The Ongoing Fantasy of Israeli Democracy Before 1967

by Shira Robinson | published February 25, 2014 - 5:31pm

The past week has a witnessed a flurry of debate in the American and Israeli media over the growing call to boycott companies and institutions that profit from or are otherwise complicit in the ongoing 47-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In addition to covering proposed legislation in New York and Maryland that would punish members of academic associations which endorse academic boycotts of the state, the New York Times and Washington Post have published op-eds and invited readers to weigh in on whether a boycott would be an effective and/or moral tool of political action.

The debate in Israel has the potential to carry more immediate consequence. On February 16, Israel’s High Court held a second hearing for opponents and proponents of a new law that criminalizes boycott calls of any kind by Israeli citizens (Arab or Jewish). On February 23, Ha’aretz reported the start of a campaign to draft a new law that would “enshrine the concept of Israel as a Jewish state in one of the country’s Basic Laws.”

This campaign is of course a rhetorical ploy, cynical and redundant at best. To cite just two of the most prominent examples, everyone in Israel knows that the state’s Palestinian citizens remain formally barred from purchasing over 93 percent of the land in the country, and that since 2003 they have been prohibited from living in Israel with a spouse if he or she hails from the Occupied Territories (or any “enemy state”). What is more remarkable about the campaign, though, is the fact that institutionalized discrimination against “non-Jews” in Israel was written into the very first Basic Law of the land. The Law of Return, which the Knesset passed in July 1950, granted legal residency status and de facto citizenship to all Jews in the world -- both those already living in the nascent state and those who might wish to immigrate to it in the future. As my new book documents, it was only the passage of the “Return to Zion” law, as it was first called, that broke the years-long deadlock over the country’s draft Citizenship Law. Unlike the 18 prior drafts of that law brought to Prime Minister David Ben Gurion for consideration starting in 1949, the “Return” bill was the first to drive an explicit legal wedge between those people granted effective entitlement to the state (Jewish immigrants) and those who would eventually be offered a handful of rights within it (the minority of native Palestinian Arabs who managed to remain inside Israeli territory after 1948). Critically, this racial distinction in the Law of Return (and “racial” is an adjective I do not use lightly) enabled the false universality of the state’s 1952 Citizenship Law.

I mention this history because I continue to be amazed by the disingenuousness -- or willfully ignorant wishful thinking -- of arguments made by liberal Zionist luminaries in favor of an economic boycott targeting companies that operate in the West Bank and Golan Heights. Earlier this week, for example, a former Israeli education minister, Yossi Sarid, pleaded passionately for a boycott to “remove the gangrene and save the healthy tissue” of Israel’s pre-1967 democracy. From his perch in New York, Ha’aretz columnist Peter Beinart waxed paternalistic about the desire of Palestinians for a state of their own that will ultimately trump their concerns about the immorality of “the very idea of a state that offers special representation to Jews.” (Since the boycott will hasten the establishment of two states, he reasons, supporters of a Jewish state should embrace the project in order to bring about a withdrawal to the Green Line before it’s too late.) Beyond the more than 4 million Palestinian refugees outside the Occupied Territories still denied the right to return to their homes, Beinart seems to be forgetting the 20 percent of Israel’s electorate that is increasingly demanding to end this injustice.

Whatever one’s vision of an end to the conflict, wishing these problems -- and people -- away will not make them disappear. It’s time for an honest reckoning with the past.

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