Defying racist legislation: New bill seeks to turn Israel into a true democracy

In the face of an onslaught of nationalist, anti-Arab laws, one lawmaker is proposing a simple alternative: transforming Israel into a state for all its citizens.

Thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel take part in the March of Return, in the lands of the destroyed village of Hadatha, near Tiberias, April 23, 2015. (photo: Omar Sameer/
Thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel take part in the March of Return, in the lands of the destroyed village of Hadatha, near Tiberias, April 23, 2015. (photo: Omar Sameer/

A few years ago, my colleague Noam Sheizaf conducted a fascinating interview with the executive director of Adalah, Hassan Jabareen, in which the former raised the idea that the rise of nationalist and anti-democratic legislation was actually a response to the Palestinian-Israeli public taking its citizenship more seriously — both its rights and the obligations that that citizenship entails. Considering the conduct of the government, as well as that of the Arab public in Israel over the past decade, it seems there is some truth to Sheizaf’s suggestion.

More than 10 years ago, between 2006 and 2007, Arab civil society organizations challenged the country’s Jewish majority by proposing a series of documents titled “The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel.” The documents did not merely demand formal recognition of rights for the Arab minority, but proposed the wholesale transformation of Israel from a nationalist ethnocracy into a democracy based on equal rights. These documents not only failed to stimulate the kind of public debate that was hoped for; over the last decade, they have been answered with a wave of discriminatory and racist legislation, including the Nakba Law, the Family Unification Law, and, perhaps most significantly, the Nation-State Law.

In light of the Nation-State Law, which is meant to formalize the status of Arabs as second-class citizens, Knesset Member Yousef Jabareen (Hadash, the Joint List) has proposed a new Basic Kaw in response: Israel, a Democratic, Egalitarian, and Multi-cultural State.

The parallels to the Nation-State Law are intentional: for every discriminatory clause, Jabareen, who has a PhD in law, has proposed democratic alternatives based on equal citizenship for Arabs and Jews. Whereas the goal of the Nation-State Law, according to the proposed bill, is “to defend the status of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, so as to define Israel as a Jewish and democratic state in the spirit of the principles in Israel’s declaration of independence,” the goal of Jabareen’s bill is “to define Israel as a democratic and multi-cultural state that guarantees complete civil, cultural, and national equality to all of its citizens.”

Joint List MK Yousef Jabareen seen in the Knesset. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Joint List MK Yousef Jabareen seen in the Knesset. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“Over the past several months discussion of the Nation-State Law, of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, has increased,” Jabareen said, explaining the background for his proposed legislation. “We strongly criticized this legislation primarily because it formalizes Jewish supremacy in a law meant to be part of the constitution. This is in addition to the damage the law does to the status of Arabic as an official language of the state.”

“When this nationalist discourse gathered strength,” Jabareen continued, “I thought it was important to propose an alternative, so that we won’t simply criticize the nationalist discourse but also present our values, which are defended and recognized in democratic constitutions all around the world. This process can also expose the unacceptable, racist aspects of the Nation-State bill, which is goes against the global trend of defending human rights and the rights of minorities. [This process] can also introduce into the discourse values such as shared citizenship, reciprocity, and mutual respect.”

Those are actually the ideas that undergird the four “Vision” documents.

I’m surprised that there are people in the Jewish public who have even heard of the documents. I was involved in their creation and wrote the legal portion that was published by the national committee of heads of Arab municipalities. The idea behind the proposed bill is to give legal expression to the central principles that appear in the document. Of course, the proposed bill does not cover all the points delineated in the documents since I emphasized the alternatives to the Nation-State Law. I intentionally dealt solely with the central principles — the legal discourse surrounding the status of the Arab minority and the character of the state. This also stems from the desire to gather the widest support possible both within the Arab public and among the democratic elements in the Jewish public, for whom I am sure the law will be both very relevant and challenging.

Which democratic elements in the Jewish public? Even Meretz wouldn’t support a bill like this. 

I am aware that those on the right will dismiss the bill even without reading it, although for many on the Jewish side, I think this bill will cause them to think about the balance they want between themselves and basic universal values. I want to hope that Meretz will be among them. I have shared with Meretz a draft of the bill, but I have not asked them at this stage to join, in order to give them time to mull things over.

MK Zehava Galon, from Meretz, speaks as Jewish and Arab protesters march during a prtoest against the occupation, calling the Israeli government to resign, in cental Tel Aviv, May 28, 2016. (photo: Oren Ziv/
Meretz Chair Zehava Galon speaks during a protest against the occupation, central Tel Aviv, May 28, 2016. (photo: Oren Ziv/

There is nothing in this bill that contradicts the ideas of equality, shared citizenship, and real democracy. There is not one clause that is un-democratic. This is a challenge for them. It’s very healthy to shake up the discourse and see agreements and disagreements — and overcome them.

In the past, the Palestinian public in Israel has raised the idea of cultural autonomy. You have also discussed it. How does this bill relate to that idea?

The idea of cultural autonomy is socio-political and related to the human rights approach. But on the legal plane it requires a concrete expression that will detail what the idea entails. My view of fundamental and transformational equality is based on three central principles: the first deals with the state as devoted to the entire public, and thus required to distribute resources in an equal and appropriate manner. This includes material resources, such as state funds and land; political resources, such as language, culture, and participation in decision-making processes; as well as symbolic resources – national symbols, immigration and naturalization. At this point, the proposed bill focuses on the distribution of these resources.

Palestinians participate in the March of Return, Galilee, May 2, 2017. (Maria Zreik/Activestills)
Palestinians participate in the March of Return, Galilee, May 2, 2017. (Maria Zreik/Activestills)

The second principle deals with the uniqueness of both national groups: on the internal level, each group must enjoy a degree of self-governance in education, religion, culture, media, and building plans. Here we encounter the idea of cultural autonomy, or the ability to develop and preserve a national identity and culture. This aspect is not as strongly emphasized in the bill and requires more conversations in Arab society to deepen the understanding of autonomy, which includes the rights of minorities within Arab society itself.

The third principle is the historical dimension. Historical rights of the Arab public related to the consequences of the Nakba, the issue of refugees and their right to return to their villages, the status of properties belonging to the Waqf, and the status of unrecognized villages. These are seen as open wounds by the Arab public, but which have not received legal expression in the framework of the bill. This requires a lot of conversation within Arab society and with the democratic elements of the Jewish public. In the meantime, this bill centers on a principled framework. If you disagree with this framework, we can talk about other things.

Can you provide some concrete examples? Dismantling the Jewish National Fund? Annulling the Law of Return?

The bill does not go into detail about the practical implications, but there is no doubt that one of its main implications will be to stipulate that any law that grants advantages to the Jewish public will not stand the test of equal citizenship, and will thus be disqualified. One example is the status of Jewish institutions that give a clear advantage to Jewish citizens regarding issues of land ownership, development, and planning. It will include all immigration arrangements, which exclusively serve the majority. The Jewish National Fund must be dismantled. There is no democratic state in the world today that has a body that controls 13 percent of its land, while openly declaring that it serves the majority alone. From a democratic perspective, this is unimaginable.

What you are talking about is a state for all its citizens, an idea most commonly associated with the Balad party.

Truthfully, it is a combination of language that is used by Hadash, Balad and in the new academic discourse put forth in the “Vision” documents, which were a combination of the platforms of all the Arab parties. This new bill will serve all the parties. The Joint List has a political platform that combines those of the individual parties — this bill is an expression of the Joint List’s position.

You propose changing the flag, the anthem, and state symbols so that they represent all of Israel’s citizens. Do you have any concrete ideas?

Many people ask me this question. I presented the basic principle — state symbols, including the flag and the anthem, are meant to represent the equal treatment of all citizens. This could be expressed in a symbol that all will speak to everyone — the olive tree, for instance, or other, more creative ideas that combine symbols from the Jewish and Arab Palestinian heritages. Personally, I prefer civil symbols, but the principle is what matters.

Israeli politics is making it harder and harder for an opposition, specifically a Palestinian opposition, to work from within the system. In these circumstances, how do you view the role of Palestinian members of Knesset?

A central aspect of our role is to expose the dangers of the Israeli government’s actions, whether they have to do with the state’s relationship to Arabs, the presence or absence of basic democratic standards — including freedom of expression and the protection of human rights — or the annexation of the occupied territories. Our role is to shine a light on these dangers in the Knesset, but also vis-a-vis the Israeli public, to the extent that is possible in the Hebrew media.

Haneen Zoabi is removed by Knesset security on February 8, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Haneen Zoabi is removed by Knesset security on February 8, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The same goes for the international arena, of course. As the chair of the Joint List International Affairs Committee, I can say that there has been a great deal of activity over the past months, including an appearance before the European Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights. As an Arab elected official, these appearances carry much weight. At nearly each one we are welcomed with much sympathy and understanding. The challenge is to try and channel this sympathy into pressure on Israeli policymakers.

In one of our meetings in the European Union, we read the official English translation of the Nation-State Law, which was provided by the Foreign Ministry. One of the European diplomats who read it in English said it reminded him of apartheid. This is a term we sometimes hesitate to use in diplomatic meetings, so as not to alienate our colleagues. But when we heard this from a European colleague, we understood just how disconnected the Israeli Right’s discourse is from that of the international community — from the basic values accepted around the world today, which include the protection of minority rights. In Israel we are moving in the exact opposite direction. We need to confront Israeli society with this fact.

This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.