In an audacious move, Netanyahu's government has approved a law that erases the right of return for Palestinian refugees and makes Arabs in Israel second-class citizens, writes Khaled Amayreh
The Israeli government on 10 October approved a controversial bill requiring non-Jews aspiring to obtain Israeli citizenship to pledge an oath of allegiance to Israel as a "Jewish and democratic state". The move is being seen as a provocation to Israel's Arab community that amounts to nearly 25 per cent of the population. It is also meant to forestall demands for the repatriation of millions of Palestinian refugees, uprooted and ethnically cleansed from their homes in what is now Israel when it was established in 1948.
The new law doesn't just seem racist; it is racist, as Yediot Aharonot columnist Nahum Barnea argues, since it compels non-Jews to declare their loyalty to the Jewish state while not demanding the same thing of Jews, many of whom don't recognise the legitimacy of Israel for religious and theological reasons. Moreover, "Jewish and democratic" is an oxymoron since Israel can't be Talmudic and democratic at the same time.
Realising that the approval of the new amendment would portray Israel as a state with a racist and face, Israeli leaders hastened to invoke the mantra that Israel was still a democratic state and that non-Jews aspiring to obtain Israeli citizenship had nothing to worry about as their rights and privileges would not be undermined in any way. But this is PR rhetoric at best, since Israeli law is applied selectively and treats citizens or would-be citizens according to their religion.
No Israeli officials or spokesmen have dared explain to reporters or foreign audiences what would happen in case of a clash between the "Jewish" and "democratic" dimensions of the state. For example, which would come first, and which would override the other? The real answer to the question comes from people like David Rotem, a member of the quasi- fascist Yisrael Beiteinu Party, a senior partner in the current Israeli government, who has declared that Israel must first be a Jewish state "and only afterwards a democracy".
"I want to keep Israel a Jewish state, and if that contradicts democracy, then democracy comes second, period," Rotem was quoted as saying by Prakilim magazine.
For all intents and purposes, the new law is telling the estimated 1.5-2 million Palestinians who are Israeli citizens that they should come to terms with their inherently inferior status as non-Jews; this despite the fact that 99 per cent of Arabs in Israel have been living in the country for hundreds of years before the arrival of Jewish immigrants.
Arab Knesset member Ahmed Teibi reacted to the new law saying that Israel is democratic for Jews but Jewish for Arabs. "There is no country in the world that forces its citizens, or those naturalising, to swear their loyalty to ideology or a sectarian obligation."
Another Arab Knesset member, Talab Al-Sanea, pointed out that the timing of the law was not accidental. "The Israeli government did this at this time for two reasons: first, the troubled negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organisation; and second, as a direct response to the dictates of Israel's internal coalition politics."
"Netanyahu believes this is his opportunity to impose the Jewish identity of the state on the Palestinian people, the Arab states, and the international community. His long-term goal is to abrogate the right of the Palestinian refugees to return. When Israel becomes the state of the Jews, on what basis will the refugees be able to exercise their right of return? This explains the timing of the law; to pre-empt the return of the refugees."
Al-Sanea added that the new law was likely to further legitimise state discrimination against the Palestinian community in Israel. Indeed, the adoption of the explicitly racist law has underscored the strength of quasi-fascist parties in Israel, particularly those calling for the expulsion of Arabs from Israel and the occupied territories.
In the early 1970s, the quasi-fascist US rabbi Meir Kahana, who had immigrated to Israel and become a member of the Knesset, argued forcefully that Israel must choose between becoming a Jewish religious state or just another Western democracy. Kahana wrote a book entitled They Must Go in which he called for the unapologetic expulsion or enslavement of non-Jews.
Kahana's ideas then proved "too radical" for Israeli society, which his Kach Party was outlawed. Now, it seems, Kahana's views have made a comeback and are being vindicated. "It is refreshing to hear the Likud government, that haunted Rabbi Kahana, now wants the Arabs to sign a loyalty oath," said Ben-Ari, a member of the supremacist party, the National Union. "Today, the Likud admitted that what Kahana stated 20 years ago was correct and proper."
Some liberal-minded cabinet ministers who either opposed the law or skipped the cabinet session in protest against it have said that Israel is slipping towards an abyss. One minister, Isaac Herzog, son of former Israeli President Haim Herzog, told Haaretz Saturday that the resounding support for the an amendment showed that "fascism [is] devouring the margins of society."
Some may question whether it is only the margins that are being devoured.