Al-Jazeerah: Cross-Cultural Understanding
Opinion Editorials, October 2013
Institutionalized Discrimination Against Non-Jews in Israel
By Khalid Amayreh
in occupied East Jerusalem
PIC, Al-Jazeerah, CCUN, October 18, 2013
A recent decision by the Israeli Supreme Court which asserted "Jewish nationality" over "Israeli nationality" has further alienated Israel's large Arab minority and rekindled the old question of whether it is possible to really reconcile parochial Jewish laws with broad democratic principles..
The court rejected a request by 21 mostly-Jewish Israeli citizens to be registered as "Israeli nationals" rather than Jews or Arabs.
The rejection of Israeli nationality by the Israeli state, the petitioners argued, was utterly undemocratic and exposed the state's non-Jewish citizens to institutionalized discrimination.
Critics, both Jewish and Arab, described the decision as an undemocratic move with a disingenuous legal façade, aimed at perpetuating the status of non-Jews, particularly Israel's Palestinian citizens, who comprise about 20% of the population, as inherently lesser or inferior citizens.
Israeli officials and supporters of the court decision, however, argue that it is vital to maintain Israel's "Jewish character," regardless of the issues of democracy and equality on the basis of citizenship.
PR savvy Israeli spokespersons contend the decision has no impact on the issue of discrimination against Israeli non-Jews, adding that Israel's Jewish identity shouldn't collide with the civil rights of ethnic and religious minorities.
Jewish and democratic?
Israeli officials often claim that Israel is both Jewish and democratic in nature. Critics, however, argue that this is "an empty slogan" devoid of truth since Israel can't be both Talmudic and democratic.
"This is a big lie. Israel can either be Jewish or democratic' it can't be both, pure and simple," says Hanna Issa, a prominent legal expert in Ramallah.
"And we all know that whenever there is the slightest conflict between the 'Jewish' and 'democratic' aspects' which comes first."
Issa said Israel intended to achieve two strategic goals by "invoking the Jewish state mantra."
First, the expulsion and ethnic cleansing of the two-million strong Arab community, and, second, preventing the repatriation of Palestinian refugees who fled or were expelled from their homes when Israel was created in 1948.
He adds: "When non-Jewish citizens in Israel demand equality as citizens, they are confronted with the "Jewish state" mantra, but when the international community criticizes Israel for the often brazen discrimination against its non-Jewish citizen, the democratic state mantra is invoked. So, we are effectively talking about a totally dishonest discourse."
Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, denies any contradiction between "his reassertion of Israel's national Jewish character" on the one hand and possible discrimination against the states non-Jewish citizens.
"Israel is Jewish in the same sense that France is French and Norway is Norwegian. The two European countries maintain their respective national identities despite the existence of ethnic and religious minorities in both countries".
Palmor argues that despite the existence of the Kvens in Norway , Norway remains Norwegian although the Kvens are not Norwegian. (The Kvens are a group of people who originated from the northern Baltic Sea areas of Finland and Sweden , but who emigrated to Norway ).
"And in France, there are millions of French citizens of North African origin but France remains French. And the same thing applies to Israel more or less there are some non-Jewish minorities, but Israel remains a Jewish country. It is the state of the Jewish people. This is exactly what the Supreme Court's decision tried to assert."
Palmor's comparisons are strongly disputed by Jewish as well as Arab intellectuals.
Hasan Jabarin is the head of Adalah – the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.
He describes Palmor's analogies between Israel and France as "corrupt, scandalous, utterly mendacious and insulting to people's intelligence."
"In France, once you are granted the French citizenship, you become a full citizen. They don't ask about your ethnicity or religion or about the genealogy of your mother. In Israel, your Israeli citizenship doesn't help you if you are not Jewish," argued Jabarin, a veteran lawyer, in an interview with this writer.
He added: "the French-ness of France and the Jewish-ness of Israel are not the same thing. To claim they are is an insult to truth and common sense.
"In France, one can become a French citizen without having to convert to Catholicism or Christianity in general, but in Israel one can't become Jewish unless one has a Jewish mother or converts to Judaism according to Jewish Orthodox rituals. These are the proscriptions of the Jewish religious law.
"Besides, France is a state of all it is citizens but Israel is defined as the state of the Jewish people as the Israeli Supreme Court repeatedly refused to define Israel as a state of all its citizens."
Jabarin argued that Israel's "brazenly discriminatory laws" were aimed at achieving two main goals: Denying Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homes and villages in what is now Israel, and curtailing the demographic growth of Israel's Arab community even by way of expulsion and ethnic cleansing.
"That is the reason (Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin) Netanyahu keeps demanding that the Palestinians recognize Israeli as an exclusively Jewish state."
What is Jewish?
Palmor and other Israelis don't claim to possess a unified or monolithic definition of who is a Jew. But, for purely public relations purposes, Israeli hasbara (propaganda) spokespersons would claim that being Jewish means, inter alia, belonging to "the Jewish ethnicity."
However, according to a recent survey as many as 50% of Israeli Jews define being Jewish as observance of Jewish religious law.
But for Gideon Levy, a veteran Israeli journalist and intellectual, mixing "nationality with religion is the mother of all problems."
"If being Jewish means religion, then secular Jews like myself can't define themselves as Jews, but if it is nationality, then I am an Israeli national first and foremost."
Levy labels as hypocrite many American and European Jews who support institutionalized discrimination against non-Jewish Israeli citizens, whereas in their respective countries they would aggressively and doggedly defends secularism and the principle of equality irrespective of ethnicity and religion.
"Israel can't be both Jewish and democratic. And under existing conditions, a non-Jewish citizen in Israel has no chance of having real equality with a Jew."
Ada Ravon, a prominent lawyer from Tel Aviv who deals with civil rights issues, readily concurs: "There is no chance for a non-Jewish citizen in Israel to obtain full and complete equality. This is at least how I see it under existing circumstances.
"According to the Law of Return, Israel is a Jewish State, and non-Jews can't be equal citizens."
Responding to critics, Palmor admits "there might be problems here and there.|"
"But there are sufficient laws in Israel that guarantee basic equality." He adds, however, that "Politics is politics and not every law can pass in the Knesset."
Chaim Cohen, a Jewish intellectual, tried to coin a personal, non-controversial definition of who is a Jew. He argued that a Jew is one who feels Jewish.
The vast majority of religious Jews rejected the definition calling it diluted, ambiguous and too abstract.
firstname.lastname@example.org & email@example.com