Thursday, December 22, 2005

Azmi Bishara and Israeli Democracy: An Open Dialogue

A few days ago, Ze’ev of Israel Perspectives wrote a post on Azmi Bishara, a vocally-anti-Zionist Arab Knesset Member from Nazareth who’s been making rather a splash recently. After detailing a few of Bishara’s bons mots, Ze’ev asks:

Why is it that in the Jewish State of Israel, that we must suffer the indignity of having people like Azmi Bishara sit in the Knesset and have a say shaping the policies and character of the Jewish State?

I wrote the following comment on Ze’ev’s blog:

Let’s say that we throw Azmi Bishara out of the Knesset, prosecute him, throw him in jail, whatever. What happens next? The same people who voted for him will elect someone else who’s just as anti-Israel, if not worse.

What are you going to do? Take away their right to vote? Take away their citizenship? Throw them out of the country? Kill them? So much for democracy.

The problem isn’t Azmi Bishara - not that I have any particular love for the man. The problem is that in 57 years since independence, we have largely failed to give Israeli Arabs a reason to feel Israeli rather than Palestinian. Of course the failure hasn’t been total, or we’d have more Azmi Bisharas in the Knesset than we do. But we need to accept that Azmi Bishara was elected by people who really do feel the way he does about the State of Israel, and by their own lights have every right to feel this way.

I’m not sure how to solve this problem. Creating a less discriminatory society might help, but it would be painful and expensive, would take a long time, and certainly wouldn’t be 100% effective. All I can say for sure is that focusing on Azmi Bishara as the villain of the story is exactly the wrong thing to do – it won’t do a thing to solve the underlying problem.

Ze’ev replied to me by email (quoted with his permission):

Don, very simple. If I had my way, Azmi Bishara and other Israeli Arabs would not be in the Knesset. I am not in favor of the idea of non-Jews shaping the national character and policy of the Jewish State.

I am prepared to provide all those non-Jews who are willing to swear loyalty to the Jewish State and forfeit any national claims [with] basic civil rights and communal autonomy – just the inability to vote in the Knesset.

I agree with you that Israeli Arabs have every right to feel the way they do towards Israel, but I also believe that the Jewish People have the right to ensure the continued existence of the Jewish State.

I do not believe that we need to provide non-Jews with the ability to peacefully and democratically do away with the Jewish State or to incite against it.

The underlying issue is not a lack of equality or acceptance, but the belief that we can buy the loyalty of the Arabs and make them forget their national aspiration for a bowl of lentil soup... which is racist and condescending, if you ask me.

Finally (for now), I answered Ze’ev’s email:

If we take away the right to vote and serve in the Knesset from Israeli Arabs, how long will it be before we start doing the same thing to Israeli Jews who aren't “the right kind of Jew”?

My concerns in this regard are not entirely unrealistic. I am already partially disenfranchised: I am a non-Orthodox Jew, and yet a portion of my taxes goes to support a purely Orthodox (and the most inflexible kind of Orthodox) rabbinical establishment which holds tremendous power. I have to pay for the Rabbanut, yet I get no say in who runs it. Streams of Judaism to which I would be more sympathetic get little or no state funding, and have no right to perform weddings, funerals, or conversions here.

In fact, my wife and I can’t even get married in Israel, because the Rabbanut has a problem with her conversion (Orthodox rabbi/Conservative witnesses) 22 years ago in Texas, and there is no alternative here to a Rabbanut wedding. So much for equal rights!

*          *          *

The argument you’re making is fundamentally flawed. As soon as we start discriminating against Arabs in the way you discuss, we’ve crossed the line: we are no longer a democratic state. We’ve established that we can take civil rights (and the right to vote and be represented is a very fundamental civil right!) away from people simply because they hold views we don’t like. Once we’ve done that, there’s no stopping. It’s like the old story:

First they came for the communists and I said nothing because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they locked up the Social Democrats, and I said nothing; after all, I was not a Social Democrat.
When they arrested the trade unionists, I said nothing; after all, I was not a trade unionist.
They came for the Jews, and I said nothing because I wasn’t a Jew.
And then they came for me, and there was no-one left to say anything for me.*

If the vote were taken away from Israeli Arabs, before too long the vote would be taken away from Israeli Jews – and that would mean the end of the State of Israel.

As far as I’m concerned, today’s Arab is tomorrow’s non-Orthodox Jew. After all, I too hold views (on many subjects, including, for example, Jerusalem) that you probably consider inimical to your concept of the Jewish State.

That’s as far as our discussion has progressed so far. As the issues involved are important ones, I would like to see the dialogue continue, ideally with some additional participants. What do you think?

* This quote is approximate. It is usually attributed to German U-boat-captain-turned-minister-turned-Nazi-supporter-turned-peace-activist Martin Niemoller, but in fact its provenance, along with its exact contents, is rather doubtful.


At Sun Dec 25, 04:30:00 PM GMT+2, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with you that removing Israeli Arabs right to vote would be problematical (to put it kindly)` as well as on the fact that Israel has not been as successful as could be wished.

On the other hand, Azmi Bishara is a member of the Knesset. As such, there are things which a private citizen might say, which he can't. Speaking against the state is at the top of that list.

At Tue Dec 27, 08:25:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger Yazan said...

Intersting perspective..

The point is.. as long as they're called Israeli Arabs [and ofcourse, as long as they call themselves that] it's always gonna be this way... U have to start thinking of them as Israelis... I think that Israel should seriously start re-thinking the whole Jewish State ideology... because no matter how u try, u're gonna end up with somekind of descrimination against non-jewish population...

Ideally, I'm not too fond with Israel [we could discuss that for days in lame], but it's there, and we have to deal with it.. just as u have to deal with the former-Palestinians, Now Should-Be-Israelis...

I think that we have the same situation in here, but on a less crucial level, but still... check this post!

I think what's most important, is to make them feel as part of the country, and that can not be accomplished unless u accept their culture [as-it-is, ofcourse with concern to the basic humanitarian principals], u have the Duty of making them feel that they belong, because after all.. no matter how u put it, they've EARNED they're right to belong ages ago..

At Wed Dec 28, 12:20:00 PM GMT+2, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Genesis 27:35 (thy brother)

You write:

"The problem is that in 57 years since independence, we have largely failed to give Israeli Arabs a reason to feel Israeli rather than Palestinian."

The problem is not just Arabs. The problem is that the ruling establishment fails often to give even Israelis, or stam Jews, a reason to feel Israeli. I have heard of North African Jews, who came under German rule, accusing Israel to be holocaust deniers, "Shoah", because of the discriminatory treatment of Libyans Tunisians ecc. Of course, the numbers, as compared to Poland ecc. were much smaller, but hardship was not less, and if less were assassinated it was because of "technical" hindrances.

And not only North African Jews, the proprieties of foreign Jews were silently more or less confiscated. Not confiscated in the legal sense, but hidden away. Bank leumi isn't better than the
Swiss banks, nay, wasn't better, and today is even worse since the Swiss banks started to pay. But bank leumi is "our" bank, the Zionist bank of the Jewish Agency (APC).

So our problem with the Arabs is only one part of THE existential problem of Israel, the rulers of
Israel is the other part.


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