thus far.

Most Jewish Israelis are indifferent to the basic inequality here and prefer to continue splashing about in their “Jewish and democratic” pool, which until this point they’ve believed would exist forever. And now, all of a sudden, thousands of Palestinian Israelis have erupted in raging and violent protest against the intolerable inequality. Members of the Arab middle class did not take part in the harsh protests, but for the first time they allowed their children to face off against police officers’ clubs, as well as the fists of Jewish racists and settlers who were brought in from beyond the proverbial hills of darkness – that is, from the areas of the liberated Land of Israel.

Violence is always detestable and ugly, but unfortunately, it has accompanied struggles for equality throughout history. The current severe use of force within Israel is reminiscent of the great violence of the Black Panthers in 1960s America, especially after the assassination of Martin Luther King.

The struggle of rioters in poor Black neighborhoods made another decisive contribution toward turning the United States from a mainly white country into an egalitarian democracy for all of its citizens. As we know, the struggle toward this goal is not yet over.

The question that remains after the recent severe clashes in Israel is this: Will a divided Israel go downhill and morph into a kind of Yugoslavia – which deteriorated into a bloody war between its varied and unequal citizens, and shattered into pieces? Or will we be able to transform it, despite all the difficulties, into a country like Canada, Belgium or Switzerland, which despite all the fissures, manage to preserve themselves as multilingual democracies, where the principle of civil identity that is not ethnic-religious or ethnic-biological in nature is their guiding light?

Time will tell.

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