Volume 5       Number 220     

The State of Israel seems to have forgotten one of Judaism’s most holy tenets–to “welcome the stranger.” After all, in the Torah it is everywhere, being mentioned 36 times. Not only that, it is almost always accompanied by the explanation, “You know the feelings of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9). It sure looks and feels like the government of Israel is ignoring this most basic teaching, by the way it is increasingly treating its Palestinian citizens.

This accelerated with the July 19, 2018 passage of a “nation-state law” which legally defines Israel’s Jewish character. It does that by making Judaism one of the state’s guiding judicial principles. This is similar to a constitutional amendment in the United States. The law provides “that Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, that only Jews have a right to national self-determination in Israel.”

It also affirms Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and that Hebrew is the only official language. All of this downgrades the official status of Arabs and the Arabic language. Also one of the most antagonistic declarations is that “the state views the development of Jewish settlements as a national value and will act to encourage and promote their establishment and consolidation.” This encourages the development of Jewish-only communities in Israel and could also be interpreted as urging the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Along with this declaration, two additional bills were passed that further weaken the status of Arabs. One places limits on Palestinian access to Israel’s High Court of Justice in the case of administrative claims, such as disputes over land, and turns them over to a lower District Court. The other one dealt with eliminating the Breaking the Silence law, which permitted those who wished to speak out against the State of Israel from speaking in public schools.

Nowhere does the words “equality” or “democracy” appear in this declaration. Actually, most of the thoughts contained in the declaration already existed as de facto elements of right-wing Israeli thinking. This, at least, made them open to dialog, and to shifts in the national thought. Being a part of the very fabric of the country’s existence is another thing. Critics say it amounts to “apartheid” and the official beginning of a “fascist state.”

Even if it doesn’t go that far, the current law certainly weakens Israel’s identity as the only democracy in the Middle-East. In truth, from its beginning in 1948, Israel declared itself a Jewish nation-state. Although Arab citizens of Israel have the same democratic rights as Jews, they have been treated consistently as second-class citizens.

Amnesty International has said, “The Israel government severely violates the freedom of expression and freedom of association of Palestinian individuals and organizations in Israel. They are fundamental and important freedoms in every democratic state…their abrogation necessarily leads to a reduction and threat of the existence of Palestinian civil society in Israel.”

Prime Minister Netanyahu gloated, “Today we made it law. This is our nation, language and flag. In recent years there have been some who have attempted to put this in doubt, to undercut the core of our being.” This is not a surprising statement from a Prime Minister who has chosen in recent years to align himself with such authoritarian-type leaders as Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and Hungary’s Viktor Orban.

This situation affects those Palestinians who live in Israel proper, and are 20 percent or 1.5 million of the population of Israel; they are not those Palestinians who live in the West Bank or Gaza. While they are still citizens, since the beginning of the Israeli state these people have been ill-treated by the government and systematically discriminated against. The latest ruling is the icing on the cake, and officially recognizes the attitude of the Jewish people toward the Arab population.

While Netanyahu and his pals in the ultra-right would have you believe that the Arab population are all supporters of the aims of the political parties of Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, this is far from the truth. A poll in 2016 showed that two-thirds of the Palestinian population of Israel would prefer the Israeli government over the Arab ones. They recognize that while there are inequities in the way they are treated in Israel, it is still far better than the lives of their brethren with the corrupt governments in the surrounding lands. Also, the corruption and brutality of these governments is well known.

The Netanyahu government has helped to foster this new declaration for the cynical reason that it pays off politically. It brings about a coalition of his right-wing Likud Party with some ultra-right splinter parties in the Knesset, who, if they had their way, would expel all the Arabs and other non-Jewish groups from Israel.

In the latest election, on September 17, 2019, Netanyahu continued to welcome the support of the ultra-racist Otzma Yehudit. These are very way-out people, whom the major political parties had once shunned like the plague. It looks like, if he is re-elected with his right-wing support, Netanyahu would be able to dodge the criminal proceedings against him.

But, as in the last election, Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu Party (Israel Our Home Party) have declined to join a coalition with Mr. Netanyahu and his ulra-Orthdox Jewish partners. Lieberman and his followers turned this election into one between the secular and the religious. They opposed the linkage of Netanyahu’s Likud with the religious right, which has given the ultra-orthodox groups special treatment, such as exemption from army service, and subsidies so that men may study religion, as well as favoring the building of settlements on the West Bank.

Sure enough, as a result of this recent election, Benny Gantz and his Yair Lapid or Blue and White Party, combining with Lieberman’s Party, is trying to put together a new secularly-oriented government. This occurred despite Netanyahu claiming said he was going to annex the entire West bank into Israel if elected. This followed his conviction that attacks against Arabs give his party political power with the citizens. But it wasn’t enough to do the trick this time.

Since his election in 2009, Netanyahu has incited the electorate with calls to boycott Arab areas and citizens, unfounded accusations of treason and collaboration against Arab Knesset members, attempts to erode the representation of the Arab constituency and tough legislation to make it clear that the Arabs have no place in Israel.

The government hasn’t even been secretive in some of its actions. For example: there has been the establishment of new communities and cities for Jews, approximately 700 of them as the population expanded. Yet the same increase in the Arab population has found only one such settlement for Arabs, a group of Bedouins who were removed from their homes. Also there is a plan to remove thousands of Bedouins from their current dwellings to build new Jewish settlements in the Negev. This is part of a generous plan for Jewish citizens, a “private farms” program. There is nothing like it for the Arabs.

Along with these there is inequality in Arab communities for such vital services as transportation, infrastructure, education, planning and housing. Paradoxically, Government Decision 922, in December 2015, was intended to improve these areas. It is as if the country realizes it has an economic interest in integrating Arab citizens into the community, but as second class citizens. This has been somewhat effective.

Perhaps the latest declaration indicates that the right wing has hardened in its negative conception of its Arab population since 2015. Or it shows its recognition that the Arab population in Israel, in recent years, has improved its socioeconomic situation, expanded its political place in the government and become a factor in the Israeli centers of power. This may be an outgrowth of Government Decision 922. Arabs in Israel are rightly emphasizing their identity, claiming indigenous rights, and pressing to do away with the hated special rights for Jews.

The two groups increasingly mix it up together where they live, in schools, the workplace, in public service, government agencies, hospitals and at leisure activities. The right fears that this proximity may lead to friendships and even marriages. The government has a dilemma, as it seeks to improve the lives of its Arab citizens economically but weaken them politically.

In reality, the way for the left to succeed is to bring about a political partnership with the center, and perhaps the Arab Party. This could bring about a social rehabilitation of the government under the leadership of Benny Grantz, who, like so many of the other Israeli leaders, has a military history. Or there may be a unity coalition between the Blue and White and the Likud, provided that Netanyahu does not participate in the office-holding.

The omission of Prime Minister Netanyahu is occurring because he is the most vulnerable he has been in the ten years of his administration. The Prime Minister was indicted in two cases in the beginning of March 2019, pending a court hearing which will occur immediately after the elections in mid-April. Following several years of investigation, he has been charged with buying himself positive press. He has denied the charges, using a Donald Trump defense of a “witch hunt” because much of the media is against him.

The beleaguered Arab population can hope the Blue and White will succeed and they will at last be welcomed as strangers, just as Abraham did. In Genesis 18, we see the earliest biblical record of this Middle Eastern hospitality and love of the stranger.

“Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said, ‘Friends, if it is all right with you, do not rush ahead and pass me by. Let me bring you some water; bathe your feet and rest under the tree. And let me get you something to eat so that you may refresh yourselves; then go on–seeing that you have come this way.”

Netanyahu and his followers should have looked at these passages before they chose to go out and attack their Arab population once again.

         “For if life had taught her anything, it was that healing and peace can begin only with acknowledgment of wrongs committed.” 
                 ― Susan Abulhawa, Mornings in Jenin


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