The Day the ‘Jewish State Bill’ would take effect…

The day when the so-called ‘Jewish State’ bill—the basic law defining Israel as the ‘nation-state of the Jewish people’—takes effect will be day one of the countdown towards the end of the Israeli apartheid regime. This will not be the day in which  apartheid is first practiced in Israel, but rather the day in which it is institutionalized. It will be the day in which consciousness finally catches up with reality, and, as we know, political action begins when people become aware of their situation. True, this would not be apartheid as practiced in Afrikaner South Africa, given that separation is not explicitly racial, that Jews are not a minority in Israel and that separation (mainly within Israel) is not absolute. Still, the guiding principle is the same: Separation combined with ethnic supremacy and anchored in both the state’s basic legal frameworks well as in its dominant value system.

I am no revolutionary, nor do I believe that the worse things get, the more imminent the revolution becomes. Nor am I arguing that this law’s passage is a good thing– on the contrary: I hope that it does not pass. But if it does, we need to understand this law not as a sudden disaster but as part of a longer process, and at the same time, to comprehend what its adoption at this moment actually means.

The new law is both new and old. In a certain sense it constitutes both the moment of apartheid’s inauguration as well as of the beginning of its demise. It is old news of sorts, for separation has always been a guiding principle since the beginnings of the Zionist project. Separate settlements (agrarian rather than urban), a separate economy (as much as possible), separate institutions… The essence of this project was and remains separation and segregation. The Jewish “Yishuv” (that is, those Jewish residents of pre-1948 Palestine who were organized within the network of Zionist institutions) was based on separation. Without the principle of separation (and unfortunately – without the democratic principle as well), there would have been no need for the 1948 expulsion of Arabs. If Ben Gurion had merely wanted a Jewish state (but not a democratic one), he would have let the Arabs stay in the country without granting them voting rights (although this might have been an obstacle for international recognition of Israel). Had he simply wanted a democratic state, he would have let the Arabs stay and granted them the right to vote as well as full and equal collective rights (but then, the state would not have been Jewish).

Separation was also the guiding principle of the military rule under which Palestinian citizens in Israel lived for twenty years after 1948 (and in fact much longer – most Jewish Israelis have forgotten that it ever existed). And separation is at the heart of the entire project of colonization and expansion – both inside Israel (where are its borders, anyway?) and in the Occupied Territories – by one ethno-national group at the expense of another. So, separation has been there all along, but not all forms of separation constitute apartheid.

So, is there nothing new? The actual legislation of this ‘basic law’ is certainly new and meaningful. It signifies that the old tools that had been used to maintain ethnic separation are no longer efficient enough; now the legal system must be harnessed – at the level of passing basic laws – to institutionalize separation. Countless practices of separation were at work for dozens of years, working almost symbiotically, with no need to explicitly name the guiding principle. But seventy years since the founding of the State of Israel and after fifty years of military occupation and settlement – explicit legislation now seems to be necessary.

This need to institutionalize separation has arisen because there are now two groups whose presence on the ground has recently become clearer and more prominent. The first group is the Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the second –Jewish settlers in the Occupied Territories: the settlers “on the outside” and the indigenous “on the inside.”

The Palestinian citizens of Israel lived for decades on the margins of the Israeli political system, which thus tolerated their presence with no need for institutionalized separation. However, their presence in parliament, as well as in political and in economic life, has grown more pronounced in the past twenty years. They have also managed to deploy the law in their struggle (with some important but very limited gains).In response, the Jewish state has had to protect itself from the implications of the concept of Israeli citizenship; after all, there is no Israeli citizenship without Israel’s Palestinian citizens. Now, the Jewish character of the state is no longer taken for granted, no longer an a-priori and seemingly natural phenomenon.

On the other hand, Jewish settlers are ever-more present in occupied Palestinian space. Their presence is no longer marginal, temporary or merely military. Their physical presence in the Occupied Territories requires a clear system of separation. Alongside their physical presence in the occupied territories, they are also a powerful force in government and politics –arguably the strongest organized lobby in Israel. Thus, they force the political system to produce a conceptualization of their presence. More specifically, their permanence requires a conceptualization of their continued presence in terms of a formal regime of separation. The Jewish State Bill links these two needs – the two kinds of separation – within a single law. This is what makes it different from any previous piece of legislation on the issue. The issue of ‘a Jewish and democratic state’ and the question of ‘Greater Israel’ become two sides of the same coin.

In South Africa it took the settlers some 200 years to establish what was eventually called the “apartheid regime” in 1948 (the date is a mere historical coincidence). Dutch and English settlement began as early as the 17th century; for two centuries there was no lack of discriminatory laws establishing separation between the “races”. But apartheid as a comprehensive and institutionalized regime was instated only in 1948. Why so late? Because during the two preceding decades, millions of blacks rushed to the cities to live, work and at times even to make friends with white South Africans. Only then did the need arise for laws that uphold the guiding principle of separation and that formalize the philosophy of domination as a way of life.

However, to understand the process we should remember that the first separation rules in South Africa were instated by the Dutch church exactly one hundred years earlier. Why there? It is because churches were the first space that blacks and whites shared (at least partially) and because every human being (supposedly) possesses a soul and is equal before God (think of the role of churches during the black struggle for civil rights in the US). This was the reason for enforcing separation there: Formal regulation was required precisely in places that held out a certain promise of equality and of mixing among the “races”. Later, some of the churches played a role in toppling the very regime they had taken part in institutionalizing.

Aspects of the ‘Jewish State’ bill extend beyond the borders of the State of Israel (where exactly is this state located?). The law speaks of the State of Israel without specifying its borders and claims that ‘the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people’, and that the Land of Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish People and the place where the State of Israel has been established. Taken together, these statements mean that there is no room for another people to exercise its right to self-determination not just in the State of Israel, but in the entire ‘Land of Israel.’ In other words, there can be no national minority inside the State of Israel, and at the same time, there can be no Palestinian people entitled to national rights in the Occupied Territories either.

Is there anything new here? Yes and no. No, because Zionists of all orientations traditionally spoke rather vaguely of “the Land of Israel” without specifying its borders or even explicitly stating whether their goal is to establish a state. As an idea, “The Land of Israel” ignited the political imagination, but it did not have clear contours, nor did it bindingly define the boundaries of a future state. Political programs involving borders were produced from time to time according to the changing circumstances and the balance of power. The “Cultural” or “Spiritual” Zionism of Ahad Ha-Am made way for the idea of a bi-national state nurtured by Brith Shalom and Martin Buber, Brith Shalom paved the way for Ben Gurion’s nation-state and the idea of partition, and Ben Gurion’s partition prepared the ground for “Greater Israel”… The argument goes that the Palestinians rejected all of these proposals, and every rejection was followed by ever more far-reaching territorial claims on the part of the Zionist movement. Whoever rejects Ahad Ha-Am gets Buber, whoever rejects Buber gets Ben Gurion, and whoever rejects Ben Gurion gets Elkin and the right-wing “Jewish Home” political party…

But yes, there is something new here, just as Ben Gurion’s Biltmore Plan was novel in some respects. That plan was certainly a natural and expected step, but it was not a historical necessity. In the same way, the proposed basic law could have been anticipated, but it did not have to happen. The novelty consists in this: A political program that was once endorsed by only one part of the Zionist camp – and a faction that had actually been rather marginal for a long period of time – is now turning into the official position of a sovereign state that needs a law to ratify it.

Is this the essence of Zionism? Is this how Zionism realizes itself and fulfills its mission? Hayyim Ganz and Meron Benvenisti would claim the contrary: the distilled essence of Zionism, in their opinion, is a bi-national Palestine. But the question of whether this is the essence or the end of Zionism is not relevant and does not concern me politically.

What is politically significant is that at the moment, in view of the death of the two-state solution, the Israeli right is obliged to propose a future vision. What it needs is a project. Expulsion is not a publicly acceptable option; annexation of the Occupied Territories with full citizenship to their Palestinian residents is impossible (true, the right can still use it rhetorically). The first option cannot be proposed because of the gentiles, and the second – because of the Jews. So, we remain with two national groups in one political space. The two-state solution – which created the illusion of separating the two peoples into two political entities, thus leaving the Palestinians outside of Israeli political consciousness – has collapsed. The sense that they (Palestinians) are “over there”, beyond the border, with their own national anthem and prisons, and that the Israeli national collective is not responsible for their fate, is steadily eroding. At one time, Israelis could tell themselves: They, the Palestinians “over there”, are on the way to their own independent state. They may be separate, true, but they will be independent. No longer: Apartheid is not mere separation, it is separation within unity, within one sovereign political framework. Without such an inclusive political framework, reality is not perceived as apartheid.

And here comes this new law and does away with any distinction between the Land of Israel and the State of Israel. The law designates a framework hitherto missing from the political imagination, which has tended to perceive “the territories” as somehow “external” to Israel, so that it could pretend to be democratic “inside” and dictatorial “outside”. Now, however, the law makes it evident: The territories are here, and so are the Palestinians.

So the law situates the actual presence of Palestinians here – for the simple reason that “here” now includes “there”– and at the same time, it denies it. It excludes what it hypothetically includes. Nothing stands out more clearly in the violent text of this bill than the complete absence of the Palestinians. The law presents a framework and thus frames our consciousness. Looking at this framework, one instantly sees what is missing and what has been effaced: the Palestinian people, whose presence and national identity are continually under attack. There is no place outside the frame where Palestinian peoplehood can reside, while the frame denies any expression of this peoplehood within it.

No democratic and liberal debate here, inside Israel, has any meaning unless this key fact is taken as its starting point. I also think that a national discourse that is not both democratic and liberal is equally meaningless. This must be the basis for any future political project by the democratic Left in this country. This piece of legislation is a good occasion to begin working on such a project.


Cover photograph: Palestine Strong State