Our Aggressive Democracy

Racist legislation is a disease, wherever it comes from. But in this case, the identity of the party that initiates the bills is important.

Not very long ago, senior Yesha Council officials were asked about the Russian-speaking minority's role in the settlement project. "These Russians can't be trusted," they replied - not on their Jewishness and not even on their loyalty to the Land of Israel. The Land of Israel, they stressed, not the State of Israel. Their resentment included Avigdor Lieberman. One wonders how this resonates with David Rotem, formerly Yesha Council's legal adviser and today a Yisrael Beiteinu MK, who proposed making Israeli citizenship conditional on a declaration of loyalty to the state. The bill was rejected by the Ministerial Committee on Legislation last week.

Besides racism, this proposal and the bill aiming to ban commemoration of the Nakba - the Palestinian tragedy of 1948 - contain another explosive ingredient: They both have been put forward by Yisrael Beiteinu, a party still popularly perceived as "Russian." This affiliation heats up the struggle over the character of the state and the fight between Israel's Arab and Russian-speaking citizens for a place in society. The implications are as symbolic as they are practical.

Racist legislation is a disease, wherever it comes from. But in this case, the identity of the party that initiates the bills is important. The mass immigration from the former Soviet Union put two of the largest communities in Israel on a collision course - the Arabs and the new immigrants. The ethos of the Law of Return collides with the ethos of the right of return, and the absorption of a million new immigrants in employment and housing has been carried out largely at the Arabs' expense. The shift in demographic balance created by this aliyah sidelined the Arab community even further. Instead of using this change to expand democracy, Israel, through Yisrael Beiteinu, is using it to create an aggressive democracy.

This situation is very dangerous. Even now, the mixed cities are becoming Israel's most tense areas. The free market's hidden hand and cynical policies sent the immigrants from former Soviet republics to live in cities like Lod and Acre. Forced neighborhoods of two weakened communities only increased the mutual racism. In the Acre riots during Yom Kippur last year, two women were heard screaming at each other in the middle of an empty road. "That's my home!" one shouted in an Arabic accent. "That's my state!" the other replied in a strong Russian one.

This is the essence of Yisrael Beiteinu's proposals: Both bills express a feeling of continual struggle for mastery and ownership of the state. "It's particularly offensive that an immigrant, absorbed here with my tax money, gets up one morning and decides I don't exist," Jafar Farah of the Mossawa Center for civil rights told Haaretz.

At this point, the bills have fanned the flames without bringing their authors any discernible political gains. If Yisrael Beiteinu wanted to please the Russian-speaking voters - two-thirds of its constituents - its success was fairly limited. The "Nakba law" bill was perceived in the Russian street with reservation. The "Russian" right wing sees it as limiting freedom of speech, a principle they tend to interpret wide enough to include overt incitement. Others carefully noted that expanding the loyalty law to affect all those who came here under the Law of Return could turn out to be a bad idea.