October 27, 2014

Commentary | February 2, 2009
Hyde Park: Forgiving a racist state
Zionism and Israel’s Arab ghettos
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I have spent much of my political energy since I began high school fighting for the civil and human rights of Palestinians. Yet I feel drastically misrepresented when anyone refers to me or my views as “pro-Palestine” or “anti-Israel,” as though I favour one of the two peoples above the other. I am deeply committed to standing in solidarity with both Israelis and Palestinians who have suffered from this conflict, which seems to have gotten incrementally worse, more violent, more heartbreaking and more insurmountable with each passing year since it began. But insofar as I believe in democracy and racial equality, I am an anti-Zionist.

The irony is that I often share more common ground with hard-line Zionists than North America’s peculiar brand of “liberal Zionists,” who tend to assert that Israel, though a Jewish state, manages to evade the travesty of being a racist state. And, like many right-wing Zionists, I don’t believe that Israel’s annexation of the remainder of Mandate Palestine in 1967 was any less justified than the displacement of 750,000 Palestinians from their homes – often at gunpoint – in 1948.

These are notions of Israel’s identity that North Americans are much more uncomfortable with than most Jewish Israelis. When I would raise the point in my protracted and agonising arguments with them that every racist state in history has relied on a certain amount of violence – and has generally incurred violent backlashes in turn – their responses were less a rebuke than an affirmation: that is why we need to win, they would say.

Beyond the obvious asymmetries in its immigration policy – the fact that a Canadian-born Jew like myself is actively encouraged to “make aliyah” whilst millions of Palestinian refugees are denied the right to return to their ancestral lands – Israel severely enforces the doctrine of racial hegemony within its own pre-1967 borders.

In legal spheres, the debate is less about whether Israel is a racist state than about whether it has that right to be so. One of the most important revelations of my time in Israel-Palestine concerned the plight of Israeli Arabs, who constitute 20 per cent of Israeli citizens, and pay their taxes like everyone else, yet are treated as second-class citizens by the state. It bears noting that higher birth rates amongst this minority constitute what is commonly referred to as the “demographic threat” in Israeli politics.

The most marginalized group among Israeli Arabs are the 160,000 Bedouin living in the Negev desert – a territory which, like the West Bank, has seen segregation carried out to such an extent that walls have been erected around Jewish communities while Arab homes are arbitrarily deemed illegal and are subject to frequent demolition. Effectively, the Negev Bedouin are living under occupation too.

Thirty-six of their communities have been denied recognition by the state for years if not decades, and are thus bereft of running water, electricity, and decent schools, while recognized Arab communities are granted control over a paltry three per cent of the territory inside Israel proper. With little access to educational or land-based resources, these communities are among Israel’s poorest. Numerous reports – including some, like the Or and Goldberg Commissions, that were authorized by the Israeli government itself – have concluded that Arab-Israelis’ marginalization is a direct result of their treatment by the state.

There are not many of us who favour a one-state solution, but as the prospect of the two-state dwindles, support for an equal and unified Israeli-Palestinian state has timorously begun to grow on both sides of the Green Line. My beef is not with the people of Israel but with the ideology of their state. Tying one’s identity to the sustenance of Israel’s Jewish ethnocracy is convenient for some because it gives them an opportunity to impugn anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism. But being half-Israeli myself, I still have virtually no understanding of how the concept of Jewish hegemony can be reconciled with that of racial equality. Segregation is not an issue that is exclusive to the West Bank, and there will come a time when Israel will have to decide whether it would rather be a nation of equitable democratic exchange or continue down its current path of systematic racial exclusivity and ghettoisation.

Niko Block is a U1 Economics student and a Daily staffer. Write him at niko.block@mail.mcgill.ca.

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