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An Honest Conversation

Alice Rothchild

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 commemorations.

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.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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Alice Rothchild is a Boston-based physician and author of Broken
Promises, Broken Dreams: Stories of Jewish and Palestinian Trauma and
Resilience, Pluto Press, 2007.

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