so i had to write a paper for my exploration seminar to israel. ive been working on it a while and just finished, so i decided to post it for anyone who wants to read it.
My principle argument in the paper is that the notion of israel as a “jewish and democratic state” is untrue (as opposed to a paradox, as many others claim). the paper explains why.
Democracy in a Jewish State: a Paradox Not Yet Realized
On one of the first days in Israel, our group visited Tel Aviv University for a series of lectures concerning Israeli economy, the Israeli Arabs, and Israeli Security. During the lecture discussing the Israeli Arabs, Dr. Amal Jamal, the first Arab to be Chair of the Political Science Department presented to us the paradox of Israel as both a Jewish state and as a democracy, which is discussed commonly in the literature. He acknowledged with a smile the contradiction that this phrase brings to mind. How can a state that is a self-declared proponent of the interests of a single ethnic/religious group at the same time be a democracy?
This is the issue on which I will focus my attention in this paper. Rather than accept this puzzling contradiction, I will argue that it is untrue. While in a Jewish state, it is possible to have democratic characteristics, it is a contradiction to have characteristics of a Jewish state in a democracy. In other words, if “democracy” is weighed equally alongside “Jewish state”, full functioning democracy cannot actually exist, while Jewish state can. I argue that this is the case in Israel regarding the population of Israeli Arabs (approximately 20%) vis-a-vis the state. The state of Israel certainly has democratic characteristics, such as most aspects of individual legal equality. The lack of recognition of the Arab community, however, along with Jewish domination in every facet of the state structure has resulted in vast discrimination of the Arab citizens in Israel. This discrimination is of the scope which shows both the state’s neglect of the Arab population and rejection of the ideas of multicultural democracy, which is based not only on liberal ideas of individual legal equality, but on practical economic and social outcome for individuals as well as communities. I will outline some of the ways in which the Arab community in Israel is discriminated against legally, culturally, and historically. This will be intertwined with personal reflections from the experiences of the Exploration Seminar, such as the comparison of state ideology dominated structures and community structures. It must be made clear that the elements of discrimination that will be discussed in this paper are a bi-product of the modern nation-state coupled with unique circumstances that pertain to the state of Israel. In other words, some of the problems that the Arab minority faces in Israel are faced by multiple minorities in many different states and are due to the nation-state system in which Israel is a piece, which has general trends of subversion of the minority, neglect of communal rights and autonomy, and propagation of state interests and ideology. Others, however, are a product of the unique conditions of the Jewish state of Israel.
The Arab population that remained within the borders of Israel after the formation of the state has been discriminated against on multiple levels. As a community caught in between a nationalist struggle, the wishes of the community to form an identity have been formally suppressed. That is to say that recognition of the Arab nationalism as a political community in Israel was illegal and considered “terrorism” until the Oslo agreement of 1993 (Barzilai 99 2003). Zionist history is an aspect on which we focused as a group at the beginning of the seminar, and this portion exemplified the total erasure of the Arab perspective from the official history in regards to the formation of the state and to whom it belongs. A prime example of this is the different expressions of the 1948 war: the War of Independence for the Zionists and the Nakba (catastrophe) for the Arabs. As I will explain later, the use of the “War of Independence” narrative dominates state education. At the Hagana museum in Tel Aviv, we were shown a map of Palestine that showed how Palestinian Arabs inhabited the most fertile areas, and it was expressed as a “problem” to be “solved” by obtaining this land. The perspective of the state-forming Zionists that is present in both the Hagana and Ha’Ezel museum is deeply embedded in state systems. This results in the total rejection of any competing form of history presented by the Arabs, or even non-Zionists. And in fact, the Arab groups we spoke with and the Zionist groups we spoke with were not in the same narrative. That is to say that the Arabs were claiming discrimination and presenting ways in which to remedy this, whereas the Zionists equated Arab (even the citizens) with a threat to the Jewish State, and certainly not part of a shared history of the region.
In order to counteract the image of the doctrine of Zionism that is deeply embedded in the legal culture in Israel, the state has used liberalism as a tool of political rhetoric to both claim egalitarianism under law and ignore the actual communal grievances of the minority (Barzilai 106 2003). The state can thus endorse the Zionist interpretation of history, give precedence to Jewish religious and cultural sites, and disproportionately allocate goods and resources to the Jewish population while at the same time having “equality under the law”. In addition, the minority is deprived of the tools needed to make claims against state policies, because there are essentially two options: rejection of the state out of principle in the hope that this will lead to positive change in the community, or take part in potentially successful litigations that can make positive change in the community, but in doing so legitimize state institutions, the very thing one is fighting against. This has led some to the conclusion that the “Jewish state” element of Israel inhibits any possibility of real equality between Jews and Arabs (Rouhana 1998, Barzilai 132 2003).
Another aspect of discrimination in Israel is the concept of land ownership. Only a small percentage of land in Israel is private, and most is a part of the Jewish National Fund and the Jewish Agency. This creates an obvious problem of discrimination, such as the fact that “the land is mandated by law to benefit not Israel’s citizens but Jews, whether they are citizens or not” (Zreik 76 2004). When the group visited the Sadaka Reut NGO in Jaffa, Fadi Shbeita walked us through an Arab neighborhood adjacent to Jewish populated Tel Aviv, parts of which looked as though not much had changed in the last sixty years. He explained how some of the residents who had lived there for generations were at risk of losing their homes, since they resided there before the creation of the state, and did not possess official documentary proof of land ownership. Directly adjacent to the relatively impoverished neighborhood was a luxurious, new apartment complex inhabited almost entirely by wealthy Jews. Jews can live in Arab neighborhoods in many cases such as Jaffa, whereas Arabs cannot live in Jewish dominated cities and towns, because of the lack of the use of Arabic in schools and in public life, or lack of mosques, as Fadi explained.
The growing disparity between the two groups is manifesting in the annexation of the Arab minority into smaller geographic spaces. For example, 62 percent of Jews have one person or less in each room, while in the case of Arabs only 22 percent. In addition, 8 percent of Jews live 2 or more people to a room, while for Arabs it is 40 percent. Attempts made by Arabs to build up communities has resulted in claims at illegal building and even prosecutions due to difficulty for Arabs to get land in Israel and control of the land by Jewish organizations (Zureik Moughrabi Sacco 427 1993). Considering also that the birth rate is much higher among the Arab population, this disparity in land resources is even more drastic, and will lead to an exponentially growing problem of lack of geographical space for Arabs in Israel. The resources allocated by the state to tend to this increasingly compact space are highly disproportionate as well. In 1993, when the Arab population accounted for 16 percent of the population, the percentage of the budget allocated to Arab villages was 2 percent (Zureik Moughrabi Sacco 427 1993). This is echoed by Barzilai who notes that during the 1990s, the Arab population received 1.9 percent of the ministry’s budget during a time when they were averaging 19 percent of the population (Barzilai 109 2003). The effects of this can be demonstrated by poverty levels between Jews and Arabs. “As a result of government assistance, close to two thirds of those Israeli Jewish households that are classified as poor improve their situation beyond the poverty level, compared to between 15 and 20 percent for poor Arab households” (Zureik Moughrabi Sacco 427 1993). These are some of the most obvious aspects of discrimination through withholding of resources used by the state against the Arab minority.
Another example of land discrimination is the idea of unrecognized villages in Israel. When we traveled to the Negev in the south, to Yeruham, we met with a Bedouin Arab family. The conditions of the village, if it can be called that, resembled those of sub-Saharan Africa. The shacks were held up by potato sacks and wooden 2 x 4s, with a single rug on the dirt floor and a few pillows for sitting. We were greeted with the utmost hospitality, with tea and coffee prepared by a woman who told us about her life in the village. She stated, to our surprise, “There is nothing better than being a Bedouin”. While already the Arab villages in general receive a much smaller percentage of the state budget, the unrecognized villages are totally neglected. Although they are geographically inside the borders, and have existed in most cases before the creation of the state, they are considered to be outside of the state’s responsibilities, meaning they receive no state help (Zreik 76 2004). The people of Yeruham are working with the Bedouins to improve their situation, and are urging state powers to not ignore their own backyard.
The attitude of the state towards the minority is not only one of social control and neglect. It includes another facet of the viewing of Arabs; a group that was not driven off the land during the 1948 War, and is in fact growing at a greater rate than the Jewish population; as a nuisance. And as Jamal points out, the main national symbols of the state of Israel are Jewish rather than civic. He continues, stating “It views itself as an ‘unrealized’ nation-state, as a state destined to be a nation-state, the state of and for a particular nation…” (Jamal 3 2005). The Arab population is viewed as a challenge to the realization of the state that is “destined to be”. An example of this state attitude is in the Koenig report, written in 1976 by Israel Koenig, a commissioner to the Ministry of Interior from Northern Galilee, which contains state policy suggestions to the first Rabin government concerning the Arab minority in Israel. The document mentions the “threat” of Arab nationalists organizing in northern Israel, and suggests expanding Jewish settlements in order to break the contiguity of Arab villages and “dilute existing Arab population concentrations” (Koenig Report 193 1976). The idea of controlling any competing political ideology is rampant in the document, with the suggestion to create a party to compete with the Rakah communist party, “in which the stress will be on ideas of equality, humanism and language, social struggle, and on raising the banner of peace in the region. The establishment has to prepare itself to maintain covert presence and control in that party” (Koenig Report 193 1976). The Report aims to control the job market as well, with a statement that the Arab presence in the job market in these areas must not exceed 20 percent in an area where the Arab population is over 50 percent. These policy suggestions show how the state, which does not formally recognize the Arab Palestinians as a community, views the Arab population as a community only when in the process of forming policy around subduing and controlling it, rather than for the recognition of its communal rights as an indigenous minority.
In regards to education in Israel, the Arab population is disadvantaged systematically. Fadi discussed with the group some of the problems that he considered most problematic for the Arab population. Although the Arabs have schools taught by Arabs in Arabic where concentrations of Arabs are high, there are still concrete ways in which the minority is subject to state Zionist ideology in education. For example, the Ministry of Education is dominated by Zionist perspective, which uses Zionism as a tool to legitimize the state, and thus, Arab students learn of the 1948 War as the “War of Independence”. This is because even though Arabs have significant control over the schools, they have no control over the curricula. Fadi continued by stating that one of Netanyahu’s campaign promises was that the word “Nakba” would never be seen in an Israeli textbook, not even as an explanation of the Arab cultural and historical perspective within Israel. Arabs speak Arabic in school, but also learn Hebrew as a national language, whereas in Jewish schools Arabic is not required to a level that leads to fluent speaking. And once again the disparity in allocation of resources can be seen between Arab and Jewish schools. Jewish schools enjoy smaller class sizes, a smaller student to teacher ratio, and greater access to “special services such as psychological counseling, and access to a school library”. In addition, “An education enrichment program, begun by the Ministry of Education in the 1960s, was intended to raise educational levels in schools with disadvantaged pupils; however, no funding for this program was allocated to the Arab sector until the mid 1990s” (Okun/Friedlander 166 2005). In addition, one can see through the Koenig report other methods of discriminatory attitudes against the minority, such as the suggestion of funneling Arab students into the natural sciences, where it is less likely that they will become nationalistic and there are higher dropout rates. Also included was the suggestion to make study abroad opportunities easier for Arabs, while return for job openings harder (Koenig Report 196 1976).
These are examples of how to the state uses liberal equality to deny communal autonomy. By providing one form of education to all its citizens, the state achieves two objectives. First, it serves its Jewish community by providing an education that legitimizes the state as a Jewish State and its interests through the Zionist perspective of history. Second, by being officially a liberal policy, it neglects to recognize the Arabs as a community and rejects their demands for communal rights to education. Therefore it serves Jews both as individuals and as a community (at least within the Zionist framework), whereas the Arabs only as individuals, while discriminating against them as a community on three levels: the failure to recognize them as a community, blatant discriminatory actions to subdue the minority and of course exclusion from the Jewish Zionist narrative.
In many ways, the state’s relationship with the Arab population is an example of how modern ideas of democracy and freedom manifest themselves in the nation-state system in a way that contradicts their purpose. For example, as Zureik, Moughrabi, and Sacco explain, using a passage by sociologist Sammy Smooha, “…in addition to the lack of protection of minority rights and unrestricted power of the regime, there is the problem of the “tyranny of the majority” and the excessive use of state power to subdue the minority. All this is done while abiding by the formal rules of freedom of expression, freedom of organization and right to vote” (Smooha in Zureik, Moughrabi, Sacco 423 1993). This brings to question the value of such freedoms, if they are used cleverly by the state to achieve its interests, and indeed further subdue the minority. Further, they note that in a society such as Israel, the understanding of legal injustices comes from the periphery, not from the center where the dominant legal language is created and proliferated. This is because of the deeply divided nature of the society, with a fifth of the population systematically discriminated against. In the Israeli political structure, the state’s goal is not to use an ideological framework to try and persuade the Arab community that Zionism has their interests at heart, a perhaps impossible task. Instead, state policy tries to guarantee compliance of the minority through social control, while actively preventing them from entering the policy-making discourse. As Zionism is the dominant state ideological framework, and the Arab minority will not be made to be in favor of Zionism, which is inherently against their interest, the state uses a strategy of first subduing the political and social power of the group, and then treating them as individuals, void of their communal, political, and historical context (Zureik Moughrabi Sacco 425/437 1993).
Functional democracy must include not only “negative rights”, such as protections from other individuals; it must also include “positive rights” such as the equal allocation of goods and resources. As Jamal states, “Collective rights are increasingly viewed as a precondition for guaranteeing individual liberty. They entail the demand for self-government in several aspects of Arab life in Israel such as education, communication, planning, control over resources, social welfare and development” (Jamal 2005). He explains that collective rights such as self-determination through self-government can be a form of corrective justice in order to restore the experiences lost during the swallowing of the minority into the hegemonic state structure. Liberalism as the idea of individual equality under the law ignores inter-state stratification as well as historical trends of inequality that can inhibit the total realization of the liberalism’s potential benefits to a given group. This is evidenced in Israel by liberalism’s proponents: Zionist political leaders. The state is aware that the Arab minority does not have the political or social capital to have a voice in making the rules of the game. And as Jamal points out, using Iris Young’s idea, a commitment to democracy means not only creating a top-down structure of egalitarian values that are protected under the law, but it also means making special efforts to include disadvantaged groups in the formation of the rules of the game (Jamal 5 2005, Young). Without these efforts, liberalism results in a cyclical process in which the ruling majority proposes freedoms which aim to individualize minority groups, making their claims to justice irrelevant, being outside the sphere of individual liberalism. At the same time, however, the privileged majority group can use liberalism to solidify community protections, by lifting already more privileged individuals within the hegemonic group. In Israel, this has manifested in such a way that in order to enter the political elite, Arabs must eliminate the “Palestinian Arab” identity, and replace it with “Israeli”, thus acknowledging that citizenship in a Jewish State is a greater representation of identity than being an Arab-Palestinian. This form of liberalism leads to an “Israeli” community, and given that the majority of the Israeli community is Jewish, falling outside of this communal identity, either by choice or not, means not being able to reap the full benefits of liberalism.
An interesting facet to this discussion is the Arab response to state discrimination. Naturally, it is diverse and ranging, but aspects of the Arab voice in the state can be revealing. For example, Ellen Geffner interviewed Arabs that are considered to be in the elite about their stance on the state, legal justice, and Jewish/Arab equality. According to her findings, there were many who concluded that the Arab population receives the same liberties as the Jewish population, and that the emphasis in Israel is on democracy, rather than Zionism. “When weighing the relative importance of liberal democratic principles and the Jewish character of the state, however, they claimed that Israel’s political leadership was firmly committed to the primacy of the former, and that democratic principles would be the final arbiter in social conflicts” (Geffner 136 1974). This perspective has a few possible explanations. First, it must be noted that the respondents claimed that the population enjoys equality of “liberal, democratic principles”, namely freedom of speech, expression, and other liberal freedoms protected by law that, as already explained, have been used to actually discriminate against the minority. In addition it must be noted that a few individual successes within a minority that is discriminated against does little to defend the state’s intentions, because Geffner’s respondents’ perspectives on the equality of the state have either led to their acceptance into the sphere of the Israeli elites, or because of their successes, their view of the state changed. Aberrations from the norm do little to legitimate discriminatory state policy, and certainly do not change the realities of the bulk of the minority.
Earlier was mentioned that the Arab minority has essentially two options if they are critical of the state: to totally reject it out of principle in the hopes of future change, or to use litigation to fight against it. When our group visited, Haifa, we met with lawyers from Adalah (justice), who are doing the latter. They analyze cases of discrimination against the Arab population in Israel and litigate them at Israel’s High Court, another stop on our journey. As they shared with us, they have been successful on multiple occasions, such as a case that required that Arabic be added to street and road signs. The power of the rule of law for the minority has become increasingly important. The tool of law has been used as a form of political behavior for cause lawyers around issues such as violence against women, land rights, education, civil rights and other issues (Barzilai 134 2005). The Arab lawyers at Adalah, whose experiences are deeply rooted in both the Arab community as well as in modern legal ideas of human rights and communal justice have been able to use state law, which has proven to be discriminatory, as a dynamic entity, able to be counterbalanced using strong, creative legal discourse (Barzilai 138 2005). Adalah’s constitution, drafted in 2007 as an idealistic proposal for an Israeli constitution as well as a basis for the organization’s priorities, deals with issues such as Israel as an entirely bilingual state, Israel as a multicultural state, and Israel as a state that adheres the basic human rights structure as can be seen in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Adalah 2007). The document not only sets a foundation for the potential future of equality in Israel between Jews and Arabs, it is framed in such a way to guarantee a form of corrective justice, by utilizing communal autonomy to regain lost history, culture, and opportunity, emphasized earlier by Jamal. The document also addresses the unrecognized villages, and Bedouin villages, granting them both rights to their land, and recognition in as a part of the state, which includes the allocation of resources. What the Adalah constitution achieves that is most impressive is that it is both a progressive action document for the Arab minority as well as a non-exclusive, complete attempt at a constitution that aims for equality for all of Israel’s citizens.
As Zreik notes, an area where the rights discourse fails is on the idea of context. For the Palestinians, it is only an issue of egalitarianism legally and socially, it is about the concept of loss (Zreik 78 2004). Liberalism, even when it works, still ignores historical communal context. And for the Palestinians, an indigenous minority now living in and around the state of Israel, context is everything. Similar to what can be seen with the Native American and African American communities in the United States, liberalism fails first as an effective egalitarian system of rights, and second as a form of corrective justice, the latter being essential as shown by Jamal. “The Palestinians have not only lost their rights and their land, but also the context that enables them to demand these rights in a way that makes sense…in this regard, the first and basic right for the Palestinians in seeking a measure of justice is the right to justice, the right to seek redress within the framework of their loss” (Zreik 78 2004). Adalah provides both the legal power to work within the framework of the state as well as the historical narrative to provide context to Palestinian loss, and emphasis on corrective justice. In this regard, Adalah, by using the rule of law as a force of political and grassroots social change, proves Zreik wrong. They use the rights discourse not as a top-down edict, but as a grassroots effort built up from the historical and social narrative of the community. The meeting with Adalah had a profound impact on me personally, because they represent exactly what I hope law can achieve for non-ruling groups. In addition, the work that Adalah is doing in their community as well as their philosophy of the law and social justice in general is one that I share. I hope to do similar work as a lawyer in the future.
Another grassroots organization that is doing very different work is Sadaka Reut, based in Jaffa. Sadaka Reut is an NGO dedicated to Arab and Jewish partnerships in order to “build a culture of peace” concerning the effect of the Israel-Palestine conflict on society. Reut works on the ground with youth, in order to secure a future generation of peace, cooperation, and mutual historical understanding. Since Jews and Arabs are highly segregated in schools, and have no opportunity to interact in a classroom until attending University, Reut brings a diverse group of young people together to discuss these issues. Through various seminars, Jewish and Arab youth tackle controversial topics affecting both groups, including the creation of the state, the present conflict in Israel and the Occupied Territores, power relationships, gender issues, and much more. “Our underlying belief is that the conflict affects and influences all aspects of the reality in which we live, and that only by dealing with it directly will we be able to fully grasp its impact on youth and the forms of oppression they are subject to as consequence. This process is built in order to free the youth from the shackles the conflict has imprisoned them in, from the different roles they are expected to play in its context, and to encourage them to take active responsibility in creating a positive alternative” (Sadaka Reut 2009). The formation of a shared history is vitally important while Israel is still in its infancy. Jewish and Arab partnerships as facilitated by Sadaka Reut can play a positive role in the attempt to both nurture a sense of common humanity while also cherishing the complexity of each groups’ cultural traditions and perspectives.
Throughout this paper, an ideological framework has been presented about the ideas of functioning democracy. It is argued that within the nation-state system, and specifically within Israel, which has a ruling class that consists of one ethno-religious group and high disparities between the ruling and non-ruling class, a state policy of liberalism is inadequate for the needs of the minority and highly discriminatory in multiple spheres of society. Also shown in this paper are specific examples, within multiple spheres of society, of how the Arab minority of Israel is discriminated against as a product of both the policy of liberalism within the nation-state system and specific state-minority relations within the historical framework of Israel. It follows then from this evidence that the democratic characteristics that exist in the state of Israel, and perhaps to the same degree in many other states although not addressed here, do not provide a sufficient social outcome for the minority that is subject to specific historical disadvantages and discrimination. In fact, the level of disparity between Jews and Arabs in Israel is of a level that suggests that the substantive realization of a democracy is not yet present. Instead, Israel is a Jewish State, with some of the basic liberal, democratic tenets. In order to secure an equal future for the Arab minority in Israel, as well as other minorities in other states, the formal recognition of the community must be recognized in order to address the grievances of the community as such, rather than through individualization. Only then will the ideals of democracy be fully realized.
Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. “The Democratic Constitution”. Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel 20 March. 2007. Web. 5 November, 2009.
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Geffner, Ellen. “An Israeli Arab View of Israel.” Jewish Social Studies Vol. 36, No. 2 April. 1974: pp. 134-141.
Jamal, Amal. “On the Morality of Arab Collective Rights in Israel.” Adalah’s Newsletter Vol. 12 April 2005: pp. 1 – 7.
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