Here’s a riddle: when is a campaign for equality not really about equality? When it’s in Israel, it seems.
Earlier this month, tens of thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel - those belonging to the small Druze religious sect - staged a protest in Rabin Square in central Tel Aviv. They were joined by large numbers of Israeli Jews, including former senior security officers and the two largest centre-left parties in the parliamentary opposition, Zionist Union and Yesh Atid.
All expressed outrage at the country’s new nation-state Basic Law, which gives constitutional backing to the principle that all Jews in the world enjoy a privileged status in Israel denied to the country’s native, non-Jewish population. The Basic Law also strips Arabic - the mother tongue of a fifth of Israel’s population - of its former status as an official language.
The Israeli Jewish public’s assumption that the Druze enjoy equal status in Israel was always fanciful self-deception
The crowd chanted “Equality! Equality!” and urged the repeal of a law that has been accused by legal groups of formalising a system of apartheid in Israel.
Fast forward a week, to the Saturday evening before last. Tens of thousands of Muslims and Christians - also part of the 1.8-million-strong Palestinian minority - staged their own protest at the same Tel Aviv location and at the same hour. They also called for equality and the repeal of the law. And yet this time only a smattering of Israeli Jews turned out to support them, while the Zionist Union and Yesh Atid parties actively boycotted the event.
What happened? What was so different about the first and second demonstrations?
The starkly contrasting reactions from Israeli Jews to the two protests neatly highlighted several things: the hypocrisy of a so-called Israeli left that claims to believe in equality; the widespread misunderstanding by most outsiders of what a Jewish state entails; and the delusions of a Druze community that thinks it is “owed” equality by a self-declared Jewish state.
Let’s start in reverse.
The Druze are incensed by the Basic Law because most believe they have demonstrated “loyalty” to Israel - to use an idea imposed on them by the state - through their service in the Israeli army.
Members of the Israeli Druze community arrive to attend a celebration at the holy tomb of Nabi Shoaib in northern Israel on 25 April (AFP)
Shortly after Israel was created on the ruins of the Palestinians’ homeland, Druze leaders were pressured into signing an agreement. It committed the small minority - less than two percent of Israel’s population - to three years of conscription.
Israeli Jews have been only too keen to showcase the Druze as proof that patriotic non-Jews can be “blood brothers” with Jews. The Druze, they claim, are evidence that a Jewish state is not racist, as it was characterised for many years by the United Nations General Assembly, or apartheid in nature, as a growing number of experts have concluded.
Of course, we should acknowledge there is a problem - at least for a state claiming to be a Western-style liberal democracy - in making rights for citizens conditional on their proving “loyalty”. But let us set that issue aside for the moment.
Divide and rule
The Israeli Jewish public's assumption that the Druze enjoy equal status in Israel was always fanciful self-deception. Israel selected the Druze to serve in the army not because they were “loyal” but because officials wanted to exploit them as part of a cynical divide-and-rule strategy.
After the incomplete ethnic cleansing campaign of 1948, which left small numbers of Palestinians inside the new Jewish state, the Israeli leadership wished to foment internal discord and suspicion among the remnants of the native population. It hoped to pit the tiny Palestinian Druze and Christian sects against the larger Palestinian Muslim sect.
Israel was able to strongarm the vulnerable Druze community because their religious leadership was isolated and co-optable.
Israel tried a similar strategy with the Christians, as the Israeli historian Hillel Cohen has noted. The plan failed both because it was difficult to secure a common response from the leaders of a dozen or so diverse Christian denominations and because local Palestinian Christians preferred to emphasise their ties to overseas churches rather than becoming dependent on the Israeli military.
Israel, however, has not given up on that long-term goal. Just as Palestinian "Druze" were transformed by officials from a religion into a nationality to cultivate "loyalty", so the state has encouraged - with much less success - Palestinian Christians to view themselves as a separate nation, one it has termed the “Aramaic” nation, in reference to the language of Jesus.
Seen from another perspective, Israel never had any intention of finding out whether the Muslim population wanted to be “loyal” to the state. There was never any conceivable scenario in which the Israeli military was going to train and arm the 80 percent of Palestinians who constituted the Muslim community. They were never going to be allowed near the inner workings of Israel’s military machine.
In short, the Druze are "loyal" to Israel only because Israel needed the Muslims to be “disloyal”.
Demolitions and discrimination
But the self-deception runs deeper. If Israel had actually made equal citizenship rights conditional on "loyalty", as it claims, then Druze communities ought to have been treated the same way as Jewish communities. In fact, one could argue, they should have been treated better. The Druze have a higher rate of conscription than Jewish society, and proportionally more of them serve in combat roles, where they are in greater danger of being killed.
But in reality, only a tiny number of Druze have been allowed to succeed, and then only as individuals. The Israeli media love to trumpet the triumphs of Amal Asad, the retired Druze general who has been leading the community's protests for equality, or write headlines about the first female Druze judge or TV anchor, or the first Druze officer managing the occupation.
Today, Druze villages are as overcrowded, ghetto-like and underfunded as those of Christians and Muslims. There was no obvious reward for communal Druze ‘loyalty’
But for the vast majority of Druze men, military service qualifies them only to become fodder for Israel’s extensive security industries, working as security guards at shopping malls, or as low-ranking policemen and prison wardens.
They can hope for little more after a childhood spent in the segregated Druze education system. Historically, its matriculation rates have been low, even when compared with the dismal standards set in state schools provided for the rest of the Palestinian minority.
And judged in terms not of Druze individuals but of Druze communities, the picture is even worse.
Despite the community’s "loyalty", notes Druze analyst Dalia Halabi, the Israeli state has seized some 70 percent of Druze lands - as it has done with the rest of the Palestinian minority - to build new communities exclusively for Jews. It demolishes homes in Druze communities where land and building permits are denied, while retroactively approving homes built in violation of Israeli law by Jewish settlers on private Palestinian land in the West Bank.
Today, Druze villages are as overcrowded, ghetto-like and underfunded as those of Christians and Muslims. There was no obvious reward for communal Druze “loyalty”.
Celebration of apartheid
The Druze may have been fooling themselves about their rights, but they have been far from alone. Much of the debate - and outrage - about the Basic Law outside Israel has been deeply wrong-headed.
The legislation changes very little in practice. Those, especially liberal Jews in the US and Europe, who fear that the new nation-state law has changed Israel do not understand what Israel was before. The crime committed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the far-right is not that they ended equality and introduced apartheid; it is that they drew attention to the existing situation of apartheid. They gave apartheid constitutional standing. They took apartheid out of the shadows and celebrated it.
This Basic Law has been in the drafting process for the best part of a decade. Over that period, the Zionist centre-left parties now calling for equality did not object to the proposed legislation because it would change things, but because they considered it “unnecessary” and “redundant”. The things the Basic Law codifies have existed since Israel’s birth.
Arab Israelis protest against the nation-state law - the ethnic idea of 'nationality' confers on Jews up to 70 rights denied to Palestinian citizens (AFP)
In a recent interview, Yariv Levin, the tourism minister and a confidant of Netanyahu, made that clear. He explained that one important reason why equality was not enshrined in the new law was that it would have conflicted with the 1950 Law of Return, foundational legislation that made the new state the collective property not of citizens (which included a fifth who were Palestinian) but of Jews everywhere, even those outside Israel’s borders.
Having in 1948 denied the vast majority of Palestinians a right to return to their homes from which they had just been expelled, Israeli officials passed the Law of Return to open the floodgates, allowing every Jew in the world to come and settle in their stead.
Unequal from the start
Netanyahu, let’s remember, did not draft the Law of Return. It was the brainchild of Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, and his supposedly socialist Labor party.
In accordance with the Law of Return, Israel’s “liberal” Supreme Court has concurred there is no “Israeli nation”, only a worldwide “Jewish nation” that has an automatic right to citizenship in Israel. This ethnic idea of “nationality” confers on Jews all sorts of additional rights denied to Palestinian citizens - a database by the legal group Adalah lists nearly 70.
The so-called Jewish nation’s ancestral home is, according to the state’s founding document drafted in 1948, the Declaration of Independence, the “land of Israel”, not the “state of Israel”. The term, echoed in the Basic Law, evokes vague biblical boundaries that include parts of many neighbouring states, and most especially the occupied Palestinian territories.
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Similarly, the clause in the new Basic Law encouraging Jews to “settle” the land was not conjured out of thin air by the Israeli far-right. Israel’s revered founding generation long ago invoked the idea of a “land without people” to justify Jewish settlement to “make the desert bloom”.
It was Ben-Gurion and his “civilising” socialist kibbutz movement that established “admissions committees” overseeing hundreds of communities across Israel to ensure no Palestinian citizens, whether Druze, Christian or Muslim, would ever be allowed inside. While 93 percent of Israel’s land was reserved for the “Jewish nation” - for world Jewry - Palestinian citizens were confined to little more than two percent of the land they had once called their homeland.
Hypocrisy of Israeli left
But if the Druze and outsiders allowed themselves to be misled, the masters of self-deception were the Israeli Jewish public, especially its leftist and centrist components, who are currently standing shoulder to shoulder with the Druze.
Strangely, given their passionate calls for equality for all citizens, these same Israeli Jews have long ignored the only political parties in the Israeli parliament whose programmes are committed to equality. In fact, not only have they ignored these parties, but they have accused them of sedition over their platforms for equality.
It was the Balad party that back in the late 90s first popularised the slogan that Israel should become a “state of all its citizens” - a state where all citizens had equal rights. But that party, led by Palestinian citizens, was ostracised by almost all Israeli Jews.
It was the centre-left, now apparently so sensitive to the principles of equality and democracy, that hounded the Palestinian parties’ campaign for democratic reform into the shadows
Later, in 2006, the Palestinian leadership in Israel produced a document, the Future Vision, which called for Israel to become a “consensual democracy”. How did Israel respond? Its intelligence services - led by officials who are now joining the Druze call for equality - termed the Future Vision “subversion”.
Azmi Bishara, a Palestinian Christian professor of philosophy and leader of Balad, was chased into exile, accused of treason. And Israeli Jews, from right to left, cheered on this campaign of vilification and incitement.
All this happened before Netanyahu led his current succession of right-wing governments from 2009 onwards. It was the centre-left, now apparently so sensitive to the principles of equality and democracy, that hounded the Palestinian parties’ campaign for democratic reform into the shadows.
Underscoring the hypocrisy, the Zionist Union and Yesh Atid parties, now so supportive of the Druze equality campaign, stood mutely by only two months ago when, in a “highly unusual” move, the Israeli parliament’s presidium disqualified Balad from even submitting legislation on a state of all its citizens.
It would be reassuring to think we are seeing the beginnings of a political awakening by the Israeli left and centre, that sections of the Israeli public are starting to reconsider their former ugly illiberalism. But sadly, all the evidence points in the opposite direction.
State of denial
The Israelis Jews who supported the Druze at the 4 August protest did so not because they believe in equality and liberal democracy, but because they want their ethnocracy - an ethnic state of privileges for Jews - to continue masquerading as a liberal democracy. Israeli Jews have allied with the Druze only insofar as it is necessary to maintain that illusion.
Meanwhile, almost the entire Israeli Jewish public has shunned the rest of the Palestinian minority because its demands for substantive equality threaten to force Israeli Jews out of their state of denial. That is why polls show that more than half of Israeli Jews express sympathy for the Druze struggle for equality, even as almost none are prepared to back the rest of the Palestinian minority when it makes the same demand.
A banner depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with ‘Crime Minister’ inscribed on it, as part of a protest in Tel Aviv on 11 August (AFP)
A decade ago, the far-right politician Avigdor Lieberman, now the defence minister, started campaigning under the slogan “No citizenship without loyalty”. His threat was that, unless the Palestinian minority started to prove their loyalty by becoming Zionists and serving in the army, he would strip them of citizenship.
Lieberman’s political platform hit a major hurdle. According to international law, states cannot leave sections of their population stateless by revoking citizenship. But Lieberman’s efforts have paid off nonetheless, as these latest events prove.
Through their highly circumscribed support for equality - for Druze but not other Palestinian citizens - Israeli Jews have made clear their unquestioning acceptance of what “loyalty” entails.
Israeli citizens are not supposed to be loyal to a democratic principle, or universal human rights, or even the welfare of their compatriots. In Israel, “loyal” citizens are required to bow down before the Jewishness of the state and uphold the values of Jewish supremacism, even if it means their own permanent abasement.
- Jonathan Cook, a British journalist based in Nazareth since 2001, is the author of three books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He is a past winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His website and blog can be found at: www.jonathan-cook.net
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Members of the Druze community protest against the nation-state law in Tel Aviv on 4 August (AFP)