"Loyalty to petrified opinion never broke a chain or freed a human soul." - Mark Twain

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Adalah's battle will get harder

In the battle against racist Israeli laws, there is no substitute for the website of Adalah: Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. So it's with huge respect and deep admiration for this extraordinary centre that I refer anyone to its work. Yet also, the following caveat: while supporting Adalah and others to fight this law is courageous, principled and necessary, we should be careful not to slip into a major error, which is to believe Israel's democracy has just gone off on some alarming side track, and can be got back on track by a little steering -- defeating this or that offensive law or practice. This error is related to a deeper one: the mistaken idea that racism in Israel is getting worse.

We see this error in alarmed denunciations of the Citizenship Law as though it's a change of some kind, and generally in those anxious warnings that "right-wing tendencies" springing up under Netanyahu are hijacking the country away from its liberal and tolerant ethos. If we take a frank look at Israeli practices toward Arabs since 1948, what strikes us is how little has changed. True, Arabs inside Israel got citizenship and the vote and much more liberty after 1967. But until recently, their situation remained crushed or delimited in every sense: geographic, political, economic, social. A subtle system of Israeli laws, linked to the Law of Return, ensured Jewish citizens' privileges regarding land, jobs, education, culture and religion, while Arab dissent (among a population still traumatized by the Nakba) was effectively silenced by other laws but also by inculcating plain fear, through a nefarious system of patronage, spies, bribes and intimidation.

Remembering this history, also recounted in books by Nadim Rouhana, Ian Lustick, Ilan PappeBen White and others, we can better understand why these "new" reactionary laws are springing up now. The old system of domination is taking some heavy legal and moral thumps, as Arab citizens (including Adalah staff) are not only getting uppity but launching serious legal challenges against the system. As these challenges force open statements by the High Court and other official voices endorsing discrimination, they expose the ugly truth behind of Israel's once-glossy moral image to domestic and international view. This exposure threatens the old system's ability to exclude, marginalise and silence Arab citizens as firmly as before. So new laws are being hastily drafted to shut those challenges down.

What's really important to grasp about these "new" laws is that the racism they codify was always there in the old laws. It was just more genteel. Israel's public image (to its own Jewish citizens, not least) had the superficial gentility of an Old South of the US or a 1950s white South Africa: whites and darkies could get along as long as darkies were good darkies and kept their place -- over there. It was only when the darkies picked up some signs and marched toward the white part of town demanding better housing, or simply showed up at Town Hall demanding to vote, that the facade of happy hierarchy cracked, exposing its reeking underbelly, and the racial order was threatened. And then it wasn't more than hours before the white hoods and flaming torches came out and horses galloped through the local black township to terrorize the darkies back indoors and sent the message again that they had better keep their heads down. Oh, and maybe one or two "troublemakers" get strung up, just to make the point stick: arresting Ameer Makhoul, for example.

But this time, for Israel as for all those racist orders before it, the old methods are not going to work. Once the fear quotient drops below a crucial level, it's going down for good. At that stage, trying to bury the upstarts by the old familiar methods, an Old South or an Israel or an apartheid South Africa only starts digging its own grave. That's what we're seeing now: gravedigging, with the dirt flying ever faster and higher off Israeli shovels from an ever-deeper hole, as the pressure on Israel gets worse. And so the Israeli government rails about Adalah and everyone else "delegitimizing" Israel, without realizing that the racial order regarding Jewish statehood was always illegitimate and it is Israel that is delegitimizing itself, by proving the critics right and exposing the real character of its racism to the world. Israel's predicament now is emerging just as Gandhi foretold: once one forces genteel racism to become crude and crass racism, old language and symbols that once seemed vaguely admissible are suddenly revealed as morally repulsive. "Demographic threat" indeed -- in this day and age!

Yet this is what people too often miss. Contrary to still-hopeful but increasingly anxious beliefs by some, Israel is not a proper democracy with some regrettable (and recently worse) anti-democratic tendencies. Yes, it walks and quacks a bit like a democracy. But it's a democracy like apartheid South Africa or White Australia were democracies: a democracy for one group. Yes, Jews compete and argue and form parties and vote for them just as people do in any democratic system. This competition is genuine. Arab citizens can go through the same motions, but for them it is not the same. What makes Israel not a democracy is that "non-Jews" (that infamous term of erasure), even if they can vote, can only vote for a system that ensures Jewish ethnic supremacy. Giving citizens the vote, but not allowing them to vote for their own equal rights, is like giving slaves the right to vote -- but not to vote against slavery.For we must never forget that, unlike in the US, where the Constitution provides for equal rights and is a tool in campaigns for it, Israel's Basic Law makes it illegal to form a political party that even calls for equal rights -- that is, for Israel not to be a "Jewish state" but simply a state of all its citizens.This is why Israel's hysterical reactions now are much more like the reactions of South Africa when the anti-apartheid movement got hot. One can't just reform a system whose very foundations have to go, and Israeli government people know it, just as apartheid South African government people knew it. They know it better than some human rights activists know it.

Recognizing that Israel is only looking worse, not getting worse, we should expect that Israel will not cave into the collapse of its cherished racial order without a fight. The South African apartheid regime got seriously vicious when its white adherents felt their world was on the skids and faced the dreadful prospect of living side-by-side with them -- blacks. So my prediction is that, unfortunately, pressures on Adalah and its supporters and its human-rights activist kindred will get worse in coming months and years, not better, as Jewish statehood fights for survival. The good news is that Adalah, like its predecessors who leaned into similar storms in South Africa and Jim Crow South, will come out shining in the end, when the old system is ashes and no one wants to admit ever having endorsed it.

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