The flaw of Beinart’s conception of Israel’s ‘flawed but genuine democracy’

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There is a lot to say about Peter Beinart’s op-ed in today’s New York Times. Phil ran down the contours of his argument, but one thing that struck me was how absent Palestinians seem in Beinart’s vision. Sure he mentions the occupation, but only as so far as it impacts the perception of the Israel west of the green line. Palestinians are absent in his conflict between “democratic Israel” and “non-democratic Israel.” This is a perfect illustration of what Austin Branion writes about today in Mondoweiss – for liberal Zionists the occupation is simply an obstacle to them securing their (imagined) Jewish state.

Putting aside his contortions over the forms of boycott he endorses, Beinart’s binary of the conflict facing Israel is wrong. He claims “there are today two Israels: a flawed but genuine democracy within the green line and an ethnically-based nondemocracy beyond it.” It is a simple and obvious point, but one that needs to be repeated nonetheless — Israel is only a “genuine democracy” for its Jewish citizens. Here are just a few data points that we published last September on Palestinian citizens of Israel:

  • There are more than 30 laws that discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel. directly or indirectly, based solely on their ethnicity, rendering them second or third class citizens in their own homeland.
  • 93% of the land in Israel is owned either by the state or by quasi-governmental agencies, such as the Jewish National Fund, that discriminate against non-Jews. Palestinian citizens of Israel face significant legal obstacles in gaining access to this land for agriculture, residence, or commercial development.
  • More than seventy Palestinian villages and communities in Israel, some of which pre-date the establishment of the state, are unrecognized by the government, receive no services, and are not even listed on official maps. Many other towns with a majority Palestinian population lack basic services and receive significantly less government funding than do majority-Jewish towns.
  • Since Israel’s founding in 1948, more than 600 Jewish municipalities have been established, while not a single new Arab town or community has been recognized by the state.
  • Israeli government resources are disproportionately directed to Jews and not to Arabs, one factor in causing the Palestinians of Israel to suffer the lowest living standards in Israeli society by all socio-economic indicators.
  • Government funding for Arab schools is far below that of Jewish schools. According to data published in 2004, the government provides three times as much funding to Jewish students than it does to Arab students.
  • In October 2010, the Knesset approved a bill allowing smaller Israeli towns to reject residents who do not suit “the community’s fundamental outlook”, based on sex, religion, and socioeconomic status. Critics slammed the move as an attempt to allow Jewish towns to keep Arabs and other non-Jews out.
  • The so-called “Nakba Bill” bans state funding for groups that commemorate the tragedy that befell Palestinians during Israel’s creation in 1948, when approx. 725,000 Palestinian Arabs were ethnically cleansed to make way for a Jewish majority state.

In addition, check out these posts with Haneen Zoabi and Ilan Pappe that cover some of the same ground.

Beinart would seem to indicate that these are unfortunate facts, but that Israel is a democracy still coming into being, and the occupation is impeding this progress. While promoting his new book he frequently refers to the Israeli declaration of independence, which he also mentions in his Times piece:

When Israel’s founders wrote the country’s declaration of independence, which calls for a Jewish state that “ensures complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex,” they understood that Zionism and democracy were not only compatible; the two were inseparable.

The issue Beinart misses is that the state of Israel is not a flawed work in progress, but is operating just as it was designed. The “flaw” is in its construction as a Jewish state. Here is how Fida Jiryis, a Palestinian Christian living in the Galilee, described her experience in a post on Mondoweiss last week:

I am one of those Palestinian Christians living inside Israel to whom Oren refers. At no time in my life have I ever felt the ‘respect and appreciation’ by the Jewish state, which Oren so glowingly references. Israel’s Christian minority is marginalized in much the same manner as its Muslim one or, at best, quietly tolerated. We suffer the same discrimination when we try to find a job, when we go to hospitals, when we apply for bank loans, and when we get on the bus — in the same way as Palestinian Muslims.

Israel’s fundamental basis is as a racist state built for Jews only, and the majority of the Jewish population doesn’t really care what religion we are if we’re not Jewish. In my daily dealings with the State, all I have felt is rudeness and overt contempt.

“Israel’s fundamental basis is as a racist state built for Jews only.”

The fact is that over the entirety of Israel’s 63-year existence, there has only been a period of about six months in 1966-1967 that Israel did not rule over a large Palestinian population to whom it granted no political rights. Just after Israel’s founders were finished penning the words that Beinart finds so inspiring, they placed Palestinians inside Israel under martial law, where they would stay for the next 17 years.The facts above regarding Palestinian citizens of Israel show how little has changed.

More and more, life inside the green line is being to resemble that in the occupied territories. The occupation is the result of Israel’s history to this point, not an outlier from it. While I agree that Beinart’s call for a settlement boycott does represent a minor step forward for the discourse within the American Jewish community, it misses, and obscures, the true core of the conflict.

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