An Honest Conversation

The current crisis over the electoral process raging in
Iran and the recent foreign policy speech by Israeli Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu after his jarring visit with President Barak Obama
raises serious issues about democracy in the region. While Netanyahu
repeatedly emphasized that, "Palestinians must clearly and
unambiguously recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people,"
there was little public conversation about the 20% of Israeli citizens
who are not Jewish, or the 450,000 Jews who are now living in an
ever-expanding Greater Jerusalem and in West Bank settlements.

Israelis have long enjoyed their claim to be "the only democracy in
the Middle East." Obama's firm and principled stand against continued
Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank has sent shockwaves
through Israeli political circles and at the same time little
attention has been paid to what is happening within Israel itself.
While Palestinian citizens of Israel have endured decades of
discrimination, hatred of Palestinians is now exploding in a series of
legislative efforts. Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman's call
for a loyalty oath from all Israeli citizens was recently defeated,
but the fact that McCarthy-like bills are now part of mainstream
conversation is of extreme concern. Asking to respect a state and its
laws is appropriate, but asking for loyalty to "the Jewish, Zionist
and democratic state" crosses a dangerous line. Zionism is an
ideology and coerced allegiance to it is utterly inappropriate,
particularly from Palestinians who have a long history of suffering
due to the consequences of Zionism. As we question the repressive
role of religious leadership in Iran, we can similarly ask, is it
really possible for a multi-ethnic state to be simultaneously a Jewish
state and democratic? Israel's decision to privilege one group over
another is antithetical to basic conceptions of equality and runs
contrary to American principles.

In the past few weeks the Knesset gave a preliminary vote for a law
that threatens imprisonment to anyone who denies that Israel is a
Jewish Democratic state, if the statement results in "actions of hate,
contempt or disloyalty against the state." Never mind that there is a
vigorous debate within Israel regarding the meaning of democracy and
Jewish exclusivity; never mind that Israeli Arabs have experience with
second-class citizenship, restrictions on property ownership, wide
discrepancies in education and job options, but rarely equality and
democracy. What about Jews engaged in nonviolent protest against the
Separation Wall or working to create a democratic secular state, are
they to be imprisoned as well?

The Israeli Ministerial Commission for Legal Matters has already
confirmed a bill that forbids public commemoration of the Palestinian
Nakba, the dispossession and expulsion of hundreds of thousands of
Palestinian refugees in 1948. This bill was supported by the
Ministers of Education and Justice. Passed in a gentler form than
originally intended, ceremonies will not be banned but institutions
supporting commemorations will not receive government funding.
Suppressing the historical experience of one-fifth of the Israeli
population, including the annihilation of urban and rural culture,
massacres, rapes, looting, and expulsion, comes dangerously close to
the perils of Holocaust denial. Both separate traumas deserve full
public recognition; teaching the total narrative to Jews and
Palestinians could be part of healing and reconciliation. Ironically,
four years ago the Palestinian village of Ni'ilin established the
first Holocaust museum on the West Bank and now engages in annual

These political contradictions and ethical challenges are seriously
problematic for a country that purports to be a democracy. Netanyahu
and Lieberman lift the mask from the myth that a country that
privileges Jews over Arabs can also be a land of justice and equality.
How can a country demand civil loyalty when it cannot guarantee civil
rights? What are the long-term consequences of this potent mix of
exclusion, paternalism, and discrimination? How can Palestinians
reconcile the painful contradiction that the Peres Peace Center was
built on confiscated Jaffa refugee property? Perhaps when Jewish
Israelis proudly sing Hatikvah, they need to imagine how this tribute
to exclusive Jewish yearning sounds to their fellow citizens who still
remember the glory days of Jaffa, "The Bride of Palestine." Netanyahu
and Lieberman are not aberrations; they are saying out loud what many
of their fellow citizens have thought and done for years.

Change "Arab" to "Native American," "African-American," or "Japanese,"
and obvious parallels emerge with our own legacies of colonialism,
slavery, segregation, detention camps, and civil rights struggles.
Perhaps Israelis can learn from the best of our history; facing
inequality, racism, and territorial expansion, rather than talking
transfer, ghettoization, loyalty oaths, and "natural settlement
growth" at the expense of another people, will lead to a stronger,
more democratic country.

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