Israel’s “Arab problem” (by Jerry Haber)

Zionism was intended to solve Europe’s “Jewish Problem,” the supposed inability of the Jews to assimilate and become equal citizens of the European states. In the late nineteenth century, which saw the rapid rise of nationalism and political anti-Semitism, some European Jews, especially in Russia and Poland, considered their main nationality to be Jewish (and were considered to be such in some of the multi-national empires), and even later, when the age of empire ended, they distinguished between their citizenship and their nationality in their own self-consciousness.

This model of separating nationality and citizenship, inherited from the multi-national empires of Europe, was adopted by the founders of Israel at a time when volkish nationalism had been discredited after World War II, although it did remain in some places, especially in ethnic communities with nationalist aspirations. In Germany, for example, one of the most ethnic of ethnic states originally, ethnicity has been made coextensive (at least in theory) with citizenship. When a Russian Jew today becomes a German citizen, she becomes part of the German people; her nationality on her passport is not Jewish or Russian but German. In some of the new emerging republics in the Former Soviet Union, by contrast, the distinction between ethnicity and citizenship is more pronounced, and in the New Europe we hear of legislation that wishes to promote that distinction because of fears of foreign immigration.

Some times it is said that there are two types of nationalism: one in which the state precedes and creates the nation (e.g., the USA), the other in which the nation precedes and is embodied within the state. This is a drastic oversimplification; in fact, each state constitutes its own type, and those types change over time, as in the case of Germany.

When the founders of Israel decided to create a state of the Jewish nation they ran into several problems: first, most of the world’s Jews had no desire to live in such a state, nor did they see it as their homeland; second, the founders did not have a clue as to how to determine membership in the Jewish people (Ben Gurion famously solicited opinions on the question, “Who is a Jew”). But the greatest problem followed from the exclusion of the citizens from membership in the nation-state because they were of the wrong nationality. This, perhaps, could have been finessed if nationality carried with it merely symbolic rather than practical ramifications. But the practical ramifications were embraced wholeheartedly, and an ideology of not sharing power and resources with the Arab minority – a minority formed by the effective expulsion of the majority of Palestine’s residents, arose. This ideology, it should be noted, preceded Arab resistance to the Zionist settlers; it was framed positively in the ethos of “Hebrew labor,” for example, in the pre-state period. It was always conceived as pro-Jewish rather than as anti-Arab. But with the growth of Arab nationalism, and with the jockeying for power and control in a post-colonial Palestine, an Arab community that had always been excluded by the Zionists was now a hostile community, as it understood the statist-designs of the Jewish settlers. Zionist prophecy had become self-fulfilling; an exclusivist ideology had created enemy outsiders, and even when they did not act as enemies they were suspected of harboring hatred in their hearts.

Liberal Zionists in Israel often view the period between 1948 and 1967 as a sort of Paradise Lost, a peaceful period that preceded the occupation and settlement of the West Bank and Gaza. Yet for the Arab citizens of Israel, it is the period in which the Zionists imposed their vision of what it means to be a “loyal minority with equal rights” on what was considered to be a potential fifth column. On the one hand, there were genuine attempts by the Zionists to educate and to raise the standard of living and welfare of the “Israeli Arabs,” following models of education that nineteenth century colonial societies had adopted, in which curricula and teachers were controlled by the state apparatus for the sake of the improvement and control of the minority. Unlike the ultra-orthodox or the religious Zionist sectors, no educational autonomy was given to the Palestinian Arabs for “security reasons” – the community had to be molded and carefully cultivated. Villages and clans were rewarded by political patronage if votes were delivered to the Zionist parties, mostly Mapai. Arab teachers who displayed signs of pan-Arabism or Palestinian nationalism were dismissed; attempts to divide and conquer the sector by fostering religious differences between Muslim and Christian and sowing ethnic divisions between Druze and Arabs were rife. Vast swaths of territory, private and public, were expropriated for new and existing Jewish settlement; no Jewish lands, to my knowledge, were ever transferred to Palestinian Israelis, and no new Palestinian settlements were built; on the contrary, close to 500 villages were destroyed.

Israelis were at once proud of the achievements of “Israeli Arabs” and were ashamed at the growing gaps between the communities. “See what we have done for the Arabs” and “Compare them with their brethren in Arab lands,” stock assertions in the paternalistic lexicon of colonialism, were very much part of Israel’s positive self-image. Very few people saw the widening gaps between the communities as resulting not from the minority status of the Palestinians but because the very definition and raison d’être of the state excluded Palestinians from power-sharing and a just allocation of resources. This was not mere institutional discrimination against a minority; this was foundational state discrimination against the remnants of a native population, ethnically cleansed in order to create an ethnic state with a strong Jewish majority.

In short, the Zionist founders created, unconsciously, an ethnic state that matched in many respects a nineteenth century volkish vision of the European ethnic state, one that mirrored their own feelings of national exclusion, despite their being Russian and Polish citizens. As they themselves believed that they could never be equal citizens and members in a nation to which they did not belong, they created a state in which non-Jews, when they had nationalist feelings at all, would not find their nationalism appreciated or represented, nor would any substitute nationalism be offered to them. The expectation is that they would either accept their fate or leave. As the Jews had been considered “alien intruders” by anti-Semitic Russian and Polish nationalists, so would the Palestinians be considered aliens by the “returning natives,” who would grant them individual citizenship rights as a sort of noblesse oblige, since the Jews “were commanded to show kindness to the strangers in their midst.”

It is often said that the discrimination against the Israeli Palestinian minority is exacerbated because of the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. Some point to the fact that during the Oslo period, the lot of Palestinian Israelis significantly improved. That was not on account of a peaceful atmosphere in the country, or expectations of an imminent peace, but because the Rabin government rested on the extra-coalitional support of the Arab and Jewish Arab political parties. It is not that the peace-process enabled that support but rather vice-versa; the support enabled the peace-process to continue. Indeed, the integration of the Palestinian Arabs into the political system, even as opposition supporters outside the ruling coalition, is often decried by the right because Israel is a Jewish state, and only Jews have the right to decide its fate. This widespread view among Israelis is the chief reason for the discrimination and marginalization of the Palestinian Arab – they are expected to be disloyal or at least not to feel a part of the State. “They should be grateful for what we have done for them and for the liberties they enjoy” And why? Because they are strangers in their own homeland.

Israel’s ‘Arab Problem’ was not the inevitable creation of Zionism, or even of the Jewish state idea. It was created by the specific kind of Jewish state that was founded in 1948, a state that embodied the exclusivist ethnic nationalist ethos of the founders, who passed and implemented ethnically discriminatory laws and policies in the early years of the state – and in recent days. The sort of Jewish state that Israel became is more discriminatory and marginalizing of its minority than most contemporary ethnic states. For example, whereas other ethnic-states accord preference in immigration to members of its majority ethnic group, Israel bestows automatic and immediate citizenship to anyone who is considered Jewish religiously or racially, provided that he or she was not an adherent of another religion. Again, unlike many other ethnic states, which accord preference in citizenship to native minorities, Israel’s Arab minority is not considered favored in immigration; on the contrary, there are emergency orders forbidding spouses of Israeli citizens to become naturalized, if the citizens are Palestinian Arab. Again, unlike other ethnic states that have procedures for nationalizing those who are not members of the majority ethnic group, Israel has no naturalization procedure besides the fiat of the minister of Interior. A minister of Interior from a rightwing or religious party ensures that there will be no naturalized citizens.

The specific Israeli version of Zionism, then, is largely responsible for creating the ‘Arab Problem’ and has left it with three main solutions within which there are endless variations: a) replacing the Jewish ethnic state with a liberal democratic state that will be neutral regarding its principal ethnic groups, though respecting and even fostering the groups’ cultural heritages and identities; b) modifying the Jewish ethnic state so as to empower the Palestinian minority through cultural autonomy and empowering it politically (at present it has virtually no political power); c) expelling the Palestinians forcibly and providing them wish a generous resettlement package.

I have argued for the first alternative in my Zionism without a Jewish Ethnic State; a more eloquent statement is in Bernard Avishai’s book, The Hebrew Republic. The second alternative has been argued in several documents produced several years ago by various Israeli Palestinian groups.

As for the “transfer” option, it has been advocated in recent years by Rabbi Meir Kahane, Rehavam Zeevi, Avigdor Lieberman, and, recently, by Daniel Gordis in his book Saving Israel; Gordis does not enthusiastically support this option, but implies fairly strongly that it may be the best way to go.

In subsequent posts I will discuss Gordis’s discussion of transfer as well as the various proposals to empower the Palestinian minority.


Jerry Haber blogs at The Magnes Zionist.

Read more from +972 Magazine on the reception committee bill.

Yossi Gurvitz, The Qa’adan Curse.

Ami Kaufman, Every Jewish community needs its nigger.

Click here to view photos taken of the riots in Um El Fahm.