In late July 2018, the Israeli parliament – the Knesset – passed a contentious nation-state law that explicitly defines Israel as an exclusively Jewish state. This law was passed narrowly after a heated debate. The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, along with his ultra-right wing Likud coalition government, has been pushing for the approval of such a law for a long time.
This nation-state law basically entrenches Jewish ethnic supremacy as the main legal foundation of the Israeli state. It is an open declaration of apartheid, making the Arab minority in Israel second-class citizens. You may read the full text of the nation-state law here.
For instance, the law states that national self-determination in the state of Israel is exclusive to the Jewish people. The Arabic language is demoted from the status of an official state language, and supports the exclusion of Arabs from the building of Jewish communities and state institutions.
The Arab minority citizens inside Israel, the descendants of those who were left within the borders of Israel proper at the conclusion of the 1948 war and Nakba, are never mentioned in this law. Arab lawmakers in the Knesset loudly protested the passage of this law, and one was forcibly ejected from the parliament. The main head of the Joint List Alliance, the combination of Arab political parties in the parliament, denounced this law as the death of democracy. It is arguable whether Israel ever was a democracy, and we shall return to this point later.
Stating the obvious
This law, a frequent hobby horse of the Zionist right-wing parties, was hailed by PM Netanyahu as a historic milestone in Israel’s history. There is some merit in this description, because the passage of this law undermines the claim, frequently made by Israeli government figures and its Zionist supporters, that Israel is a democratic state that welcomes all its citizens regardless of ethnic background.
However, Professor Waxman from Northeastern University, states in an article that this law is merely stating the obvious – Israeli lawmakers have passed a series of laws establishing and entrenching Jewish ethno-supremacy in all areas of economic, political and social life in Israel.
From its inception, the Israeli ruling class has implemented a series of laws designed to exclude the Palestinians – and the Palestinian Arabs left behind inside Israel – and construct the edifice of an apartheid state. The 1950 Law of Return, for instance, automatically grants citizenship to any Jewish emigrant moving to Israel. Palestinians, and advocates of Palestinian refugees, have pointed out the basic contradiction in claiming to be a democratic state for all its people, but then establish the automatic supremacy of one ethno-religious group above all others.
The new nation-state law stipulates that building Jewish settlements is of ‘national value’. The construction of such settlements is encouraged with the passage of this law. Escalating Jewish settlement construction in the occupied Palestinian territories will only entrench the existing trend of state-segregation of Palestinian communities. As Ramzy Baroud, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle, states in his article:
Apartheid is not a single law, but a slow, agonizing build-up of an intricate legal regime that is motivated by the belief that one racial group is superior to all others.
Not only does the new law elevate Israel’s Jewish identity and erase any commitment to democracy, it also downgrades the status of all others. Palestinian Arabs, the natives of the land of historic Palestine upon which Israel was established, did not feature prominently in the new law at all.
Israel was never a democratic state
Baroud wrote that “While it would be accurate to argue that the Jewish Nations-state bill is the officiation of Apartheid in Israel, this realization should not dismiss the previous reality upon which Israel was founded 70 years ago.” This is an important observation, and should be kept in mind when examining the foundations of the Israeli state. The ruling class in Israel, and its supporters in the United States and Australia, claim that while there are faults, Israel is at its base a liberal democratic society.
A variation on this claim is that while the 1967 war, resulting in the Israeli military occupation of the Palestinian West Bank and the Gaza Strip, corrupted the basic essence of Israeli society, prior to that war, Israel from 1948 was constructing a standard Western liberal democracy. These claims have no foundation, and it is important to examine these in order to understand how the nation-state law was passed as ‘icing on the cake’ so to speak.
At first glance, Israel appears to be a liberal democracy. The Arab minority in Israel, comprising about 20 percent of the population, enjoy certain civic rights, can vote, form their own political parties and have consistently pushed for greater representation in Israeli state institutions. The Balfour Declaration, while pledging British government support for the construction of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, did state that the rights of the non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine should be respected. The 1948 Israeli Declaration of Independence does state that the Arab residents of Palestine are welcome participants in the building of the fledgling nation.
These declarations have been consistently undermined by the actions of the Israeli ruling class and its political representatives. Since 1948, the Israeli state has been conceived of, and constructed as, an ethnocracy, a state based explicitly on Jewish national supremacy. A multi-ethnic democracy was never on the cards when constructing the new state of Israel.
The claims of Israel to be the only democracy in the Middle East are undermined by two interrelated developments; the discrimination against the Arab minority in Israel, and the foundation of Israel by Labour Zionism as an exclusively Jewish state. Kim Bullimore, writing in Red Flag magazine, wrote that:
Since its founding in 1948, Israel has used both legal discrimination and military force to ethnically cleanse and oppress the indigenous Palestinian population, imposing an apartheid system inside both the Zionist state and the Palestinian territories seized in 1967.
Ilan Pappe, an Israeli historian, has written extensively on how Israel used military administrative measures against the Arab minority population inside Israel from 1948 onwards. The Palestinian Arabs, left behind after the 1948 Nakba, were subjected to a low-intensity type of warfare, banished into ghettos, and villagers driven off their land by the Israeli military governors. Ironically, the type of martial law used to deprive Palestinian Arabs of their citizenship was based on the British Mandate regulations implemented during the time of Mandatory Palestine.
For Palestinian Arabs, life in pre-1967 Israel was an experience in being subjected to the harsh regime of martial law. Subjected to military checkpoints and travel permits when travelling, the Israelis also used the tactic of home demolitions to target Arab families who resisted the Israeli authorities. This tactic is still being used by Israeli military forces today.
The Arab minority
The Arab citizens of Israel have been continuously subjected to forms of racial and ethnic discrimination in all facets of life. Adalah, the legal advocates for the Palestinian Arabs in Israel, have documented systematic discrimination against Palestinian Arabs in housing, education and employment. It is interesting to note that the kibbutzim, widely hailed as a socialist experiment, were founded on confiscated Arab lands. Rather than constructing a socialist utopia, the kibbutzim movement is an extension of the colonial project of Zionism, uprooting and excluding the Palestinian Arabs from economic life.
None of this is to suggest that the Arab minority in Israel have been passive victims, quietly acquiescing to a life of marginalisation. They have organised and fought back in various ways. However, since Netanyahu came to office in 2009, his government has done its utmost to erect further barriers to restrict the economic and political life of the Palestinian Arabs. Foreign Affairs magazine examines the plight of the Arab citizens of Israel and their struggle against the intricate legal structures of apartheid.
The International Crisis Group published a paper in 2004 that elaborated how the Palestinian Arab minority are cut off from the mainstream Israeli economic and political structures. The ongoing marginalisation of the Arab minority touches the very heart of the Israeli polity – a Zionist state or a democratic state. For the large part, the Arab citizens occupy separate, ethnically homogenous towns and villages distinct from the wealthier, and commercially successful Israeli Jewish population.
It is a historic irony that Labour Zionism, while taking great pains to portray itself as advocating a socialist vision, ended up constructing an ethnically separatist state. The socialist Zionists had to choose – either side with socialism and its definition of a multi-ethnic, egalitarian ethos, or with Zionism and its exclusivist Jewish nationalism. Interestingly, the white supremacist and Alternative Right spokesperson Richard Spencer has spoken of his admiration for Israel, and his support for the passage of the nation-law.
Spencer, and his co-thinkers, the European ultra-rightist and anti-semitic parties, have long admired the state of Israel as an example of the ethno-supremacist state they wish to see in their own countries. Netanyahu can count on numerous ultra-right friends in politically powerful positions in Europe.
The nation-state law is another, significant step in constructing an apartheid-type state in Israel. The Morning Star newspaper stated that this law indicates a further deterioration into fascistic treatment of a national minority, and undermines any claim about establishing democracy. In the wake of this law, the Middle East Monitor suggests that it is high time to restore the United Nations resolution 3379, which defined Zionism as a form of racism. This resolution, revoked in 1991, helped to bring the Palestinian question to the attention of the international community. Given the discriminatory practices of the Israeli government, its description of Zionism as a form of racism was ahead of its time.