Are Arabs Human Beings?

Blindness enables Israelis to see themselves as living in a democracy, while it is in fact an apartheid regime.

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Palestinian workers from Hebron at Tarqumiya Checkpoint.
Palestinian workers from Hebron at Tarqumiya Checkpoint.Credit: Emil Salman

Two weeks ago former Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner was elected president of the Israel Democracy Institute. The institute is an independent institution, nonpolitical and nonpartisan, which is located, according to their website, “on the seam line between politics and academia.” Surfing on the site reveals that like Israeli democracy, the institute is preoccupied only with what is happening inside the Green Line.

As Jews living at this time in history, had we not found a distinction that allows us to grasp ourselves as democrats, we would not be continuing to dominate a foreign population for 47 years. The distinction between what is happening within the Green Line and what is happening beyond it is what enables us to accept the existing situation (which is dubbed the “status quo”) and at the same time to look ourselves in the mirror and see a democratic state. We confess that we are unable to define the meaning of the state’s Jewishness, but are confident in our understanding of what is a democratic state.

Only this split in consciousness can enable the Israeli to see himself as a democrat who is living in the only democracy in the Middle East, despite its apartheid regime. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu admitted that the Knesset is Jewish, and similarly our democracy is also Jewish. But if Arabs are human beings, Israel cannot call itself “democratic.” (Netanyahu uses the same logic in economics: If we subtract the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs, there is no poverty.) The fact that Israelis have internalized the status quo into the narrative of normalcy, and have bought the lie they sold themselves, is a crime. As are the words of Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon to the effect that this is “an unsolvable problem,” ignoring the fact that the “problem” is very much alive and breathing.

This split is made possible by the Israeli Institute for Democracy. Were the institute committed to democracy, the only place it would find for its residence would be in the underground. If the president of the institute were a fighter for democracy, he would expose himself to exclusion and delegitimization. For quite a while we have been witnessing attempts to pass laws against the real opponents of the country’s regime, including the initiative to condition citizenship on a demonstration of loyalty to the state (and of course they will decide exactly what loyalty is), the Nakba Law and the NGOs Law, which threaten to dry up budgets, and other restrictions.

The Israel Democracy Institute, on the other hand, is flourishing, even under the present regime. It enjoys a prestigious status in political and academic spheres, and receives legitimate donations (protected from loyalty laws). Instead of behaving like Machsom Watch and B’Tselem, for example – protecting, interrupting the routine, resisting until democracy is achieved – they keep busy with nothing more than editing the Knesset regulations written by MK Yariv Levin (Likud). In the present situation the institute is not only a fig leaf – it’s a kind of pacifier designed to sooth an infant. Its members are imposing an imaginary peace, creating an illusion of quiet and normalcy, an illusion of democracy.

The leader who fought against this status quo was the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Netanyahu’s ideological rival. Rabin’s Oslo talks were not only an initiative for peace between us and the Palestinians, they were a paradigmatic revolution: a genuine attempt to treat the Arabs like human beings. And like other individuals throughout history who have tried to steer an entire society out of a bad paradigm, he paid for it with his life.

It’s important to recall the Oslo Accords coalition, and its supporters from outside the coalition. Rabin will be remembered as someone who wanted to treat the Arab MKs, in other words the Arab votes, as legitimate votes, equal in value to Jewish votes. He refused to participate in the winks of the Jews over the heads of the Arab MKs. It is no coincidence that Shas was a partner (actively, or by abstaining in the vote on Oslo I) to this historic moment, since it can be argued that the political birth of the party is parallel to the nationalist awakening of the Palestinians in the first intifada. Oslo is the meeting place of three revolutions: that of the Palestinians, that of Israeli Arabs and that of Jews originating in Arab countries.

That is also the tragedy of Oslo. The revolution was not completed. It was interrupted. And the attitude toward the Arabs remained the same, and even deteriorated. Just as Martin Luther King understood that there is a line connecting the blacks in the United States with those in South Africa, and that the former would not be free until the latter were free, it’s important to draw a line connecting Palestinian Arabs, Arabs who are Israeli citizens and Jews originating in Arab countries.

As in the words of poet Shlomi Hatuka of the Ars Poetica group, “I still haven’t understood where the Mizrahim [Jews from North Africa and the Middle East] end and the Arabs begin.” The power given to Shas also bears historic responsibility regarding their political identity. It is possible that the fates of the Arabs and the Mizrahim are more connected than the Mizrahim would like to admit, since they are all victims of “the White Ashkenazi- [Jews from northern and central Europe] democratic state.”

That’s why turning outward to the countries of the world to boycott us really is unpatriotic. Genuine patriotism would be in self-boycott – our boycott of ourselves. That does not mean boycotting the settlers, but each person boycotting himself. What is the value of our scientific achievements, our creativity, our academic research? What’s the point of the foods we’ll eat and how we will be joyous on our holidays if everything is tainted with the apartheid virus? Until we arise as a society and demand that the word “democracy” be imbued with new meaning, we will not be a free people in our own country.

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