Israel's real divide is in the inequality of Arab citizens - opinion

Many believe Israel is divided between Jews and Arabs or politics, but it isn't.

 NEW FRENCH olim arrive at Ben-Gurion Airport in 2017. The writer asks: ‘How is it legitimate for a Jewish new immigrant who just arrived from Ukraine or France to be more Israeli than a Palestinian Arab citizen who has been living on this land for centuries?’ (photo credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)
NEW FRENCH olim arrive at Ben-Gurion Airport in 2017. The writer asks: ‘How is it legitimate for a Jewish new immigrant who just arrived from Ukraine or France to be more Israeli than a Palestinian Arab citizen who has been living on this land for centuries?’
(photo credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)

We are a very divided society. Some think of the division as being between the right and the left. Some think of the division as being between religious and non-religious. For some, the division is between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, or the privileged and the underprivileged. 

Most Israelis believe that the dividing line is between Jews and Arabs. The dividing line in our societies is not between Jews and Arabs, not between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, not even between Jerusalemites and Tel Avivians – it is between those within all of these societies who believe in real equality for all citizens of Israel, and those who think that Jewish citizens of Israel should have superior status in this country above those who are not Jewish.

It is also a dividing line between those who support a historic reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, and those who are against recognizing any Palestinian narrative and rights to this land that we share.

I have a lot more in common with my Arab brothers and sisters who believe in equality and peace between Israelis and Palestinians than I will ever have with Itamar Ben-Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich and a majority of the Jewish Knesset members from most of the political parties in Israel.

I share nothing in common with right-wing religious fanatics, extremists and messianics except perhaps for some of our historic roots – I am the great-grandchild of an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who is buried in Tel Aviv’s Nahalat Yitzhak cemetery. I share nothing with those right-wing religious Israelis regarding our present situation and definitely nothing regarding our future. 

MK Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit political party speaks to Israeli students from the Blich school in Ramat Gan on September 6, 2022. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)MK Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit political party speaks to Israeli students from the Blich school in Ramat Gan on September 6, 2022. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

If these are the people in Israel who define Judaism, then we are members of two different religions. If these are the people who define Zionism, then I am anti-Zionist. These are the people in Israel who represent strengthening what they define as the Jewish axis of Israeli existence and weakening the democratic axis of Israel. These are the people who encourage discrimination against Israel’s Palestinian Arab citizens.

These are the people who call for annexing the West Bank but not granting full Israeli citizenship to the millions of Palestinians living there. These are the people who want to expel Palestinians from their homeland and are just planning and waiting for another Nakba. These people are my enemies. They endanger my future and the future of all Israelis Jews and Arabs who are on my side of the dividing line. 

Why cannot Israel be a nation for all its citizens?

IT IS DIFFICULT for me to understand how supporting Israel as the country of all of its citizens is something not normal and not desired. How can any country that defines itself as a democracy not be the country of all of its citizens? 

How is it legitimate for a Jewish new immigrant who just arrived from Ukraine or France to be more Israeli than a Palestinian Arab citizen who has been living on this land for centuries? How can any Israeli justify the automatic boycott of Arab political parties in Israel from being part of a government because they want Israel to be the country of all of its citizens? How can that be the legitimate implementation of democracy?

Let’s face it and let’s be honest – there are many laws in Israel that discriminate against 20% of Israel’s citizens. Discrimination on a national/ethnic/religious basis is not only legal in Israel; it is in fact the foundation on which this country is built. 

Where is “Israel will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its citizens irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture” as promised in Israel’s Declaration of Independence? Why do most of the Jewish political parties in Israel oppose making the Declaration of Independence a constitutional Basic Law? Doing that would make discrimination on a national/ethnic/religious basis illegal and that would negate their vision of the State of Israel. Why doesn’t Israel have a constitutional (Basic) law guaranteeing full equality for all of its citizens?

It was Ze’ev Jabotinsky the right-wing Zionist ideologist who wrote: “I am prepared to take an oath binding ourselves and our descendants that we shall never do anything contrary to the principle of equal rights, and that we shall never try to eject anyone” (November 1923). 

We have moved so far away from this principle that this sentence is not at all relevant to the State of Israel. Beyond the State of Israel, in the territories occupied by Israel in June 1967, the lack of rights for millions of Palestinians living under Israeli control is a complete aberration to the notion of a country that calls itself “the only democracy in the Middle East.”

In the binational, non-democratic, unequal reality that exists between the river and the sea, Israel has lost the right even to think of itself as a democracy. A majority of Jewish Israelis, or close to a majority of Jewish Israelis, also believe that it is acceptable for Israel to annex large parts of the West Bank and not to grant equal citizenship to the Palestinians living there. And they will continue to call Israel the only democracy in the Middle East.

Honestly, I don’t know what the solution is to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or if any solution is possible in the foreseeable future. I do know that the guarantee of full equal rights to all people living in this land is essential for the historic reconciliation that must eventually happen. Whether it is one state or two or three, or federation or confederation – the most important principle is that we all have the same rights.

We all carry the burden of the sad and tragic history of this conflict. That is our past and our present. It will only change once we all decide that we have to be on the side of those who believe in the equality of us all. It is this principle that defines us and will continue to define us.

The writer is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and her neighbors. He now directs The Holy Land Bond.