Can equality exist in the Jewish state?

As right-wingers dominate the Knesset, Arab citizens of Israel say institutional discrimination is getting worse.

Arab citizens of Israel
Arab citizens of Israel face discrimination in employment, education, and housing opportunities [GALLO/GETTY]

In 2005, following the arrest of several high profile Arab politicians and lobbyists living in Israel, the Shin Bet security agency made a statement justifying their actions: “The security service will thwart the activity of any group or individual seeking to harm the Jewish and democratic character of the State of Israel, even if such activity is sanctioned by the law.”

The statement highlighted a fundamental tension between democratic freedom in Israel, and the need to maintain its Jewish character. Thwarting harm to that character has been extrapolated to require controls on Israel’s Arab minority in many departments of society, from education to the right of dissent. The need to ensure Jewish demographic and institutional domination has prompted a raft of controversial policies and practises.

The conflict is most revealing at the level of political representation. Israel can point to the presence of 14 Arab Knesset members out of 120 as evidence of its civil rights credentials. Proportionally this is a reasonably fair reflection of a minority that accounts for 18 per cent of Israel’s population; given that the Arab community habitually votes in lower numbers.

In practise, the mandate to represent Arab concerns dictates that they work against – rather than with – the rest of parliament. Knesset Member Haneen Zouabi of the Balad party is open about her role being fundamentally oppositional. “I was elected to speak for those who voted for me, not to reinforce the Zionist consensus,” she says. “My role is to represent injustice and to make it more visible.” Zouabi has long argued against the legitimacy of a Jewish state for allowing “institutionalised discrimination”, instead favouring “a bi-national state not based on ethnicity”.

She has suffered for her beliefs. After participating in the 2010 Gaza flotilla, aimed at breaking the Israeli siege, a seven to one majority voted to strip her of parliamentary privileges. Likud Knesset Member Danny Danon called for her to be tried for treason, and there were attempts to disqualify her party from elections. The hostility was so great that Zouabi was forced to travel with an armed escort. A year later she remains a pariah in parliament, branded a traitor and a terrorist-sympathiser.

Exiling civil rights

Others have suffered more. Azmi Bishara, also of the Balad party, was the leading voice of the Arab civil rights campaign. Despite attempts to disqualify him, Bishara became the first Arab citizen to run for the office of Prime Minister. Throughout his career Bishara faced numerous investigations from the Shin Bet. He was forced to resign in 2007, and went into exile abroad, in the wake of spurious charges of espionage.

Such attacks on Arab politicians are not exceptional, and some have been more serious than political expulsion. A 2002 report from the Human Rights Association of Nazareth documented nine cases of Arab Knesset Members being assaulted by security services over the preceding two years, seven of whom were hospitalised. In addition, the state had opened 25 criminal investigations against Arab Knesset Members over the same time period. 

In recent years, the Jewish majority in the Knesset have been pushing for a decisive end to the debate over the legitimacy of a Jewish state. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was able to pass a bill last year requiring non-Jewish immigrants to take a loyalty oath to a Jewish state, and is seeking to make the oath mandatory for all Knesset members.

The most significant effect of the oath is to enhance Jewish demographic supremacy. It places a fresh barrier in the path of Palestinian refugees’ historic right of return, as enshrined in UN General Assembly Resolution 194, effectively terminating their claims to former homes.

By contrast, the Law of Return grants any Jew the right to make their homes in Israel without challenge. The law is supplemented by aggressive marketing campaigns in the US and other nations with large Jewish populations, often through emotive appeals to religious solidarity. Naturalising diaspora Jews has been made a formality and is often granted within 48 hours, even to those with tenuous claims to Jewish ancestry or citizens from hostile nations. Financial incentives are also offered; as of 2007, Iranian Jews making Aliyah, the so-called “return” to Israel, are entitled to a payment of $5000.

Higher education

Jewish nationalism is supplemented by a mandatory three year term in the Israeli Defence Forces. Jewish soldiers who serve are eligible for a number of benefits: a discharge payment, one-off loans of up to $3,500, and scholarships to academic institutions.

Recruitment does not extend to Arabs, who are then placed at a disadvantage in the jobs market. Najwan Beredker, a graduate in political science from the University of Haifa, quickly discovered that her degree counted for little. “I spent months looking for employment,” she said. “Even for the basic service positions in shopping malls, most of the shops had a sign outside – ‘after military service’. Effectively it meant ‘we don’t accept Arabs’.” In public sector and government positions, ‘loyalty’ is an accepted criterion for employment. The policy helps to explain the disproportionately low Arab presence in these sectors – two per cent and seven per cent respectively.

Army service has also cemented divisions in higher education. In 2010, it was revealed that Haifa and Tel Aviv University, among others, gave preferential treatment to ex-soldiers seeking accommodation and tuition fees. Although a Haifa court had ruled the practise of favouring soldiers to be discriminatory, a central government amendment overruled the decision.

The Dirasat policy research centre in Nazareth reported the number of courses carrying an age restriction of 21 – the standard age of finishing army service – is increasing. They also report an entrenched practise of segregated accommodation for Jewish and Arab students.

The case of five-year old Tamir Hasnin in 2005 highlighted that segregation is also practised in primary schools. Technically admittance is determined solely by proximity to the institution, but Hasnin’s case highlighted that ethnicity is a factor. Rather than registering him with his nearest, predominantly Jewish school, Lod Municipality enrolled him at one several kilometres away that had a higher proportion of Arab students. The Municipality justified their stance by expressing “the preference that Arab children, especially in the lower grades, attend Arab schools, in order to preserve their language and culture”.

Ironically, it is one of the most long-standing grievances of Arab civil rights campaigners that they are unable to preserve their culture through control of their children’s education. All schools in Israel are bound to a strictly vetted syllabus that gives close attention to material that could be taken as incitement. In 2010, a group of Palestinian and Israeli academics submitted a ground-breaking text, Learning Each Other’s Historical Narrative, to the Ministry of Education. The book featured both sides’ accounts of historic events on the same page with a blank column for the students own thoughts. It was immediately rejected.

Beredker, the political science graduate, received little education of her own culture growing up in Nazareth, home to Israel’s largest Arab community. “In my Nazareth school I learned Jewish history but I never saw the word Palestinian,” said Beredker. “Until I was 16 I had no awareness. We were even made to study our language wrong, with many mistakes in the words and grammar.”

Nurit Peled, co-founder of Bereaved Parents for Peace and lecturer at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, believes that text books are selected to support feelings of Jewish superiority. “We never teach about the state of Israel, we teach the land of Israel, which includes all of Palestine. It is recognition by denial,” she said.

Peled’s research also revealed common stereotyping of Arabs in text books; “I could not find one picture of an Arab human being,” she said. “They are all of types. They are presented as primitive terrorists or farmers who reject modernity.”

Democratic rights?

History has been targeted through the signing into law of the Nakba bill this year, forbidding commemoration of the Palestinians’ displacement in 1948. In practise, schools were already prevented from mentioning the term, in an attempt to prevent new generations of Arabs from becoming aware of this dark chapter in their history.

The Nakba bill also touches on another thorny conflict between the “Jewish and democratic state”. A cornerstone of western democracies has always been the acceptance of dissent. By contrast, Israel’s violent suppression of the May 15 marches in Jerusalem, Qalandia and Gaza, highlighted intolerance of even peaceful protest.

That intolerance has been shown consistently through the six years of non-violent Palestinian protests that began in Bil’in, the village which has suffered injury or arrest of over half of its population.

New bills proposing the criminalisation of boycott movements indicates a further step towards the intolerance of dissent, taking Shin Bet’s diktat to a new extreme. Human rights groups operating inside Israel have expressed concern at the proposal of a new bill to deny funding to organisations that produce critical reports.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel responded to the new laws with the worrying claim that this Knesset is “the most racist in history”. Their latest reports document the link between discriminatory legislation and deepening intolerance within Jewish society in Israel. Certainly, the discreet recent law allowing town councils to selectively admit members has been taken up enthusiastically in areas with high Arab populations. Tolerance of religious leaders calling on landlords not to rent homes to Arabs has exacerbated the trend. In 2010, polls conducted by the Israeli Democracy Institute found 53 per cent of Israeli Jews thought it acceptable to demand that Arabs leave the country, and 46 per cent would not live next to an Arab family.

For decades, Israel has been able to defend the scandals with the justification that quality of life is higher for Arabs living in Israel than it is in the Occupied Territories. Knesset Member Zouabi argues the claim is disingenuous. “We should not be compared with the West Bank after 40 years of Israeli Occupation has destroyed its economy, any more than we should be compared with Britain or the US,” she said. “We demand equality with Jews, not to live as second class citizens.”

In a recent address Netanyahu took another opportunity to stress the fortune of Arabs living in Israel. “Of the 300 million Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa, only Israel’s Arab citizens enjoy real democratic rights,” he said during his Congress speech. That may be changing: with the wave of revolutions across the Arab world, democratic reforms are being demanded and accepted. Israel seems to be heading in the opposite direction. While ethnicity continues to dominate society, there is little space for other ideals.

Kieron Monks is content manager of This Week in Palestine magazine. His freelance articles have appeared in The Guardian, Observer, New Statesman, Tribune, Ma’an News and many others.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.