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First class state, second class citizens?

January 27, 2014 at 4:05 am

“The state of Israel will … foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations”

Declaration of Establishment of the State of Israel, May 14 1948

First class state, second class citizens?The above quotation is not a work of fiction; they were the professed ideals of the founders of the state of Israel in 1948. It is against these ideals, therefore, that the ongoing house demolitions, the land theft, restrictions on access to holy places for Christians and Muslims, the arbitrary imprisonment of children and the siege in Gaza have to be judged. Apart from anything else, Israel fails miserably to “be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations”, although in this day and age the Zionist state is not alone in that respect. Moreover, the draconian living conditions of Arab-Israelis and the racist and discriminatory policies that control their lives cannot be ignored, for they are citizens of the state of Israel, fully entitled to expect the best that the state can offer. Instead, their position is getting worse, shocking even by the standards now expected of Israel’s treatment of non-Jews.

A recent Haaretz article by Moshe Arens highlighted the Zionist state’s treatment of its Arab minority citizens and why it should be at the top of Israel’s agenda and not sidelined. Another article in the Guardian revealed how the higher birth-rate of birth of Israel’s Arab population will lead to a demographic shift in the “Jewish” state. Inevitably, this has exposed the unequal treatment Israeli Arabs get from “their” government. Israel’s discriminatory domestic policies can no longer go unchallenged.

When people claim that Israel is the “only democracy” in the Middle East, do they stop to consider the special status afforded to Jews in the state? According to Israel’s Law of Return for Jews, any Jew in the world or anyone of Jewish ancestry, and their spouses, acquire automatically the right to migrate to and settle in Israel and gain citizenship. In contrast, the Citizenship Law for Arabs (which include Muslim, Bedouin, Druze and Christian groups) subjects them to a tense relationship with the state apparatus, which limits their everyday activities and treats them like second class citizens, having an obvious impact on the de facto quality of their citizenship. These minority groups have no legal recognition outside Israel and are treated as “Arab” or “unknown” citizens, in order to avoid recognising their Israeli nationality officially. They are, inter alia, denied the freedom of political association, which hinders their interaction with wider society and encourages discriminatory practices in the workplace, the education system and the allocation of state resources. A recent poll suggested that 56% of Israeli high school students believe that the country’s Arab citizens should be prohibited from being elected to the Knesset and should be not allowed to vote; for a democracy, this is an extremely worrying statistic. Such discrimination is not, however, limited to the Arab community in Israel; there is ample evidence of racism against non-Ashkenazi Jews from mainly Sephardic, Yemeni or Ethiopian backgrounds.

Israelis and their supporters need to ask themselves if this is the kind of democracy that they really want. The “apartheid” label is already applied due to Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza; can Israelis really deny that their state now has all the appearances and worse of the disgraced former South African apartheid regime? While the focus is on the human and legal rights of Palestinians living in the occupied Palestinian territories and Gaza, those of the Arab minority inside Israel itself should not be ignored. Only by granting minority groups full citizenship rights, without delay, will the State of Israel live up to the aspirations of its founders, ensuring “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex”.


The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.