Will Israel's New Race Law Really Bother the West?

The U.S. and EU ignore violations of civil rights in Saudi Arabia, Iran and China - why should Israel be any different?

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Israeli Arabs take part in Land Day demonstrations in the central Galilee.
Israeli Arabs take part in Land Day demonstrations in the central Galilee.Credit: Rafi Kotz
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“We expect Israel to stick to its democratic principles,” U.S. State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said in response to a question about the Jewish nation-state bill. But to which democratic principles exactly was he referring?

To those that directly harm Israel’s non-Jewish minorities? Or maybe to the laws against asylum-seekers, which have crashed again and again into the wall of the High Court of Justice? Or perhaps the Nakba law? The admissions committees law? The national priority areas law? The land laws? The amendment to the Citizenship Law that enables people to be stripped of their citizenship? Don’t all these constitute violations of “democratic principles”?

Israeli Arab MKs Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta’al ), Hanna Swaid (Hadash) and Jamal Zahalka (Balad), July 20, 2011.Credit: Emil Salman

So what made the U.S. State Department decide to address the nation-state bill specifically? And why do the Americans only “expect,” not even bothering to “urge” or “encourage,” much less to condemn the collapse of democracy in the Jewish state?

The administration and Congress go crazy over evidence of religious or ethnic discrimination in states like China, Myanmar, Iran, Egypt, Pakistan and other benighted countries. An American law passed in 1998 even authorizes the administration to impose sanctions on any country designated as “a country of particular concern” for its infringement on the rights of religious minorities.

Israel isn’t included on this blacklist because ostensibly, it doesn’t harm its religious minorities. But here’s the core of the deception: When a country defines itself according to its religion, and when most of its minority population consists of Muslim and Christian Arabs, the difference between a religious minority, which mustn’t be harmed under American law, and a national minority, whose status isn’t guaranteed, disappears.

The European Union, which hasn’t yet commented on the nation-state law, is supposedly more aggressive in its attitude about violating the rights of national minorities. Thus, for instance, one of the initial pretexts for refusing to let Turkey become a full EU member was its decades of discrimination against the Kurds.

Granted, the EU is considering sanctions against Israel over its policies in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. But when it comes to Israel’s Arab citizens and the erosion in their status as a result of the nation-state law, Europe, of all places, is silent. And really, why should it raise a fuss? After all, Europe itself is gripped with fear over what it terms “the spread of Islam.”

And what’s good for Europe is surely good for Israel. Thus, Europe’s silence and America’s squeak won’t topple the Israeli race law.

But this blind eye is deceptive, because the absence of a reprimand doesn’t ensure membership in the club of “proper” states. In the same way that they aren’t disturbed by the state of civil rights in Israel, the United States and Europe refuse to get excited over the state of civil rights in Saudi Arabia, ignore the persecution of minorities in Iran and don’t really see China as deserving of punishment because of its oppression of ethnic and religious minorities. The West does wonderful business with all of them, or else hungers to do business with them. So it holds its nose and shakes hands.

Minority rights, according to Israel and its Arab and Muslim comrades, don’t belong to the system of universal values; such rights are strictly their own internal affair, and no other country has the right to intervene in this matter. “Every country develops a democracy that suits its character and culture,” Bashar Assad declared shortly after being elected Syria’s president in 2000. In Jerusalem, people are now nodding their heads in complete agreement.

But perhaps American Jews have something to say? All those millions who rush to unite to defend Israel’s reputation as the democratic state of guaranteed refuge for every Jew in the world, but not for all its citizens? What has become of all those Jews who marched alongside American blacks in their historic campaign for equal rights? Has anyone heard anything from them recently about the law for discrimination against Israel’s minorities?

Maybe they did say something. But it was undoubtedly in English, and perhaps because of the distance, we didn’t hear it.

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