By Ali Drabu
Editor, International Relations Undergraduate
“If we were to have a Jewish majority in Eretz Israel, then first of all, we would create here a situation of total, absolute, and complete equal rights, with no exceptions. Whether Jew, Arab, Armenian or German there is no difference before the law; all paths are open before him.” – Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism.
Israel is entrenched in a newfound and deep identity crisis. The real threat to its integrity and society lies not from outside the state’s borders, as has been the case for much of Israel’s history, but very much from within. Whether it be the struggle with its own identity in the wake of new controversial laws, the seemingly endless conflict with the Palestinians as well as Israel’s declining reputation abroad, Israelis are stuck between a rock and a hard place. As of now the current government of Israel is the most right-wing government that has ever been elected in the state’s short but action-packed history; a government that has proven to be so controversial that thousands of Israelis, from all walks and backgrounds of Israeli society, have taken to the streets of major cities like Haifa, Tel Aviv and Be’er Sheva in protest at this government and its actions. The recent controversies include the government’s new “Nation State” Law, its actions on laws relating to the LGBT community in Israel as well as the IDF’s recent actions in Gaza.
Israel prides itself on being a state that encompasses both a Jewish and democratic nature; the ability to hold a Jewish identity, live under Jewish social customs and laws yet enjoy the freedom and liberty offered by a democratic system. Israeli politicians proudly boast the title of “the only democracy in the Middle East”. Israel is frequently revered as a defender of freedom and “Western values” in an area surrounded by despotic, tyrannical and backward states according to some Western thinkers – as former President Barack Obama put it, a ‘small nation’ in a ‘tough neighbourhood’.
Like much of Western Europe however, Israeli society has itself become politically polarized, diffusing into the more radical fringes of the political spectrum, whilst over the last few years, the centrist ground has slowly faded away. The demise of centrist parties, such as Kadima, illustrates this. Kadima experienced heavy political losses in the last few Knesset elections; in 2009, they had 28 seats in the Knesset. In the 2013 elections, they lost 26 seats. In 2015, they did not even enter the elections given that in the last round, they barely made it past the electoral threshold. Opinion polls signalled that Kadima would not win any seats if they ran alone. The party that once championed the centrist, liberal voice of Israel, was nowhere to be seen in the last election.
To further add to this, recent events have drawn into question the state’s truly democratic nature. It is often easy to forget that just over 20 per cent of Israel’s population is in fact Palestinian, both Christian and Muslim, a fact often brushed aside or forgotten when also discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These are Palestinians who stayed in the land that became the State of Israel after the War of 1948. Whilst a minority, the Palestinian citizens of Israel are a significant minority, yet apparent and clear disparities exist between Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel. Ben White, an author and journalist specialising in the Israel-Palestine conflict, notes that despite making up just over 20 per cent of the population, the state development budget for Palestinian citizens of Israel is just 4 per cent. The Israeli Education Ministry also spends more than five times as much on Jewish students as Palestinian (White, 2012). Many of the Palestinian citizens of Israel are Bedouins, and for many years have faced several difficulties from the Israeli authorities. As of now, around 90,000 Bedouins live in “unrecognised villages” in Israel; these are settled areas the Bedouins have lived in for many years. Yet, the Israeli authorities deem their settlement as illegal and illegitimate, thus denying the Bedouins who live there basic infrastructure such as electricity and water, forcing those living in these “unrecognised villages” to become self-sufficient. Israeli authorities routinely attempt to demolish these areas, prompting the locals to live in persistent fear of having their homes knocked down.
It is absolutely clear that there are clear economic and social disparities between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. Yet perhaps the most recent event, and arguably one of the most notable events to have occurred in the state’s history relating to its Arab minority population, was the government’s passing the “Nation State” Law, which now reinforces a huge social disparity between Israeli Jews and other minority groups. The Nation State Law states that Jews have a unique right to national self-determination and puts Hebrew above Arabic as the official language. Part of the Law states, “The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” The decision to enshrine aspects of Jewish cultural heritage at a national level clearly ostracizes and marginalises Palestinian citizens of Israel: for example, downgrading Arabic to a “special status” language despite it having been an official language of the state since its establishment in 1948. The omission of the assurance and safeguarding of the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel, or any non-Jewish Israeli anywhere in the Bill is also a cause for concern. Even the Israeli Declaration of Independence explicitly states that Israel “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture”. Yet the Nation State Law promotes a radically different sentiment to this.
Take the quote from the beginning of this article – a man who is cherished as the father of the Israeli political right, the founder of the movement of Revisionist Zionism, a man whose name is used to name streets and public spaces in Israeli cities today, writes and emphasizes the need for equal social and political rights in Israel for all citizens. The Declaration of Independence, the founding document of the State of Israel, the document that paved the way for the birth of the Jewish state, included the principle of equality, freedom and respect for all citizens.
The spirit of freedom and democracy for all in Israel is being critically undermined by this current administration. The wisdom, desires and aspirations of the founders of Zionism, the creators of the State of Israel, are all being cast aside. People like Ben Gurion, Jabotinsky and even Herzl himself all knew the need for the Jewish State to be just, equal and democratic, to integrate and respect the rights of its minorities so that Israel may exist in peace. The issue with the Palestinians outside of Israel is yet to be resolved, yet one thing is absolutely clear; the Palestinians do not have the forces available to them to defeat Israel from the outside. They are outmatched, outnumbered and outgunned. Instead, this government is destroying Israel from the inside; undermining democratic principles and ostracizing minorities in Israel will pave the way for a larger scale internal conflict that will cripple the state’s integrity. In the last few weeks we have seen resignations from Druze officers in the IDF in protest at the Nation State Law. Captain Amir Jamal, one of the officers who left the IDF stated in an open letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu, “This country that I, along with my two brothers, and my father, served with dedication, purpose and love of our homeland — in the end, what do we get, we are second-class .” Jamal also called for an end to the compulsory draft for the Druze in Israel. One can almost feel a sense of betrayal in Jamal’s words, a betrayal that is undeserved. A betrayal to his commitment and devotion to the State of Israel. Young people in Israel from minority backgrounds may begin to question whether their loyalty will be worth it in the end. As we have seen in this case, loyalty seems to be rewarded only if you are from a certain group of society.
For once, the conversation is not about Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. In this instance, forget about Palestinians – for whilst there may be a conflict and several other issues between the two, Israel’s internal conflict with its Arab and other minority citizens is a far bigger threat to its security, stability and most importantly, its future. Will Israel choose to stick by its founding principles of freedom, democracy and equality for all? Will the wisdom of the founding fathers of Zionism and the State of Israel be rediscovered? Will there be a reconciliation between Netanyahu’s government and Israel’s minorities? Or will Israel choose to creep into the fringes of becoming a loose-ended theocracy?
Featured photo provided by Menahem Kahana/AFP
Ben White. (2012). Palestinians in Israel. London: PlutoPress.