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The Dilemma of Israeli Arabs

As long as the state remains 'Jewish in essence,' they cannot be equal citizens.

January 08, 2003|Azmi Bishara

JERUSALEM — The cornerstone of liberal democracy is citizenship, not ethnicity, religion or race -- even that of the majority -- a fact the civil rights movement made evident in the United States. But in Israel, where bitter arguments still rage over the question "Who is a Jew?" the question "Who is a citizen?" has yet to be seriously addressed.

Israel's Arab citizens, who make up nearly 20% of the population, are effectively prohibited from participating in this debate. In fact, thanks to a decision last week by the Israeli Central Elections Committee, even Arab citizens who serve in the parliament, or Knesset, cannot run for reelection Jan. 28 if we dare to suggest that Israel should become a state for all its citizens.

I am an Arab citizen of Israel and have been a member of the Knesset for six years. Over the last year and a half, Israel's attorney general has indicted me for voicing political opinions, lobbied to have my parliamentary immunity revoked and, most recently, requested disqualification of the party I represent from participating in the upcoming elections. In agreeing, the Central Elections Committee cited an amendment to the elections law that says that no party or candidate can challenge the Jewish and democratic nature of Israel. The Israeli Supreme Court is scheduled to rule Thursday on our appeal.

Israeli Supreme Court Justice Menachem Elon once said, "Israel is Jewish in essence and democratic in character." How can a state that defines itself as essentially Jewish also characterize itself as a democracy when it has a sizable non-Jewish minority? This is a question that many Israeli liberals and their supporters abroad do not like to ask. An honest liberal would say that Israel should be democratic in essence and Jewish in character, given that it has a Jewish majority that defines itself in national terms.

Having lost our Palestinian homeland in 1948, we Arabs became a minority in our own country and were granted citizenship, which we did not choose, in a state that does not define itself as ours but says it is the state of the Jewish people. If we demand that the citizenship we received in place of our homeland be full citizenship, we are accused of "threatening the Jewishness of the state."

Increasingly, Arabs and Jews have come to understand that Israel cannot separate religion from state or grant full equality to its non-Jewish citizens unless it defines itself as the state of all its citizens. And just as we recognize the Jewish majority's right to self-determination despite our disagreement over the historical processes that brought it about, we demand that the Palestinian people receive similar recognition: self-determination in the part of their homeland occupied by Israel since 1967, namely the West Bank and Gaza.

One need not be Arab to identify with the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation. Resisting occupation is a legitimate, internationally recognized right, which many Jewish and Arab members of the Knesset before me have affirmed from the podium of the occupying state's parliament without it being considered "support for terror." It is our civic and moral duty to oppose violence against civilians, even in an anti-occupation struggle. Still, it is not our place to dictate to the Palestinians how to conduct their struggle against that occupation, when what is needed is an end to the occupation itself.

Since we raised the demand that Israel become a citizens' state, the Israeli establishment has regarded the Arab population with increased suspicion. Many interpret the idea as opposition to the Jewish character of the state or as a cover for an "Arab nationalism" bent on destroying Israel "from within." They cannot fathom that one might be, simply, both Arab and democrat. And maybe that's the real threat: demanding a citizens' state challenges Israel's regional monopoly on "democracy."

Since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, an Israeli prime minister who dared to rely on Arab votes to form a parliamentary majority, the Israeli right began a systematic campaign to delegitimize the Arab vote. They do not include Arab parties in their coalitions, despite the fact that we are natural allies on peacemaking. The official consensus, it is clear, does not include the Arab minority. They insist that any political settlement be based on a "Jewish majority."

This is how the disenfranchisement of Arabs started, and, like any racist incitement against minorities in a time of political crisis, it developed a dynamic all its own.

The biggest threat to Israeli democracy is the racist and violent political culture engendered by the occupation itself. Disqualifying those of us who are struggling to democratize Israel from participating in free and fair elections means barring a liberal democratic worldview that posits that a state should serve and stand for all of its citizens equally.

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Azmi Bishara is a member of the Knesset from the Balad Party.

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