This past week, by a vote of 62 to 55, Israel’s Knesset (parliament) passed legislation called “Israel as a Nation-State of the Jewish People.” Heralding the passage of the bill, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described it as “a defining moment in the annals of Zionism and the annals of the state of Israel...We have determined in law the founding principle of our existence. Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, and respects the rights of all its citizens.”
In reaction, Israeli hardliners and their supporters in the United States celebrated the legislation as “clarifying”, while more liberal voices lamented “the damage the bill does to the ‘Zionist vision’.” This is one debate where I cannot take the side of the liberals because in reality, the ‘Jewish Nation-State’ Bill is in fact “clarifying” as it merely establishes in ‘basic law’ practices and policies that Israel has been implementing since its founding.
As I demonstrate in my book Palestinians, the invisible Victims: Political Zionism and the Roots of Palestinian Dispossession, even before the founding of the state, the operational goals of Political Zionism have been Jewish exclusivism and Palestinian dispossession. Since its establishment, the government of Israel has passed more than 60 laws and implemented policies designed to realise those goals.
After 1949, for example, they demolished 349 Palestinian villages and forced the residents to become refugees. Israel seized their lands, declared that these properties were “state lands” (totalling 93 per cent of the land within their new state), and turned them over to quasi-governmental agencies for “Jewish only” development. By law, these lands cannot be transferred to non-Jewish control. In recent years, the Israeli Supreme Court upheld a law that gave Israeli Jewish communities the right to exclude applicants wishing to live there based on their ethnicity or religion.
Israel has operated in a similar way in the occupied West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem. In these areas, they have built “Jewish only” housing for more than 700,000 Jews, while demolishing more than 10,000 Palestinian homes and allowing only limited Palestinian development. Additionally, in the Occupied Territories there are Jewish-only roads, services, access to water and now — even access to the judiciary.
Other laws that were passed after the founding of the state welcomed all Jews to immigrate and become citizens of Israel, while at the same time prohibiting Palestinian refugees from returning to their homes or properties. And even now, should a Palestinian citizen of Israel marry someone from outside (including from the West Bank), he or she is prohibited from bringing the spouse to live with in Israel. There are still other laws and policies that favour the Jewish over Arab Palestinian citizens. There are, for example, “separate but not equal” educational systems, social service benefits, funds for development and infrastructure and policies regulating political expression.
And there is a clear discriminatory intent in the punishments meted out to those who break the law. An Israeli who mercilessly beat an Eritrean refugee was sentenced to 100 days of “community service”; a young Palestinian girl who had slapped an Israeli soldier, after he had attempted to break into her home, was sentenced to nine months in jail. But an Israeli soldier who had shot dead from point-blank range a defenceless Palestinian was sentenced to just eight months in prison.
Given these policies and laws that grant preferential treatment to Jews over Arabs, two questions must be asked: First, why was Netanyahu so determined to pass this bill now? And second, why the liberal lament?
The answer to the first can be found in the political psychology of Netanyahu. Like populist nationalists elsewhere, he instinctively understands the racist inclination of his base. In the 1990s, he had fired them up in opposition to the Oslo Accords, promising to end the peace process (the widow of Yitzhak Rabin held Netanyahu responsible for the anti-peace incitement that led to her husband’s assassination). When he felt threatened in his last election, he warned his supporters that “the Arabs were turning out in droves” to defeat him. And now, facing multiple indictments for various forms of corruption, he has resorted to blatant nationalist appeal as a way to mobilise his base and divert attention from his legal challenges.
At the same time, with United States President Donald Trump and the Republican-led Congress under control, Netanyahu feels emboldened. Not only is he confident that he will not face any sanctions from the US, but this “Jewish Nation-State” law, coupled with others being implemented by his government, are paving the way for his eventual annexation of the West Bank.
What is confounding, however, is why liberals are suddenly concerned as Israel has written into law what they have been doing for decades with nary a protest. The explanation for this was best expressed by Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin (not a liberal), when he decried the language of the legislation, saying that it “could harm the Jewish people worldwide and in Israel, and could even be used as a weapon by our enemies”.
In this regard, the clarity that this “Jewish Nation-State” Bill provides may be a blessing. It rips the mask off the facade behind which Israel has hidden for years. What is exposed is the cruel apartheid system that is being implemented in Israel and Occupied Territories. The time has come for an end to hypocrisy and moral blindness. Israeli practices must be challenged and people of good will must work together to demand equality, justice and human rights.
Dr James J. Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute.