An Israeli protester speaks on a mega phone during a demonstration against African immigrants living in Israel, in the Mediterranean coastal city of Tel Aviv, on October 28, 2012. Image Credit: AFP

It’s no secret that Israel discriminates against its unwanted Arab-Israeli population. Indeed, Israel’s Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, once proposed stripping Arab-Israelis of their citizenship unless they swore allegiance to the Jewish state and, as we learned from the Palestinian papers leaked by Al Jazeera, Israel’s former foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, was all for annexing Arab-Israeli villages to a future Palestinian state.

A new poll conducted by Dialog shows that the majority of Jewish Israelis are in accord with their government’s racist leanings. Some 59 per cent of those polled said Jews should be given preference within the civil service; 49 per cent thought the state should ensure Jews receive a better treatment than Arabs and 42 per cent admitted that they would not want to live in the same apartment building as Arab-Israelis or send their children to schools with Arab pupils.

Most shocking is the view of 58 per cent who believe apartheid is already in effect, separating Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens. For instance, Arabs are disproportionately represented in the Knesset and are locally governed by “municipalities of the minorities”.

Their children are broadly condemned to an inferior educational system, while Arab job seekers have fewer opportunities than their similarly qualified Jewish counterparts. Moreover, Israeli courts are endemically biased against Arab-Israelis, which is hardly surprising when Israel’s Basic Law — or constitution — neither defines racial discrimination nor prohibits it.

It is not only Arab-Israelis who are considered to be second-class citizens within Israel. When the state was formed in 1948, Jews from Arab lands were encouraged to immigrate, largely to increase the Jewish population, only to be herded into ghettoes, derided for their oriental habits and given the most menial of jobs. Nowadays, Jewish immigrants from Ethiopia are being treated as a sub-class.

A report by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), published earlier this year, highlighted the fact that more than half of all Ethiopian Jewish families in Israel subsist below the poverty line as opposed to just 16 per cent of white Jewish families.

An article penned in French published in Le Temps illustrates their plight. It quotes a supermarket employee, saying: “When our parents emigrated en masse in the early 1980s, they thought they were escaping to paradise. But all that awaited them was contempt. Not a day goes by without someone treating me like a cockroach because of the colour of my skin.”

Ethiopian Jews took to the streets when residents of a town called Kiryat Malahi, that has a large Ethiopian population, collectively signed a paper outlawing property rentals and sales of goods to Jews from Ethiopia. Israel’s Minister for Immigration and Integration was unsympathetic responding thus: “They should be grateful to the state for everything that has been done for them.” Jewish immigrants from Russia, Eastern Europe and Christians also complain of marginalisation.

Jewish women have now joined the chorus of the discriminated-against within Israel. On October 17, Anat Hoffman, who heads an organisation called Women of the Wall was arrested by authorities for leading prayers at the Western Wall (Wailing Wall) in occupied Jerusalem’s old city.

Her “crime” was invading traditional male territory. It was not the first time she had been hauled away by the police. But this time, it was different. “They checked me naked, completely, without my underwear,” she said. “They dragged me on the floor 15 metres; my arms are bruised. They put me in a cell without a bed, with three other prisoners, including a prostitute and a car thief …”

Misogyny is a growing phenomenon in Israel that parallels an increase in the power held by the ultra-religious. Last year, Jewish extremists spat on an eight-year-old girl in Beit Shemesh and called her “a whore” for walking with her arms uncovered.

Moreover, although gender segregation has been banned by Israel’s Supreme Court, in some areas, women are told to sit at the back of the bus behind men, while others have designated separate walkways for men and women. The few women who have attempted to emulate Rosa Parks by refusing such stipulations have been harangued or beaten.

For years, bus companies and movie theatres had avoided advertisements displaying images of females for fear of provoking a backlash from religious communities. However, in August, the Supreme Court ruled such censorship illegal.

Israelis think of themselves as progressives and are proud of their technological achievements as well as their ranking among the world’s most educated. Yet, large sectors of Israeli society are backward thinking. The award-winning Iraqi-born Israeli writer and playwright Sami Michael, a committed Zionist, said it at a Haifa University conference: “Israeli culture is no less poisoned than radical Islam”.

Those Israeli Jews who bristle at references to their state as “apartheid” or “racist” should hold themselves up to a mirror. You may recall that Israel and the US withdrew from a conference held in Durban in 2001 over a draft resolution indicting Israel as racist. And, perhaps, those calling for a one-state solution, whereby Israelis and Palestinians would be co-citizens with equal rights, should think again. Equal rights for Palestinians!! Arab Israelis, Ethiopian and Russian immigrants and Israeli Jewish women will no doubt be amused at the very idea.

Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be contacted at lheard@gulfnews.com