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The Impact of the Conflict on Daily Life

Separation Spells Racism

Polls confirm time and again the racism rooted deep within Israeli society. The struggle for Palestinian rights, therefore, has always been universal, writes Azmi Bishara.

Azmi Bishara is a Palestinian-Israeli and a member of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. He is a researcher, lecturer, and author of a number of books. He has been indicted by the Israeli government for voicing his political opinions. Learn more at The International Committee for the Defense of Azmi Bishara.

photo of Azmi Bishara

By Azmi Bishara
From Al Ahram Weekly
1-7 July, 2004

Israel is pressing ahead with the construction of the separation wall, now filling in the last remaining gap between Jerusalem and Ramallah. Among the permanent changes to the geographical features of the land that this will effect will be the closure of the historic road between the two cities.

Some of us have tried to ignore the relationship between Israeli actions – the construction of the separation wall in the West Bank and the unilateral disengagement from Gaza – and their motives. Or, when we float the term “Israeli demographic considerations”, we do so as though it is a neutral term or a perfectly natural reason for Israel to want to separate itself from the Palestinians. Moreover, some of us have yielded to the temptation to threaten Israel with the Palestinian birthrate, as though the wombs of Palestinian women are weapons or as though the Arab birthrate is, indeed, a “danger”. In fact, “demographic motives”, here, is synonymous with racism, and for us to give it credence, internalize it and brandish it as a threat is to accept the racism and normalize it.

The occupied Arab territories are undergoing a process of racist cordoning-off. The Israeli wall carries no other meaning. Some of us might proclaim that no objection to that wall would be raised were it being built on the borders of 4 June 1967, since that would implicitly signal Israel’s intention to withdraw to those borders. Of course, few Palestinians are opposed to a unilateral withdrawal to pre-June 1967 borders. However, the difference between what is taking place now – the construction of the wall in its current course and the unilateral disengagement from Gaza – and the 4 June 1967 borders is not a quantitative difference. It is all the difference. Why? Because what is taking place is not aimed at establishing political boundaries between two sovereign entities. Rather, the logic and inspiration behind it and the people who are planning and executing it are pushing with calm deliberation and forethought towards the creation of a limited Palestinian Authority whose primary function will be to ensure that Palestinian detainees enclosed behind walls and fences in the West Bank and Gaza do not pose a threat to the security of Israel.

This will not make Israel any less racist, calmer or more at peace with itself. On the contrary, the logic behind it, along with all the pledges and reassurances from all quarters regarding the Jewish character of the state, are guaranteed to propel Israel to more rabid racism and to greater determination to pursue those measures and means it deems necessary to maintain its Jewish majority. As long as Israel is recognized by the Arabs and the rest of the international community as an exclusively Jewish state there can be no place for Palestinians in it. In other words, the original inhabitants of the country – the Palestinians living inside the Green Line – can be regarded as little more than guests or, at best, subjects. It is difficult to imagine that these guests/ subjects would be tolerated for long in that “only democracy in the Middle East” in which the Arab demographic spectre renders the most discriminatory practices acceptable and in which anti-Arab hostility has given prevalence to an anti-democratic mood and political culture.

Certainly, the Israeli political and intellectual elites and the media have been instrumental in feeding this dangerous climate in which racist rhetoric has become official discourse. It would be no exaggeration to maintain that Israel has become the most bigoted modern society in today’s world. Public opinion polls conducted in Israel reveal a racism so flagrant and vehement that had it existed in any other country it would have precipitated a major scandal and stirred the abhorrence of the society of civilized nations. It is impossible to conceive of a western society that would grant that the prevalent popular mood in Israel is acceptable or normal for a democratic culture.

On 21 June, the Israeli press published the results of an opinion poll that confirms Israel’s victorious march to apartheid. The survey, conducted in May by the National Security Studies Centre at the University of Haifa, polled 1,016 respondents from all sectors of the population, including Arabs, Jews, settlers, religious conservatives and new immigrants. It revealed that a majority of the Jewish public in Israel – approximately 64 per cent – believes that their government should encourage Israeli Arabs to emigrate from Israel. In other words, a majority of Israelis would support a policy of “transfer”, as the Israelis would put it. The survey leaves it up to our imagination what exactly “encourage” might entail; what means might be called into play to persuade the Arabs to be “encouraged”.

In addition, approximately 55 per cent of the Jews polled believe that Arab citizens of Israel endangered national security, 48.6 per cent felt that the government was overly sympathetic to the Arab population (this being the Sharon government, which is notoriously discriminatory against Arabs in all areas of life), 45.3 per cent said that they supported revoking Israeli Arabs’ right to vote and hold political office. Nearly 80 per cent of the Jewish respondents supported the policy of “focused killings” (read: assassination) in Arab territories and about one-quarter said that they would consider voting for an ultra-nationalist party like Kach if such a party were to field itself in the next elections. Kach, we recall, is that party founded by the fascist Rabbi Meir Kahane who called for the forced expulsion of Arabs from Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. The party was outlawed in 1994, not, in our opinion, because of its flagrant racism but because of the threat it posed to the rightwing party system.

Dafna Kaneti-Nassim, research associate at the Haifa-based National Security Studies Centre, observed that this poll, taken together with two previous polls her institute conducted in 2001 and 2003, revealed a marked rise in anti-Arab hatred, as well as in hostility to foreign workers. She suggests that this trend is the product of the ongoing security threat, an interpretation that is at once too simplistic and misleading. In fact, it is the Palestinians who are being threatened. Jewishness, when applied to the state, is not merely an epithet, a distinguishing trait or a rubric for capping security tensions. It represents a dominant ideology that prohibits the separation of state and religion and that leans towards rendering the affirmation of religious identity into a form of deed of ownership of the state. Such an ideology conflicts with the concept of individual citizenship as defined by an established set of inalienable rights and duties incumbent upon all, since it promotes membership on the basis of affiliation to a specific group that claims title to a monopoly on the state. Under such circumstances, anti-Arab hatred becomes a way to assert identity with the group and, hence, to claim a “share” in the monopoly.

Not that racism in Israel is anything new. Just to refresh our memory, let’s take a look at some earlier studies. On 12 March 2002, Haaretz released the results of a poll conducted by the Yaffe Centre for Strategic Studies, according to which 46 per cent of Israeli Jews supported the “transfer” of Arabs from the occupied territories and 31 per cent supported applying the policy to Arab Israelis. This figure alone would seem to put paid to the contention that the rise in racism in Israel indicated by the Haifa institute’s survey is due to the “security” factor, since the “security danger” has decreased significantly since the Yaffe Centre’s poll. According to that poll, too, 61 per cent of the Jewish respondents felt that Israeli Arabs posed a threat to security. How do we explain the drop in the ratio of respondents who felt that the Israeli Arabs endangered Israel and the simultaneous rise in the numbers calling for their expulsion? What factors account for these inverse trajectories? Finally, in the same poll, 60 per cent of Jewish respondents supported “encouraging” Arab citizens of Israel to emigrate.

Another poll confirmed the rising tide of the ultra religious right and its antagonism to the established concept of citizenship in a democratic society. 80 per cent of those polled in a survey in March 2002 opposed the participation of Arab Israelis in any “critical decisions affecting the state”, as opposed to 75 per cent of those polled in 2001, 67 per cent in 2000 and 50 per cent in 1999 (Haaretz, 12 March 2002). An Israeli prime minister was assassinated against the backdrop of seething anti-Arab hatred. Yet, in spite of the fact that Rabin was killed because he brought Arab MPs on board to create the majority that approved the Oslo accords, statistics indicate that the Israelis have not yet absorbed the lesson of that tragedy. The upswing of the anti- democratic right in Israel manifests itself in small things that draw little attention.

All the opinion polls we have examined over the past year indicate that a majority of Israelis support the creation of a Palestinian state and that a greater majority believes that such a state is inevitable in any case. This is not as contradictory as it might first appear to the shift to the religious right and the growing vociferation and support for racist views and policies. Elevating the “Jewishness” of the state to a supreme value comes with a corollary: the impossibility of “coexistence” with the Palestinians – to the extent that in one poll 52 per cent of the respondents supported the idea of handing over predominantly Arab populated areas in Israel to a Palestinian state.

Not only is separation, whether through an agreed two-state solution or unilaterally, supported by the majority of Israelis, it is the only idea that Likud took from Labour, although Likud is determined to apply it in its own way, as is abundantly evident in developments in the occupied territories. Public attitudes towards Jewish settlements fall in line with this position. According to various polls, 65 per cent of Israelis support dismantling the settlements needed to effect separation (Haaretz, 6 June 2002) and 52 per cent support dismantling them by force if necessary under a unilateral disengagement (Haaretz, 4 July 2001). In addition, 66 per cent support dismantling all settlements in Gaza, 70 per cent the dismantlement of settlements situated in densely populated areas in the West Bank and 60 per cent the dismantlement of some of the settlements in the West Bank (Yediot Aharanot, 29 March 2002).

When taken together with all these trends, the first poll discussed at the beginning of this article confirms that support for agreed upon or unilateral disengagement does not emanate from any generally held conviction in a solution to the Palestinian cause, whether just or unjust, and that the trend is toward apartheid in Gaza and the West Bank and an incendiary climate towards Arabs inside the Green Line. Disengagement cannot be seen in isolation from this factor. Withdrawal of Israeli forces is only the flipside of the coin of the assassination policy, the wall, home demolitions and other forms of dictating the conditions for separation and for bringing into power a Palestinian leadership that toes the line with these conditions.

Israel’s political projects must be seen in the context of the prevailing political culture that supports them – a culture that is indisputably racist. For Arabs and Palestinians to acknowledge and accede to the demands and conditions founded on this logic is not only of no benefit to Arabs and Palestinians, it confers legitimacy on a racism that has no legitimacy in any of those civilized nations Arabs are so keen to please. Israeli racism is not a tangential issue. It is not an incidental phenomenon or a symptom of conflict and confrontation. It is integral and structural, and the national struggle should deal with it as a central issue if it seeks to be democratic in nature. Indeed, to focus on this issue is precisely what renders our national struggle democratic, comprehensible and formulated in a universal language.

As for recognising the Jewish identity of Israel, as Arafat did recently in an interview with Haaretz, this only confirms that a large segment of the Palestinian leadership has long since abandoned the attitudes, discourse and fundamental essence of liberation. The practical upshot of this political behaviour – as represented by those Arab and Palestinian statements recognizing not just Israel but the Jewish character of Israel and, hence, Zionist ideology – is that it condones Israeli racism and the dimensions it has assumed. In all events, Israel does not believe these statements. Or, otherwise put, those that pronounce them have no legitimacy in the eyes of those they are intended to please. It is difficult to understand these unilateral gifts to Zionism itself from the leadership of a people under occupation. Ultimately, if our struggle has not been against racism and occupation, what was the point and for what purpose have we made so many sacrifices? It is a legitimate question.

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