A Country That Never Wanted Me
Israel's new nationality law only confirms what Arabs already knew: We aren't welcome.
Last Saturday night, the Jewish-Arab Hand in Hand bilingual school in Jerusalem was set on fire. Two first-grade classrooms were destroyed completely. Charred frames of the little chairs on which Jewish and Arab children had sat beside each other — chairs where my children who attended that same school had sat — littered the floor along with half-burned coats and books, in Arabic and Hebrew.
“Death to the Arabs” had been spray-painted on the school’s walls, along with “Stop assimilation” and “There is no coexistence with cancer.” Whoever set fire to the school cannot accept the idea of an Arab student sitting beside a Jewish student in the same classroom — that it might be possible that Arabs and Jews would be equals.
This was the first time that I regretted not being in Jerusalem since I moved to Illinois this summer for a sabbatical. I was sorry that I was not standing alongside the teachers, welcoming the students with a big smile, a smile of promise that things would be all right; that someday the motto hanging in the school since the events of last summer and the war in Gaza — “Jews and Arabs Refuse to be Enemies” — would be a true slogan; that peace, equality, and coexistence really are possible, as the children in the school are taught.
But is it true? Is it even morally acceptable to give our children the illusion that Arabs and Jews can be equals? Can I really look my children in the eyes and tell them that one day they will be full citizens?
It was difficult, almost impossible, to promise our children equality, even before the Israeli cabinet on Nov. 23 voted to support a “basic law,” which declares Israel the state of the Jewish people and could even remove Arabic as one of the country’s national languages. Since it was established, the State of Israel has functioned as the state of only the Jews living in it. In fact, it has also functioned as the state of the Jews who don’t even live in it. The State of Israel can be the state of a student from Chicago who cannot say a single sentence in Hebrew, who has never paid taxes to the Israeli government, who has never stepped foot on Israeli soil. If that student wishes to do so, the State of Israel will become his state in an instant and offer him generous absorption grants and a first-class citizenship, as long as he was born to a Jewish mother.
But the State of Israel has never wanted to be my state. It was not founded for me and for my family, its Arab citizens who only bear its passport. My children and I are among more than 1.5 million Palestinians who are 20 percent of the population of Israel and who have lived within Israel’s “Green Line” border since 1948, when the State of Israel was established.
Palestinians in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip, occupied since 1967, have no citizen’s rights at all, but even we, Palestinian Arab citizens of the State of Israel, are discriminated against in every sphere of life: There are enormous budgeting gaps in education, infrastructure, health, welfare, and employment, all of which are funded with taxes collected from all of us.
For instance, not a single Arab town has been established since the State of Israel was founded — in contrast with some 700 Jewish settlements. Arabs are generally consigned to live in the same villages where they were born: crowded, poor, neglected villages that cannot be compared with any Jewish settlement in Israel. The municipal area of Arab towns covers less than 3 percent of the total territory of Israel. The Arab citizens of the state are prohibited by discriminatory real estate laws from accessing more than 80 percent of the land in Israel. Thus, for example, the state is working on a project called “Judaization of the Galilee,” a project conceived due to the fact that there was an Arab majority in the Galilee region, a “demographic problem” that the government of Israel resolved to fix. Lands were expropriated from Arabs, and Jewish-only towns were established on them. The government publishes advertisements about residential projects in the country’s north and south and calls only for Jewish families to receive benefits and move in.
When an Arab engineer named Adel Kaadan wanted to move his family into one of these towns, he had to appeal to the Supreme Court, which handed down in March 2000 the precedent-setting “Kaadan decision,” which required the state to permit the Kaadan family to purchase lands and build a home in the Jewish town of Katzir, by force of the principle of equality between citizens. It took another seven years for Kaadan to receive permission to start building his house, after another petition to the Supreme Court in 2004. But the Knesset’s passage of the Admissions Committees Law, known also as the “Kaadan Decision Bypass Act,” made it such that any person who wishes to move to a community such as Katzir must be reviewed by an admissions committee, which may refuse residence due to failure to match the character of the town or due to being deemed a cultural or social mismatch for it.
The new nationality law that Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is pushing is meant, among other things, to prevent situations in which an Arab may think that solely by force of being a citizen he may live wherever he wishes. It is intended to ensure that when the Jewishness of the state clashes with equality, the Jewish nature of Israel will prevail rather than democracy — which might, heaven forbid, promise some form of equal rights even to Israelis who are not Jewish.
To “enshrine in law” is the phrase the government of Israel uses when it discusses the Jewish nationality act. This phrase implies that the situation already exists de facto. So why not “enshrine” it in law? Discrimination already exists in every sphere of life, so why not make inequality between Jews and non-Jews legal as well?
Many Palestinian citizens of Israel are actually welcoming the new law. This is not because they think it will benefit them or improve their condition in any way. They are simply happy that discrimination may be legislated explicitly, rather than remain hidden behind the smokescreen called “democracy.” Many Arabs think that this nationality act, which is de facto in force anyway, will expose the reality of the Israeli ethnocracy: that Israeli democracy is for the benefit of Jews only. Why not sarcastically celebrate an unambiguous law that tells Israel’s Arab citizens that they will never be equal?
But the danger of a law that says that only Jews have the right of self-determination in Eretz Yisrael is sevenfold when the exact boundaries of the State of Israel remain unclear. What will the position of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza be, when the two-state idea continues to erode and ever more settlements slice up the Palestinian Authority territory? How will the Jewish nationality act be enforced in a borderless situation, in which the Palestinians are under direct rule by Israel? Does this law provide legal backup and an appropriately Zionist remedy for the day that Palestinians currently under occupation demand Israeli citizenship and enfranchisement? Is this preservation of the Jewish character of the State of Israel a preparation for when there will be a Palestinian majority between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River? Is it intended to silence the increasing number of Palestinian voices who call for a binational state, one state shared by Palestinians and Israelis?
A Jewish state is not just a flag with a Star of David or a national anthem with the words “a Jewish soul still yearning” — both of which leave no doubt about the question of who belongs and who is unwanted.
I accept that a Jewish state was necessary due to the terrible history of persecution of the Jews. And it may be that refuge for a Jew who feels persecuted because of his Judaism is necessary. But must this refuge really turn millions of people into helpless refugees, hostages of the Israeli government? Is it truly necessary that this refuge be exclusively for Jews, and only for Jews? Must it be a refuge in which people are separated by race? Or a refuge in which schools dedicated to coexistence are set on fire? That seems like no refuge at all.
It was my fondest wish to stand this week in the doorway of the bilingual school in Jerusalem, to stand there with Arab and Jewish parents who believe in equality. I wished to tell my children that it was just a small group of stupid criminals and that one day — you’ll see! — we will be a free nation and you can live and learn wherever you wish. But I simply cannot say this anymore. The prime minister and his nationality law make it impossible for me even to dream of a better future.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images