Israeli-Arabs: Reading a fragmented political discourse

Azmi Bishara , Monday 15 May 2023

Azmi Bishara, member of the Israeli Knesset, reviews the manner in which the contradictions inherent in the position of Israeli-Arabs as supposed citizens of a democratic state are rationalized

Arab population of Jaffa and Haifa
A New York Times photo dated August 1948, dispatched with the following caption: A small portion of the Arab population of Jaffa and Haifa, the two most important Arab centres of the new state of Israel continues, assisted by their Jewish neighbours, to live in peace. In Jaffa approximately 5,000 Arabs, all that remains of the 90,000 which constituted the Arab population of the city, live and work under the direction of a Jewish military governor who provides them with food and lodging. In the picture a policeman chats with a street vendor. In Jaffa food is plentiful. Source: Al-Ahram Photo Archive


From Al-Ahram Weekly archives: Fifty years of dispossession 1948-1998*

Issue: 5 February 1998


There has always been some confusion in assessing the position and role of Israeli Arabs vis-a-vis the rest of the Arabs. Before 1967 they were either ignored or viewed with much suspicion; then, in the aftermath of the 1967 defeat, they became the focus of admiration as people who stayed rooted in their homeland against all adversity.


And now Israeli Arabs have become increasingly visible to neighboring Arab countries as a result of the available margin of democracy on Israeli television, on which they can be seen snubbing heads of government and ministers in the Knesset. The question, however, remains: How much of this is an indication of their Arab-Palestinian patriotism, and how much of it is an indication of the strength of the Israeli hold over a people severed from their Arab context? In other words: could all this be a case of Arabs attempting to imitate the Israeli's self-assurance in his state, an Arab playing at being an Israeli?


On the same television screens one sees Arab-Israelis congratulating Israeli ministers and heads-of-state on "independence" day. Indeed, Arabs can be seen actively participating in the culminating event of "independence" day. For three successive years a place has been reserved for an Arab to participate in the lighting of the 12 candles representing the various sectors of Israeli life.


Gone forever is the Arab of the "so-called state of Israel." But gone too, it appears, is the Israeli-Arab as the "last defiant remnant" holding out on his land. Once an inverse image that offered some solace for the despair of defeat and the Palestinian dispersion, defiant endurance became a narcissistic mechanism to compensate for the absence of a political strategy among a defeated minority inside a state that was founded on the ruins of the Arab-Palestinian people.


More recently, defiant endurance has been absorbed into the process of Israelification after having been stripped of its Arab-nationalist dimension. One must remember, though, that the process of Israelification is, of necessity, curtailed from the outset, since it is not based, and cannot be based, on equality.


This is not because the Arabs in Israel are part of a greater Arab nation "at a state of war" with Israel, nor because the "modernity gap" between Israelis and Arabs impedes the realisation of equality, as the claims of the two prevalent sociological theories in Israel have it. (Even if we grant these claims for the sake of argument, they only serve, in the best of circumstances, to explain what currently exists in Israel. They do not explain why the realisation of equality will remain impossible in the future, even in the event of peaceful relations between Israel and the Arab World, as long as the current structure of the state of Israel remains unchanged.)


The circumstances of the Palestinian minority in Israel are not fixed and immutable. In spite of the continuing gap between the Arabs and the Jews in income levels, standards of living and other such criteria, Arabs in Israel, since 1967, have been part of the on-going process of development and the concomitant increases in investment rates, consumption and rising levels of education etc.


One is tempted to ask the unanswerable question as to which factor is more operative: the rising standards of living or the continuing gap between the Jews and Arabs? That this question cannot be answered, however, does not imply that there is no framework in which the two variables -- development and on-going discrimination -- operate simultaneously. In this framework -- the Israeli framework -- Arabs in Israel have become Israelified even in their manner of dealing with the gap that separates them from the Jews. In their dominant political discourse they attempt, as much as possible, to circumvent the crucial question of the instrumental relationship between Jews and their level of prosperity, and the state.


In this respect one notes a significant change in one of the primary indicators which Arabs have used to demonstrate Israeli discrimination against them: the per capita budgetary allocation to local authorities. Whereas in the seventies the Arab per capita share of these allocations stood at less than a tenth of the Jewish per capita share, the figure now stands at approximately a third. The prevailing misconception is that this change happened as a result of the Israeli Labour party being in power. In fact the change began with the inception of the two party system in Israel at the end of the seventies, at which point the Arab electorate began to acquire greater significance on the political map.


This development, or dynamic, though, has not yet extended to three crucial factors: firstly, the continuing discrimination in the distribution of the common good and social wealth; secondly, and contiguous with the first, that the state of Israel, in essence and in the delineation of its priorities, rests upon the notion of a Jewish majority; and, thirdly, that the Arabs in Israel do not enjoy collective rights -- rights as a national minority -- other than those rights accorded to religious denominations. Moreover, these latter rights are not fully accorded to Muslims, who are deprived of the right to manage the affairs of their waqf (religious endowments) foundations and of the right to appoint religious judges.


How might one rationalise this situation in a state, at the end of the 2Oth century, that defines itself as a democracy? Clearly, the customary explanations of the theorists of the Israeli establishment are no longer adequate, particularly those pertaining to the "modernity gap" between the Jewish settlers and the "native" society.


To the Palestinians, as a people, Israeli modernism severed the historic continuum of the Palestinian process of modernisation. This process had begun well before 1948. With the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948, Palestinian society lost its political, cultural and economic elite. More importantly, Palestinian society lost the Palestinian city, having been reduced to a village society, separate from but dependent for its subsistence upon a Jewish city that refuses to allow integration.


Moreover, with the loss of agriculture as a basis for subsistence, village society became neither rural nor urban. The only avenue to modernisation that remained open to the Palestinians, therefore, was that laid out by the Jewish state and the only alternatives available to Palestinians were marginalisation, imitation or, in the best of circumstances, pressing for some rights.


Thus any refutation of the theory attributing the wide gap between the Arab-Israelis and Jewish-Israelis to relative levels of modernity must not overlook the very real distortion the imposed, coercive mode of modernisation has had upon the remnants of Palestinian society inside Israel.


As for the second claim, that the current circumstances of the Arab minority are the result of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the concomitant distrust of Arab citizens' loyalty to the state -- this claim is cited in positive as well as negative contexts. It is cited positively by those who believe in the supremacy of the nationalist struggle, hence the disloyalty of the Arab minority inside Israel to the state. It is cited negatively by those who believe that "peace" will prevail at the end and that the Palestinian minority has, in general, proven its loyalty to the state. The latter position is largely represented by social scientists in Israel who remain in favour of the peace process.


One is at pains here to determine how "loyalty to the state" can be accommodated in liberal discourse (What exactly is loyalty to the state in a liberal democratic society. Why should it constitute a condition for granting rights of equal citizenship? What means and standards are to be engaged in determining loyalty in the first place?). One is also struck by the incongruous demand upon the Arab individual to be loyal to a state that was built on the vestiges of his national entity.


Regardless of these considerations, however, what is of essence here is that Zionist political parlance has adopted the discourse of loyalty as if the state had an intimate personal relationship with the Arab citizen, encompassing broad sectors of the representatives of the Arab minority, and assuming interaction by this elite with "Jewish democrats" who are pressing for the rights of the Arab national minority on the basis of loyalty to the state. Not only does this discourse sever the Arabs from their Arab cultural identity, it alienates Israeli Jews from their own liberalism.


Recently, a new conceptual model has been forwarded in an attempt to explain the paradox of the situation of the Palestinian minority within the context of an Israeli democracy. This model is potentially far more dangerous, because on the one hand it is more consistent with reality, while on the other, rather than criticising this reality with the aim of changing it, it serves to rationalise such reality in order to enshrine it.


This model rests on three propositions regarding the nature of Israeli democracy. Firstly, it holds that Israel is not a multi-national state possessing a system of neutral consociational democracy under which diverse national groups retain their distinctive collective will, possess the right of veto and enjoy a range of autonomous powers. In juristic terms, Israel, by definition, is neither multi-national, multi-lingual nor multi-cultural as is the case with Belgium, Switzerland and Canada.


The national minority in Israel is not a national group on terms of parity with another national group. Indeed, it is not recognised as a national group at all, but rather as a segment of the population that is defined as "non Jews", the term used in Israel's annual census. Secondly, Israel is not a liberal, assimilationist democracy in which the individual is regarded as a citizen, regardless of ethnic or religious affiliations. Nor is Israeli democracy founded upon the civil definition of the nation as is the case in France and the US. Israel is not a state for all its citizens, it is the state for Jews. Arabs who live in Israel do not make up, together with the Jews, a single, democratic Israeli nation. Rather, "the people of Israel" are, even in Hebrew, the Jewish nation.


It is, furthermore, difficult to describe the system in Israel as apartheid or as a form of herrenvolk democracy, in which democratic rights are restricted to a specific segment of the populace. For, the argument goes, Arabs in Israel are not excluded from democracy in Israel, albeit a democracy for the Jews.


Officially, they are considered equal in their individual rights. And although this democracy cannot pass the test at the national level, although it treats a segment of its populace as enemies when they put the nation to the test -- as occurred on Land Day in 1976 for example -- Israel is not apartheid (unless we take the West Bank and Gaza into consideration, which in my opinion constitute a form of Bantustan).


What remains then? Instead of aiming at democratising the existing reality, reality itself has been transformed in accordance with a readymade model of "democracy", one already labelled: an "ethnic democracy" (see Sammy Smooha's work on the the status of the Arab minority in Israel).


When control of the state rests in the hands of a national, ethnic or cultural majority, there can be no question of any talk about a civil nation. On the other hand, within such an "ethnic democracy", the state grants individuals belonging to minorities certain rights as citizens, and theoretically they can aspire to some collective rights as a national minority, although this is the most they can aspire to.


Experience suggests that coexistence is possible under such circumstances. However, and as mentioned above, this theoretical model remains an attempt at rationalising the existing reality, rather than an attempt at making use of the theory of democracy as a tool for reaching a critical understanding of a given reality.


The primary flaw in this theory is that it posits the autonomous administration of the national minority, on one hand, and liberal democracy on the other, as two separate and distinct things. It also assumes that there could be no meeting ground whatsoever between liberal democracy, which does not take full account of the particularity of both Arab and Jewish cultural groups, and consociational democracy which provides a framework for the coexistence of distinct national groups but not for the rights of individuals as citizens.


Yet it is not true that the two models -- liberal and consociational democracy -- are mutually exclusive, particularly if we take into consideration the fact that the application of liberal democracy in the contemporary multi-national state must also include the recognition of the existence of distinct and diverse national, ethnic and cultural groups. In all events, Arab and Jewish democrats have no other model to accommodate them, and rather than attempting to construe the current realities as democratic, but of a special variety, it would be more constructive to use theory in order to expose the flaws or absence of democracy as it is applied in Israel.


Another attempt at rationalising the situation of the Arab minority in Israel, predating that of Sammy Smooha's concept of "ethnic democracy", was forwarded by Claude Klein, former dean of the school of law at the Hebrew University, who proposed self-rule for the Palestinian minority in Israel as a way of preventing the struggle for equal rights rather than as a step on the road to equality. The reason for trying to avert the struggle for equal rights is understandable, for any such struggle annot but question the very essence of the foundation of the Jewish state.


It is important to remember that, contrary to what many believe, self-rule for the Arabs inside Israel was not an idea initially forwarded by Arab intellectuals. Rather, it is an idea developed and favoured by the Israeli Academic establishment in an attempt to abort any other development of a conceptual framework capable of reconciling the notion of self-rule with that of equal rights, something that would require by necessity a redefinition of the essence of the state as it exists now.


Successive Israeli governments have established their discrimination against and control over the Arab minority by engaging the state apparatus in the service of the interests of the Jewish majority, as its definition of such interests. And as has been elucidated by many researches into the status of the Arab minority in Israel, this policy has been responsible for the confiscation of Arab land and the economic and infrastructural gap between Arabs and Jews.


The model of "ethnic democracy" clams that it is possible to generate a form of equilibrium between the partiality of the state in terms of national groups and impartiality in terms of individual rights and the collective rights of the national minorities. Opponents to this view have asserted that this model bears the seeds of its own downfall in the long run. History, particularly the experiences in Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka and Cyprus before 1974, has demonstrated that such structurally institutionalised discrimination against national minorities inevitably leads to conflagration.


On closer inspection, one could suggest that there is a distinction between discrimination against immigrant or migrant minorities and discrimination against indigenous national groups who consider themselves the original proprietors of the land. Both experience and common sense tell us that it is virtually impossible to placate indigenous national groups with a deficient democracy. Under such conditions, national, religious and cultural tensions continue to smoulder until the conflict erupts, yielding one of two results: either separation or a reformulation of a historic compromise in the form of a consociational democracy.


This distinction, however, is insufficient unless it is accompanied by some modification in patterns of thought and behavior. The status of the indigenous minority is not a question of place of birth, but primarily one of culture. If, as a result of numerous factors, the Israeli culture of marginalisation prevails among Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel this will mean, at least in the foreseeable future, that they will accept the status of a minority in an "ethnic democracy", in other words,less than full equality as individuals and as a collective national entity.


The dominant political discourse, which is simultaneously the product of and formulator of culture, appears to accept this model of a deficient democracy. It is this acceptance that provides the model with its primary impetus, rather than its logical coherence and argumentative force. What presents itself as a form of pragmatism -- and how frequently the Arabs confuse pragmatism with shrewdness -- is an integral part of the dominant culture of the Israeli-Arab -- inside Israel the appeal for more rights is counterbalanced by acceptance of the Jewish character of the state and its claims to loyalty, while for Arabs it is justified as a coming to grips with reality.


What is culture if not a mode of interacting with reality? It is the way Israeli Arabs are presently dealing with their complex reality that I call Israelification, a process of a cultural and psychological adaptation to the status of half-Israeli citizen, on the one hand, and half-national group, on the other.


Yet we must always remind ourselves that "reality", like our ways of dealing with it, is not a given, is something constantly in a process of formation and change; and that the acceptance of injustice is part and parcel of the creation of an unjust reality. Thus the only possible way for the Arab minority inside Israel to confront the challenge of Israelification is not to deny the existence of such a process, but to engage in a struggle for equality.


A struggle which can simultaneously challenge the Zionist-Jewish essence of the Israeli state, while at the same time mobilising the Arab minority in battle for gaining their national rights as Arabs belonging to a wider collective national identity than that of the Arabs inside Israel.


This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly’s special pages commemorating 50 years of Al-Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe when Israel was created on 15 May 1948. These pages, published in 1998, were part of a year-long series of articles documenting the history and nature of the Arab-Israeli struggle, as well as that of Palestinian dispossession and exile.

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