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Israel as a ‘Jewish’ state will legalise discrimination against Palestinians

As the US-led Israeli-Palestinians peace process heads towards the buffers, one of the core aims and assumptions of the two decade-long negotiations – preserving a Jewish state in the majority of Mandate Palestine – has been forced into the spotlight.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s demand that Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas recognises Israel as a “Jewish state”, a call taken up by other Israeli politicians and lobby groups internationally, has garnered a lot of attention. But ultimately, it is the explicit expression of what has been the implicit assumption of talks since the Oslo process began.

Meanwhile, Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman has been pushing his proposal of a land and population swap, stripping thousands of Palestinians of their current Israeli citizenship, while incorporating the majority of Jewish settlers currently in West Bank colonies into Israel “proper”.

Both Mr Netanyahu and even more so Mr Lieberman’s stances have been seen as obstacles to, or even intentionally-crafted spoilers of, the peace talks. Yet what has been missed is the extent that the recognition demand and population swap proposals are actually consistent with the principles of the negotiations’ “two state solution” model.

What they all have in common is the goal of preserving institutionalised Jewish privilege in the majority of historic Palestine through ethnic separation and exclusion.

Someone like Mr Lieberman may be advancing an idea outside of the peace process orthodoxy, but the assumptions are the same as one hears from the likes of former Israeli PM Ehud Olmert, Labor leaders, and assorted liberal Zionists: how to neutralise the “demographic threat” posed by Palestinians and secure Israel as a “Jewish and democratic” state by separating the two peoples as much as possible.

Tzipi Livni and western-based advocacy groups wince when the Israeli foreign minister talks of a population swap – but it is part of a continuum that goes back to the Nakba. Mr Netanyahu and Mr Lieberman’s rhetoric and proposals reflect a consensus shared by Zionist “centrists” and liberals, as well as the US-led peace process. The differences are stylistic and tactical.

See, for example, Ms Livni’s repeated warnings that two states for two peoples is “an imperative” to avoid the “demographic issue” and “preserve [Israel’s] Jewishness”; that to “safeguard Israel as a Jewish state”, the land must be divided.

Ms Livni herself even hinted at a Lieberman-style approach in 2008 when she said that in the event of a Palestinian state being established, she would tell Palestinian citizens of Israel that “the national solution for you is elsewhere”.

To put it another way, consider a recent Labor-proposed bill to prevent the annexation of the West Bank (defeated in the Knesset) whose text was co-drafted by the so-called peace group One Voice. The bill – written, remember, by those presented as Israel’s peace camp – clearly stated that the aim was to “guarantee Israel’s future” as a “Zionist” state.

Compare that to remarks by Likud MK Tzipi Hotovely, who stated plainly in August 2013: “I’m a Jewish racist, and I’m not embarrassed to say I want a Jewish state with a Jewish majority”, and it is clear that when it comes to the Palestinian question, the Israeli “moderates” and “extremists” have more that unites them than divides them.

Not only has mainstream coverage of this issue missed the shared assumptions behind Mr Netanyahu’s demand, Mr Lieberman’s proposal, and the official peace process, but there has also been a whitewashing of what Israel “as a Jewish state” really means, and why it is so objectionable.

For Israel to be a Jewish state, Palestinian refugees must be denied their right to return and Palestinian citizens must be discriminated against.

Israel as a Jewish state means systematic discrimination in land, housing, citizenship rights, education and freedom of speech, all of which are well documented and occur right now.

Here is how it was expressed in a 2007 report by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel: “Israel carries some unique characteristics which distinguish it from other western countries, primarily that of systematic discrimination which is based on national and ethnic background, dealing with the allocation of state resources and the creation of public space. This inequality gives control to the Jewish majority over the Arab-Palestinian minority living in Israel.”

It is worth noting here that while many place great emphasis on population numbers and majority-minority dynamics, that is not what makes an ethnocracy or apartheid state – it is about policies and legislation.

Thus the logic of Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev, for example, who wrote earlier this month that “as long as there is a Jewish majority in Israel, I have no problem with its Jewish character”, is seriously flawed.

While the arguments of the current Israeli government are helping people to see the institutionalised racism that has always existed, there is one significant lacuna that remains: the denial and disappearance of the Nakba in a discussion on Israel as a Jewish state, and how it was only through ethnic cleansing that the Jewish majority was established.

See, for example, a Bloomberg news agency editorial from January 5 on “The Jewish State Question” that does not mention the Nakba once. Likewise a piece filed by Jodi Rudoren for The New York Times on January 1, titled “Sticking Point in Peace Talks: Recognition of a Jewish State”, which fails to inform readers of the ethnic cleansing that enabled a Jewish state to be created in the first place.

Writing in a collection of essays on anti-Semitism published in 2004 (Those Who Forget The Past), British journalist and commentator Jonathan Freedland, who writes regularly for The Guardian and The Jewish Chronicle, elaborated refreshingly frankly on the relationship between the Nakba and Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.

Freedland wrote: “I have long believed Israel should admit the reality of 1948 – and to defend it all the same. We needed a home and we had every right to demand it – even if that meant forcing another people to share [sic] their land with us.”

Freedland acknowledges “four hundred villages…were emptied” – but says that creating a Jewish state justified this ethnic cleansing: a “moral necessity … bought at a horribly high moral price”. A price, of course, paid by Palestinians.

However, Freedland is a little off when he claims Palestinians were forced “to share” the land; in fact, most were violently expelled and excluded, with half the world’s Palestinian population today outside their homeland.

It is the kind of “sharing” envisioned by the US-led talks, whereby the colonisation of the majority of Palestine is accepted and protected, and a “Jewish state” stands forever on the ruins of destroyed communities and ethnically cleansed cities.

As efforts to partition and fragment, expel and segregate, under the rubric of a “peace process”, stutter and stall, we must not shy away from the difficult questions, and, in so doing, enable a more profound and ultimately more just and sustainable understanding of “sharing” to emerge.

Published first by The National.

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