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What would a non-colonial State of Israel look like?

As the Israeli elections on 9 April approach, MEMO interviews Arab MKs, current and former, as to their experiences of working within the Israeli political system, and their hopes for the future.

March 3, 2019 at 10:00 am

Israeli Arab Knesset member, Haneen Zoabi [Middle East Monitor]

The tension between democracy and ethnocracy goes to the heart of the Israeli narrative. The founders of the state believed that they were laying the foundations of a democratic state, one that would devote itself to the benefit of “all its people”. Its Declaration of Independence was clear that it was a state founded on “principles of freedom, justice and peace, guided by the visions of the prophets of Israel; it will grant full equal, social and political rights to all its citizens regardless of differences of religious faith, race or sex; it will ensure freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”

Lofty ideals, indeed, although the official narrative served not only to conceal the racism inherent within Zionism but also the irreconcilable challenges arising from imposing an ethnocracy in a land already populated by people from a different ethnic group. Those who understood what Zionism entailed, such as the late writer Christopher Hitchens, opposed it in principal: “I am an anti-Zionist. I’m one of those people of Jewish descent who believes that Zionism would be a mistake even if there were no Palestinians.” Hitchens, who many consider to have been one of the most powerful proponents of western liberal values and an equally powerful opponent of dogma, went on to say that he could never accept the premise of a Jewish homeland, because it was a “stupid, messianic, superstitious idea.”

The tension between that idea and the ideals of Israel’s founding fathers has been a recurring theme for proponents of the state and its opponents alike. Typically, supporters of Israel display the signs of being possessed by dogma. Britain’s Home Secretary, Sajid Javed, for example, echoed Israel’s founding narrative when he proclaimed, “If I had to go and live in the Middle East there is only one place I could possibly go. Israel!” Explaining why he would not go to any of the Muslim majority countries he added that Israel is “the only nation in the Middle East that shares the same democratic values as Britain and the only nation in the Middle East where my family would feel the warm embrace of freedom and liberty.”

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Javed is emblematic of those who are pro-Israel and spring to its defence armed with nothing more than clichés to face the reality of eleven million Palestinians who have never felt any “warm embrace of liberty and freedom” from Israel. They attest to the irreconcilable tension between democracy and ethnocracy woven into the Zionist paradox that has unfolded so calamitously that even former Prime Ministers of the Zionist state have voiced their concern over its drift towards becoming an apartheid state.

Few have encountered this tension in Israel more than Haneen Zoabi. The member of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, is stepping down at the General Election next month. Nevertheless, she told me that she hopes one day to resolve the situation and transform Israel from a colonial regime to full democracy; one that does not discriminate on the basis of who is and is not a Jew. The politician from the Israeli-Arab Balad Party has been in the Knesset since 2009 and at the epicentre of the tension at the heart of Israel, the supporters of which never cease to remind us that the “only democracy in the Middle East” has Zoabi and a dozen or so other Arab members in the Knesset to prove their point.

This picture taken on January 29, 2019 shows confetti above electoral posters of former Israeli chief of staff Benny Gantz in Tel Aviv [JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images]

This picture taken on January 29, 2019 shows confetti above electoral posters of former Israeli chief of staff Benny Gantz in Tel Aviv [JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images]

How does she reconcile between being a member of the Knesset with her claim that Israel is not a genuine democracy? “When the US allowed African Americans to enter the bus but insisted that they sit only at the back of the bus, was that equality?” she thundered back. “You are in the Knesset but not in the seat where you can make any change, to make any real difference.”

In this rhetorical bus, she added, there are 85 racist laws that prevent you from making real difference. “We always sit in the lower position. You enter the bus but you have to sit at the back. The bus you enter grants special privileges to Jews. You can shout but you don’t have anything like the first amendment of the US Constitution to protect you. There is racism, there are racist articles, but there is no constitution to protect your rights.”

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The racist laws she mentioned have been the focus of campaigns by legal advocacy groups such as Adalah, the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. The Haifa-based human rights group has documented every discriminatory law within the country. More than half are said to have been adopted since the 2009 election which brought to power the most right‐wing government coalition in the history of the state, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The latest discriminatory law is the Jewish Nation-State Law which has been denounced for its codification of apartheid in Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on 28 October 2018 [ODED BALILTY/AFP/Getty Images]

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu [ODED BALILTY/AFP/Getty Images]

For Zoabi, Israeli-style apartheid has been concealed by a powerful narrative that presents the state as a liberal democracy to the rest of the world with a discourse of colonial justification. “There is a strong sense of justification that allows Israel to discriminate against its own Palestinian citizens,” she explained. “There is an ethical discourse to make you feel that you must appreciate the country even if you are only given 10 per cent of your rights.”

Using the classic coloniser versus the colonised dynamic, the Nazareth-born politician added that Israel also has an ethical discourse to say why it can deny Palestinians’ their national rights. “There is an ethical reason why they should deny your history and identity as Palestinians, even if they give 20 per cent of our civil rights and none of our national rights. And there is a discourse to say why we should accept our inferiority and position as an oppressed people.” The tragic impact of this powerful narrative, Zoabi explained, is why Israelis don’t take Palestinian suffering and the discrimination faced as real suffering and real discrimination.

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“The function of the state of Israel is not to be neutral to all of its citizens but to give a stronger position to the Jews at the expense of the indigenous people,” she insisted. “Israel cannot guarantee individual rights to all of its citizens, because the state describes itself as a Jewish state.”

Despite stepping down as an MK at April’s General Election, Zoabi said that she is determined to stay involved in politics; it is, she told me, time to help to develop the Balad Party’s political programme and vision. “That vision is to campaign for a state for all its citizens and to challenge the idea of a Jewish and democratic state. There is no democratic way of being a Jewish state.” Her goal, she stressed, is to turn Israel into a non-colonial state. “Zionism is a colonial ideology and the only way to have democracy is to disconnect the state from Zionism.”

What would a non-colonial, non-Zionist Israel look like? “We envisage a democracy. We don’t say you came as colonists now you must leave; we say you came as colonists but now you have a chance to live with us.”

Israel, insisted Zoabi, must not continue trying to displace and replace the Palestinians — the indigenous people — but to co-exist with them. “The only way to co-exist with us is to remove colonial objectives from the agenda and develop a state for all the citizens. It will not be at the expense of our identity and our connection with Palestinians everywhere.

Balad, meanwhile, has a democratic vision to accept all Israelis as normal human beings in a normal state. Its message to Israeli-Jews, said Haneen Zoabi, is simple: “We to would like to recognise you as a collective but within a state which doesn’t identity exclusively with you, but which identifies with me and you in the same degree.” Such a state will be a different state with different symbolism, and it will be a democracy. “By this, I don’t just defend my rights, I also defend the Jews who lived already and were born here the right to live in a normal state. Maybe they didn’t choose to live in a racist, apartheid state but nobody has given them an alternative. Balad is offering a real alternative.”