Sunday, April 29, 2007

Israeli Arabs not a Strategic Threat to the State of Israel

Street scene in Akko (Acre), January 2006


The 'Azmi Bishara affair has unleashed a fury of discussion about Israel's Arab population and its relation to the state, among Jewish and Arab citizens of the country. There is no doubt that this latest eruption is linked to the trauma of last summer's war with Hizbullah, which still lingers and manifests itself in a sense of profound malaise and depression. Few Israeli Jews will forget the declarations by some Israeli Arabs interviewed on television, who declared their support for Hizbullah, even as Israeli Arab children were killed in katyusha attacks and the entire north of the country cowered in bunkers and "safe rooms."

The inability of the Israeli army to stop the rocket barrages fired at the country's civilian population was rightly perceived as a major failure that left many wondering what had gone wrong. It also set up perfect conditions for the scapegoating of ethnic minorities. Indeed, the counter-charge leveled at the state by Bishara has been that Israel is looking to pin the blame for the defeat on the Arabs - a rather fanciful and demagogic move by the now-exiled former MK. The truth is that the Israeli political echelon, public, and media did not blame Israeli Arabs for the katyusha attacks. However, more than half a year after the end of the war, suspicions toward Israel's Arab citizens surely have reached a high. Some the key post-war markers that have paved the way to this state of affairs include the release of the 'Future Vision" report, the appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as a minister in Olmert's government, and the various announcements by Shin Bet and government officials about the alleged dangers to the state posed by certain Israeli Arab organizations and leaders. The Shin Bet has since denied that Yuval Diskin made the remarks, to the effect that "Israeli Arabs constitute a strategic threat to the state" attributed to him. Nevertheless, long-standing fears that Israel's Arab citizens are a "fifth column" are likely to become increasingly respectable in Israeli public discourse - unless political leaders and intellectuals from the center and moderate right wing join the left in opposing these tendencies.

What could it possibly mean for Israeli Arabs to be a "strategic threat" to the state? This strikes me as an extremely serious and dangerous accusation to level at a whole group of the country's citizens. Those who make such charges are unlikely to elaborate on them, precisely because they would collapse if they became subject to serious discussion. Iranian nuclear weapons, Hizbullah's katyushas, and Syrian tanks and missiles, to name just a few examples, are strategic threats to the country. What all of those have in common is that a) they have the ability to cause significant harm first to Israel's citizens, and, as a result, to the country's economy, and ultimately to the viability of the state in its current borders, and b) they require the state to project military and political power beyond its boundaries. The same applies to Palestinian qassams and suicide bombers. The force used to combat these strategic threats, while subject to the constraints of international law, is not limited by the restrictions that apply to the use of force inside a liberal democratic state. The only way in which Israel's (diverse) Arab population could meet these conditions would be if the country's Arab citizens would en masse assist in a Syrian invasion, Hizbullah rocket barrages, or Palestinian suicide bombings. Clearly, contemplating such a scenario today is insane.

Yes, one might imagine individual Israeli Arabs transporting suicide bombers or spotting for Hizbullah - the former has indeed happened. But Jewish Israelis have also been convicted of assisting Palestinian terrorists. More importantly, preventing or prosecuting such acts does not require the use of force beyond the limits allowed by liberal democracy. Rather, they require focused police work that deals specifically with individual perpetrators.

So what are those who invoke the "strategic threat" posed by Israeli Arabs talking about? More often than not, those on the far right who employ these terms are most concerned not about real damage to the state and its citizens but about some change to their ideals on which the state ought to be based. In particular, there are fears that Israeli Arabs will demand some change to the Jewish character of the state - i.e., its overwhelmingly Jewish symbols and institutions, as well as such basic tenets of contemporary Zionism as the Law of Return, which guarantees citizenship to all Jews and their descendants wishing to immigrate to Israel. Those on the right are not the only ones who are concerned about changes to the culture and underlying vision of the country; indeed, there is nothing wrong with such concerns per se. It is an altogether different matter, however, to label those who advocate - within the confines of the country's laws - binationalism, autonomy, consociationalism, or whatever else, a "strategic threat." As soon as we start calling someone a strategic threat, we remove that person's or group's right to the protections offered to all citizens of the state in a liberal democracy.

At the heart of Carl Schmitt's critique of liberalism was his skepticism about parliamentary democracies' adherence to their many rules and procedures. In Die geistesgeschichtliche Lage des heutigen Parlamentarismus ([The Intellectual Historical Situation of Contemporary Parliamentarianism], 1923), often misleadingly translated as The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, Schmitt argued that crucial decisions about such issues as the security of the state, even in liberal democracies, do not result from deliberations in parliament but from the work of small cabinets and committees or from a head of state's executive powers. The implication, for Schmitt, was that in moments of crisis, a dictator acting in the "general will" (à la Rousseau) not only had more legitimacy (i.e., was more democratic) than a parliamentary democracy, but also that parliaments were incapable of dealing with crises that touched on the existence of the state.

I'm not conceding anything to Schmitt at this point, but it should be obvious to all concerned that such issues as the symbols of the state, the desirability of a written constitution, and even the Law of Return for Jews from the diaspora, can actually be dealt with much more effectively by a liberal democracy than by any other measures. These kinds of challenges will inevitably involve compromise. They require the formulation of comprehensive solutions that can satisfy many different interested parties. My point: these are the kinds of things that democracies are very good at; let's give democracy a chance.

19 comments:

Lisa said...

Amos, thank you for this intelligent and comprehensive article. I'll be sending the link around to a few people.

Nobody said...

So what are those who invoke the "strategic threat" posed by Israeli Arabs talking about? More often than not, those on the far right who employ these terms are most concerned not about real damage to the state and its citizens but about some change to their ideals on which the state ought to be based. In particular, there are fears that Israeli Arabs will demand some change to the Jewish character of the state - i.e., its overwhelmingly Jewish symbols and institutions, as well as such basic tenets of contemporary Zionism as the Law of Return, which guarantees citizenship to all Jews and their descendants wishing to immigrate to Israel. Those on the right are not the only ones who are concerned about changes to the culture and underlying vision of the country; indeed, there is nothing wrong with such concerns per se. It is an altogether different matter, however, to label those who advocate - within the confines of the country's laws - binationalism, autonomy, consociationalism, or whatever else, a "strategic threat." As soon as we start calling someone a strategic threat, we remove that person's or group's right to the protections offered to all citizens of the state in a liberal democracy.

you are wrong with this ... most often those, who say the israeli arabs are a strategic threat, just look around the region, noticing the elevated number of nations stuck at various stages of civil wars and sectarian conflicts

ariel said...

Of course I agree that labeling Israel's Arab population as a strategic threat is fundamentally anti-democratic and could be a prelude to some awful policies, such as "transfer." But, at the same time, the fact that Israel is a Jewish state (with Jewish defined both ethnically and religiously), results in the inevitable and official, if sometimes indirect, subordination of Israel's Arabs. In such a position, how can they advocate for equality and justice without seriously threatening some of the country's most basic principles ("i.e., its overwhelmingly Jewish symbols and institutions, as well as such basic tenets of contemporary Zionism as the Law of Return")? Though I of course agree with you, Amos, that a solution should be sought through the democratic process, I wonder if Israel's Jewish majority is ready to seriously consider the kinds of basic changes that any solution is likely to require.

These days it's not just Arabs who must cause Israel to question its status as a Jewish state. Over the past fifteen to twenty years tens if not hundreds of thousands of guest workers from countries such as Thailand, the Philippines, Nigeria, Romania, and Bulgaria have changed, quite literally, the face of Israeli society. Although they are supposed to stay only temporarily (which undoubtedly suits many of them quite fine), many have also sought to stay longer. They have had children born in Israel who only speak Hebrew. Recently there have been several prominent cases of deportations of such people. Ironically, the guest workers were first brought in to replace the Palestinian labor that was cutoff during the first Intifada. Now they, too, are subtly challenging the Jewish identity of the Israeli state.

Amos said...

Nobody,

You cite some legitimate concerns. It serves no one to be blind to some of the dangerous developments in the region. However, is this really what's driving the people in the Mafdal, for example? Do you think they have a realist vision of the situation?

Anonymous said...

...declarations by some Israeli Arabs interviewed on television, who declared their support for Hizbullah

Publicly expressing support for the enemy is treason.

These people should have been shot.

Amos said...

Yes, maybe in a totalitarian dictatorship they would have been charged with treason and then executed.

Amos said...

Ariel,

What kinds of "basic changes" and solutions do you have in mind?

Let me clarify my own position below (without ascribing to you those positions that I am arguing against).

I believe that all Israeli citizens have the right to critique and work toward changing the institutions and ideas behind the state - provided that they use legal and democratic means. However, I don't think that Israel must necessarily change its national anthem or flag in order for Israel's Arab citizens to achieve "equality and justice."

Liberal democracies guarantee certain basic rights to their citizens - such as equality before the law, freedom of thought and expression, and the right to vote. These are not the kinds of rights that can be denied to a minority by a majority.

I don't believe, however, that all citizens of a country necessarily have a "right" to see themselves represented exactly as they wish in what one might call the "cultural realm" of the state. So, national symbols or school curricula, for example, are the kinds of things that may be legislated by a majority; they will inevitably not satisfy everyone, and they may indeed cause consternation among a minority of the population.

The fact is that Israel has a Jewish majority, and until now, a majority of its citizens prefer the national anthem as it is (to cite just one example). It is incumbent upon those who make up the minority (they include individuals who are Jewish, Muslim, Christian, atheist, Confucian, Buddhist, or whatever else) to persuade their fellow citizens to vote for some kind of change - but they may never succeed.

Calling this "injustice" is a perversion of the term. If a group of Swiss Jews were to argue that the country's flag discriminates against them, would anyone believe that their case has merit?

Israeli Arabs today enjoy the same legal rights as all other citizens of the country. The main causes of inequality and, perhaps, injustice are not legal but structural.

Furthermore, most of the discrimination that Arab Israelis face is caused by subtle (or not so subtle) racist attitudes, and aggravated by the security situation; the latter also feeds into some of the structural problems I alluded to earlier (e.g., lack of access to certain government jobs for security reasons).

As Americans know all too well, the struggle against discrimination and structural inequality is long and difficult. Israeli society still has a long way to go.

I don't think that the solution, however, is to impose perfect "binationalism" on Israel - as much as some of our enlightened colleagues in Europe and in the American academy might like to do this.

I'll rephrase the last sentence in my post: let's allow liberal democracy to do its work.

Phil said...

Amos,

Without invoking the departmental ire against the work of Gary Gerstle, he makes the point (at the end of American Crucible) that all nations have to make trade offs between a state that accepts everyone, but lacks a strong national ethos, one that strengthens itself by marking others as outside its boundaries.

Israel is certainly not the first country to face this dilemma of nationhood, and certainly won't be the last. In times of upheaval, like last summer's war, the worst troubles with the nation-state (in general, not specifically Israel), come to the surface. It is easier during these times to demonize a minority group, as a way of reassuring the majority.

Ultimately I have to believe that this rhetoric of 'fifth columns' will subside with time. I agree though with Ariel that the biggest issue facing all of Israel's minority populations (be they ethnic or religious) will be how the nation incorporates them. The question is not whether minority groups possess rights (they do), or can question national symbols, like your Swiss flag example, but whether they are granted full citizenship and acceptance into the nation, or a provisional form of citizenship, predicated on legal, but not popular acceptance.
The solution to this problem is not something that a liberal democracy (or anyone other system for that matter) can automatically or easily produce…

Anonymous said...

Amos,

In every Western County treason until quite recently has never been acceptable. These laws are still on the books. Historically there has been recognized a difference between free speech and incendiary speech. There has been a recognition that free speech doesn't protect treasonous speech.

If a country isn't allowed to protect itself against those who will act in a treasonous matter against it, the destruction of the country is soon at hand.

Anonymous said...

During World War II, German minority organizations in Poland and Czechoslovakia formed the Selbstschutz, which actively helped the Third Reich in conquering those nations and engaged in atrocities.

So, Fifth Columns have harmed countries in the past.

Amos said...

There has been a recognition that free speech doesn't protect treasonous speech.

There are laws against treason, but people in Israel as well as in most western countries are not summarily executed for it.

I am not sure what you meant by "treasonous speech." If you mean communication with an enemy country, with the purpose of assisting it in wartime, then you are certainly right that this is punishable. But this amounts to more than treasonous speech; it is a treasonous act - which is what the law is concerned with.

Saying nasty things about one's own country and positive ones about the enemy is not treason. Of course, in the particular case that we were talking about - it's morally reprehensible and worthy of scorn and disgust. But the people who made those remarks did not commit treason.

As for the distinction between free speech and incendiary speech - I am for it. The U.S. Constitution slightly less so. In any case, you know that if there were grounds for charging those people with incitement, the Israeli prosecutors would have been all over it.

So, Fifth Columns have harmed countries in the past.

The example of the Sudetendeutsche in inter-war Czechoslovakia is on my mind quite a bit. But I did not dispute that there are "fifth columns," which, by definition, seek to harm the countries in which they live. I was disputing the assertion that Arab Israelis represent such a fifth column. Is this what you were saying, Anonymous 7:25? My apologies if I have misconstrued you; I didn't quite understand your comment.

Thanks for reading.

Noah said...

Just my two cents with regard to Amos's previous comment, which included this statement:

"Israeli Arabs today enjoy the same legal rights as all other citizens of the country. The main causes of inequality and, perhaps, injustice are not legal but structural."

An amendment to the Citizenship Law--passed in 2002 for emergency security purposes yet upheld last May by Israel's highest court--prohibits the great majority of those Israeli Arabs (or Palestinian Arabs in Israel, as many seem to prefer being called) who decide to marry someone living in Gaza or the West Bank from bringing their spouses to live in Israel with them. This is far from legal equality. Ariel Sharon himself admitted that the amendment was more about protecting the existence of a Jewish majority than about security concerns, i.e., not about Fifth Columns, but rather "basic principles." The most basic, perhaps.

I'm afraid that if push comes to shove and a Jewish majority is endangered in the future, as it likely will be, given demographic trends, then the Jewish leaders of Israel will have little choice but to further discriminate, legally, against Arabs in Israel in order to uphold what has long been one of the most basic principles of political Zionism - that is, the establishment/maintenance of a Jewish majority in Palestine. Maybe this is close to what Ariel had in mind with his comment?

Amos said...

Noah,

Technically, the law prohibits both Jews and Arabs from marrying non-Israeli residents of Gaza and the West Bank.

My thinking has changed a bit since we last discussed this issue. I'm really not convinced that this law was about demographic concerns. Yes, preserving a Jewish majority is very important to most Israeli Jews and politicians. But the number of people who would enter the country through such marriages is negligible. I see it as a security measure that arose during the very difficult period of the intifadah, and will one day be struck down.

Any state has a right to deny citizenship to hopeful applicants who are deemed a security risk - even when they are (or want to become) the spouses of its citizens. I certainly don't think you've discovered the smoking gun that proves rampant legal inequality in Israel.

One of the most important legal institutions linked to the aim of preserving a Jewish majority in Israel (though, of course, an equally important aspect of it is providing Jews with a safe-haven from persecution) is the law of return. Do you think that this law discriminates against Arab Israelis?

In any case, what kinds of "basic changes," if any, are you proposing? Do you think that Israel should no longer aim to preserve a Jewish majority in the state?

Also, I think you are wrong about the demographic trends in Israel leading inexorably to an Arab majority.

Anonymous said...

Arab Israelis could represent such a fifth column. And especially during wartime saying you want the enemy of your country to win, especially when you are being interviewed for a television program that will go out to a wide audience is indeed treasonous speech and needs to be punished in some way.

Noah said...

Amos:

As far as I understand it, the amendment doesn't prohibit MARRIAGE between Israelis and Palestinians residing in the occupied territories, but it does prohibit those Palestinians who are already married to Israeli citizens from attaining Israeli citizenship themselves. The fact that the law technically applies to both Israeli Jews and Arabs alike makes no difference here. Are you telling me that non-Jewish residents of the West Bank are lining up to apply for citizenship in Israel so that they can live with their Jewish spouses in Tel Aviv? Only Israeli Arabs / Palestinian Arabs in Israel are affected by this.

I never meant to suggest that legal inequality was "rampant"; my comment was simply a correction to your claim that equal treatment under the law had been achieved. Whether the amendment was originally passed for demographic or security concerns (and here we are speculating), whether we think it will be struck down one day in the future or not (again speculating), there is no doubt in my mind that this is legalized discrimination taking place today. Godwilling this will change soon.

As far as "basic changes" and preserving a Jewish majority, the Law of Return is obviously the crux of the issue. Now that you ask, of course I think that that law discriminates against Arab Israelis. It discriminates against all non-Jews. The question is not whether it discriminates, but whether or not this type of discrimination is warranted by the historical experience of the Jews and the current situation in the Middle East.

There is also, of course, a significant difference between the type of negative discrimination in the Law of return (discrimination by omission; "sorry, you're not Jewish") and positive discrimination in the Citizenship Law (discrimination by prohibition; "sorry, you're Palestinian").

I won't say whether I think Jews should aim to preserve their majority. It doesn't matter what I think, anyway. Jews in Israel cherish their majority, with good reason.

Last point on demographic trends: I wouldn't say inexorable either. How about: very possible?

Amos said...

Noah,

That's what I meant. The law prevents the spouses of both Israeli Jews and Arabs from acquiring Israeli citizenship, if they live in the West Bank or Gaza. Yes, the law disproportionately affects Israeli Arabs, though of course there are also a very small number of cases of Israeli Jews wanting to marry Palestinians.

I was above all concerned with your original claim that Israel "is far from legal equality." The implication of this seemed to me that Israeli Arabs still had not achieved legal equality. This law was formulated basically under wartime conditions (in which there was legitimate concern about people with aims to commit terrorist attacks entering the country). It is not something that is somehow intrinsic to the political essence of the state. It's not evidence of deeply ingrained legal inequality based on a demographic agenda. It is, rather, more comparable to the kinds of restrictions on civil liberties that even liberal democracies put up with during times of crisis.

My original point was that the emphasis in fighting injustice and inequality should be on larger structural factors as well as the attitudes of individuals. I stand by my claim that there is formal legal equality between Israeli Jews and Arabs in the state of Israel today.

Anonymous said...

Those Israel Arabs who express their support of Hizbullah should lose citizenship and be deported. Really they should be shot but at the very least they should be exiled from Israel

Amos said...

Phil,

In response to your assertion that:

The question is not whether minority groups possess rights (they do), or can question national symbols, like your Swiss flag example, but whether they are granted full citizenship and acceptance into the nation, or a provisional form of citizenship, predicated on legal, but not popular acceptance.

What do you do if people don't want "acceptance into the nation"? Isn't it better just to stick to legal rights?

There are Israeli Arabs who oppose the "Israelification" of the Arab minority. I think this is somewhat hypocritical at times, but I see this as one of the rights of people in a liberal democracy. Not everyone has to be the same. I may live in a country and hate all of its leaders and national symbols. As long as I do not violate the law, I should be free to do this. Of course, I also should not exactly expect people to hug me on the street. Furthermore, if the state wishes, it can certainly try to persuade me otherwise, using any number of "ideological state apparatuses" at its disposal - such as the education system. But if, at the end of the day, I remain entirely alienated from it, there is nothing a liberal democracy can do to coerce me into entering the fellowship of citizens.

Anonymous said...

As long as I do not violate the law, I should be free to do this.

Publicly declaring support for the enemies of your nation or publicly declaring that you want to see the military of your country lose should violate the law as it gives aid and comfort to the enemy.