Discussions about Israeli policy, Palestinian statehood, and just about any other issue involved in today’s Middle Eastern geopolitical landscape elicits a great deal of emotion. Some North Americans see a critique of Israeli state policy as an attack on not just the State of Israel, but also on Jews. Our previous post on Harper’s stance towards Israel fomented some heated discussion online, so we want to take an opportunity to provide a more pointed discussion on Israel.
Harper’s Conservative Government has adopted a common trope about the State of Israel. This includes, among other things, that it’s a bastion of “liberal democracy,” “freedom,” and a state that mirrors western (or in our case, Canadian) values.
Yet, since its inception in 1948, the State of Israel has developed and implemented a systemic policy of discrimination against the Palestinian, Druze, and Bedouin peoples living within Israel. In 1948, most urban and rural areas of the territory were predominantly Arab and Palestinian. According to Israeli historian Ilan Pappé, there were 600,000 Jews and 1.3 million Palestinians in the state and the Palestinians owned most of the cultivated land. Jews possessed less than 7 percent of the land. Given such a demographic and geographic imbalance, many Palestinians felt that any future plan that didn’t allow the majority of people in Palestine to decide upon its own future was immoral and unacceptable. But, in an attempt to appease Israel's first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, the United Nations permitted unlimited immigration for Jews and granted 55 percent of the land to the Jewish state. Shortly after the process of the Nakbah, or “catastrophe” and which some historians call an ethnic cleansing, Jewish forces added another 23 percent of the lands within its boundaries. By January 1950, Israel covered 80 percent of what was once Palestine.
All of this had severe consequences for non-Jews. Jewish authorities forcibly removed Palestinians from their homes and villages. 750,000 of them were expelled in the aftermath of Israel’s founding. They became refugees or citizens of Jordan or lived under military rule in the Egyptian Gaza Strip. Of the 1,000,000 Palestinians who lived in what became Israel, only 160,000 remained in 1949.
Historians like Pappé, Shlomo Sand, and Gudrun Krämer have pointed out the many contradictions inherent in the events of 1948. Israel’s Declaration of Independence, for instance, promised equal rights to all citizens, regardless of race or ethnicity. Yet, this quixotic ambition failed to materialize in practice. As Pappé writes, “not much thought had been given to the nature of the Arab-Jewish relationship in the new state; however, there were very clear ideas about the nature of the state itself. It was to be a liberal-democratic nation-state based on Western European models. But was it possible to maintain such a state with a national minority in it?”
For Ben-Gurion, the Palestinians represented a “fifth column,” invaders which should be supervised or at least controlled. Referring to the Palestinians, he wrote “our policy should be guided by the potential catastrophe that they can bring on us.” In this way, military rule was the optimal means by which Palestinians could be controlled. Between 1948 and 1950, some thirty villages were ethnically cleansed of Palestinians. Israeli forces drove out thousands of people from Majdal, on the southern plain of Gaza, but only “after being ghettoized behind barbed-wire in sections of their hometown for several months. They were shot at to impel the reluctant Egyptian forces to accept them into the already densely packed and refugee-swollen Gaza Strip.”
The key to accomplishing these objectives of “clearing” the land was a legal framework established by the state. The laws were based on the British Mandate’s Emergency Regulations. The first official regulation was the Laws and Administrative Ordinance No. 1, which granted unlimited power to the Minister of Defense. Some understood the use of military rule as a necessary means to achieve a smooth transition. Yaakov Shimshon Shapira, the legal advisor to the government and later Minister of Justice, admonished the state for using such harsh regulations against the Palestinians. In 1946, he wrote “The regime that was established in accordance with the emergency regulations has no parallel in any enlightened country. Even in Nazi Germany there were no such rules, and the actions of Maydanek and its like had been done out of violation of the written law. Only one form of regime resembles these conditions—the status of an occupied country.”
Other regulations followed. No. 109, for instance, allowed governors to expel populations, while No. 111 permitted arrests for an unlimited period without explanation or trial. Regulation No. 125, which became Israeli law in 1949, prevented mobility from designated areas, which was often used to expropriate property and land without being interrupted by civilians. Laws that grant the state absolute power over individual property ownership and freedom of movement are not the laws of a liberal democracy. In our liberal democracy in Canada, unless the War Measures Act is enacted or you are an Aboriginal person, the government cannot tell us to move our families and seize our homes. Many years of evolution led to a democratic state in which individual rights often supersede the collective rights of the state.
Although the geopolitical landscape has changed much since the 1950s, similar repressive regulations exist in Israel today. Beginning in 2007, for example, the law of loyalty was passed, which requires citizens to express full recognition of Israel as a Jewish and Zionist state, the banning of the commemoration of the Nakbah in public events or curricula, as well as the right of communities in Jewish suburbs to reject Palestinians as residents. Additionally, Jews have the legal right to discriminate against Palestinians in land and property ownership, known as the 2007 Jewish National Fund Law, by controlling who can purchase certain properties. Most employers also request that new hires complete military service in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), although many Israeli Arabs and Haredi Jews are ineligible for such service. Government support for tuition fees are also available to those citizens who have served in the military. Clearly, these are not regulations that mirror Canadian values, and ones which can scarcely be called “liberal-democratic.”
Ilan Pappé’s work, which has been used here extensively, highlights some of the more modern problems inherent in Israeli policy. His work also contradicts the Western justification for the support of Israel. Other historians, like Gudrun Krämer and Shlomo Sand, have put into question the historical claims to president-day Israel. Zionism, an ideology closely associated with Theodor Herzl, was developed in the late nineteenth century by largely disenfranchised and persecuted Jews from Eastern Europe, most of whom had never been to the Middle East. Many supporters of Zionism and Israel’s expansion claim that their right derives from scripture. However, as Krämer writes, “the land promised to Abraham was neither settled nor occupied by him or his kin, not even in part. Second, even if God’s ‘eternal covenant’ was made only with Isaac and his sons (Gen. 17:19 and 21; Deut. 1:7-8), the descendants of Abraham that Genesis 15:18-21 refers to also includes the sons of Ishmael, whom the Bible names as the ancestor of the ‘Ishmaelites’ (commonly identified as an Arab tribal confederacy), and whom the Muslim recognize as one of their prophets.”
The measures adopted by Israel’s ethnocracy, both past and present, isn’t to suggest that all Israelis are discriminatory. As early as the 1950s, some Israeli ministers voiced opposition to military rule. Many Israelis are moderate and hope, as we do, for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. However, there have been significant numbers of Israeli politicians who support the expansion of settlements in Eastern Jerusalem and take a hardline stance on Palestine.
Most commentators in Canada and the United States are simply unaware or choose to ignore the ongoing policy of discrimination. Canada’s current government certainly does. The religious right, or evangelical Christians, affirm Israel largely because if the Hebrew Bible is incorrect, then the New Testament lacks credibility. For their own confessional and religious comforts, they seek to establish continuity between the Old and New Testament.
What I find even more unpalatable is that voicing an opinion about egregious human rights abuses, systemic discrimination, and state-sanctioned violence is misconstrued as anti-Semitism, because a good portion of misinformed public can’t separate state-policy from religious conviction. In this way, an attack on Israeli policy is seen as an attack on Judaism. If any other country committed such reprehensible acts, boycotts and sanctioned would be encouraged. However, the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) Movement started by Palestinian advocacy groups in 2005 has been received with mixed-feelings—some critics call the campaign anti-Semitic. In Canada, Israeli Apartheid Week was established in association with the BDS Movement, but some multinational corporations in the country condemned the event, claiming that it, too, is anti-Semitic. Israel has also accused academics of being anti-Semitic. In May 2013, Stephen Hawking refused to participate in the Jerusalem-based Israeli Presidential Conference hosted by Israeli President Shimon Peres.
Conservative Foreign Minister John Baird has lauded Israel for being committed to liberal-democratic values, and has reiterated this statement as much as possible on the international stage. Yet, as Robert Paxton has claimed, the rhetoric of the Jewish “chosen people,” the insatiable objective to expand territory to which Israel believes it has the right, and the continued oppression faced by Palestinians, comes closest to the fascist and authoritarian ideologies the West fought so hard to oust in the 1940s. Opposition to Israeli policy today is not opposition to the continued survival of a strong, vibrant Jewish people, but rather the rejection of successive legislative acts passed by the state and their disastrous consequences on Israel. It might come as a surprise to policy makers, but examining history might help understand root causes for why extremism and contestation has grown over time, and how the international community might ensure peace in the Middle East for future generations.