Nationality law cements inequality within Israel
In the late 1990s driving through the Negev Desert, road signs in Hebrew and English warned of military firing zones on the left and right. Due to an Israeli High Court ruling, scrawled between the two languages, but distinctly smaller, was an Arabic version, recently added. Arabic-speakers clearly did not need to be informed of mortal dangers.
Back then around three-quarters of all road signs were only in Hebrew and English. In theory Arabic was an official language, yet the reality was that it never was and now never will be.
Scattered across the Negev are also unrecognized villages, all Palestinian. When Israel’s municipal borders were mapped out they were not included, as was the case in other areas such as the Galilee. Hence these communities receive no services even though they are passport-holding Israeli citizens who can vote in national elections but clearly not in municipal ones.
These are just some of the myriad examples of discrimination against Israel’s non-Jewish minority, the 1.8 million Palestinian citizens of Israel. They are part of a whole body of laws that directly discriminate against them, including ones pertaining to land ownership, education, culture and language.
The passing of the Israeli nationality law is yet another one that just cements the systematic inequality within Israel. The law states that Jews have “an exclusive right to national self-determination” in Israel. Arabic is no longer an official language even if it barely ever was. It also states that Jewish settlement in Israel is a national value and that the state must promote it.
Vitally, this is not just an ordinary bill that can easily be reversed. It is a basic law, which in a country that does not have a constitution, is as close as it gets to one.
Israel is simply not a liberal democracy by any rational judgment. It is time to stop pretending it is
Moreover, as abysmal as this new law undoubtedly is, if the Israeli government had had its way, it would have been far worse with an article which would have legitimized segregation. The Palestinian Knesset member, Ayman Odeh, fumed that it had "passed a law of Jewish supremacy and told us that we will always be second-class citizens."
The last few Israeli elections have seen an emphasis on being Jewish over being democratic. Israeli leaders struggle to justify the demand that Israel be acknowledged as a Jewish state, which naturally relegates non-Jews to second-class status. This is the valid objection to an Islamic state, or an Arab state. In addition, the “temporary” Israeli occupation of 51 years that denies five million Palestinians their national, civic and human rights is anti-democratic. Israel also annexed Jerusalem illegally but did not give citizenship even to Palestinians in the city as a right.
Those who challenge the official Israeli narrative risk being deported or denied a visa. Israeli human rights activists are harangued, and their space to operate is massively under threat. The Knesset has just passed what is nicknamed the Breaking the Silence law, after the group of former Israeli soldiers who question Israel’s occupation. This would permit the Minister of Education to ban groups who criticize Israel and its army from talking at Israeli schools.
Israel will face minor criticism, including from Jewish groups in other countries. The Board of Deputies in Britain, which typically is highly uncritical of the Israeli government, has described the “regressive steps” in the new law. J Street in the United States has, perhaps not surprisingly given its liberal bent, come out against it, questioning whether there was a need for such a law in the first place.
Ultimately the biggest losers will be Israelis – Jew and Arab. Tensions and hatreds will escalate and holding the country together will become even harder. It runs contrary to the finest traditions of the Jewish people.
Only the White House could have thwarted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Nothing else. It is claimed that Barack Obama had stopped Netanyahu from adopting the law earlier when he was US president. Yet it would be a shock even by Donald Trump’s standards if he did not unashamedly back the law, even if he has registered its existence.
When challenged, Netanyahu ranted, "How dare you talk this way about the only democracy in the Middle East?" This tired old piece of hasbara is regurgitated incessantly across the world, frequently to thwart any criticism of Israel, as if being a democracy somehow grants Israel a special status that allows it to break international law and violate human rights.
Are international leaders going to pause the next time they say it, as they do routinely? British Prime Minister Theresa May has even described Israel as “a thriving democracy, a beacon of tolerance.”
Israel is simply not a liberal democracy by any rational judgment. It is time to stop pretending it is. Democracies are far more than just a right to vote. The text of the new law does not even mention democracy, human rights nor equality. In fact, one of the great tests of any democracy is how it protects minorities.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. He has organized and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Twitter: @Doylech