The buildup to the 2015 re-election of prime minister Netanyahu to a fourth term in office saw the most openly racist discourse in Israel’s history, from incitement to physical violence against Palestinian citizens of Israel to the prime minister’s panicked call to his followers to come out and counter the Arabs who were voting “in droves”. This SOS message encapsulates for the world the contradiction embedded in Israel’s claim to being both Jewish and democratic. The notion that a leader of a country would be complaining that part of its population is voting is extraordinary. It’s not just an election issue. Not only that our state has constantly ignored our potential role in meaningful peace efforts. It is the pain of the Palestinian citizens’ existence in Israel. It affects every aspect of our lives.
In the hype of most Zionist parties’ election rhetoric, the image of the Arab voter in Israel has morphed imperceptibly into a part of the current and expanded axis of evil of Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, ISIS … and the list is endless when you are paranoid enough. Even Isaac Hertzog, the leader of the centrist Zionist Camp party, was praised in his campaign ads as someone who “understands the Arab mentality…including through the crosshairs [of a sniper].”
In a release entitled “In Israel’s elections, racism is the winning ballot,” (PDF) Adalah, the Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, states:
“In the midst of this racist atmosphere, came Election Day. Sagi Kaisler, the director of the Samaria Residents’ Committee, which represents the settlement outposts in the occupied West Bank, organized 1,500 settlers to participate as volunteers at voting stations in Arab towns and villages. Kaisler said: “Wherever there are Arab villages, there is fraud. This is the way they work. They do this in their local elections, they are not doing this against the state, it is in their nature…the Joint List united in order to pass the electoral threshold, but primarily because they are evil parties that want to overthrow the right- wing government…We are in a battle for the future of our state, against Arabs, against Europeans, and against some American forces.” To protect the settlers, an armed group carrying [live] ammunition, tear gas, sticks, electric strikes, and other weapons accompanied the volunteers to the voting stations. According to reports from TV Channel 2, these activities were conducted under the direct orders of Likud MK Yariv Levin, who is currently a leading candidate for the position of the Minister of Justice.”
It took Netanyahu less than a week to apologize to a group of traditionally dressed Bedouin supporters about his anti-Arab message of alarm. He meant no harm he said reassuring them that he was their prime minister as well. So there! No need to fuss now! It should be a straight forward assignment for any serious investigative reporter to track down members of this select delegation and to ascertain the housing situation of the tribe of each of them and what promises Netanyahu’s aids made to them about lifting the threat of house demolition from them and for how long in exchange for attending the apology ceremony. And he walked back from his campaign promise of no Palestinian state on his watch as well. Shir Hever, the Real News Network analyst, made fun of the promise and its retraction predicting that since Netanyahu never told the truth in his entire political career, there is now reason for optimism that we will see the creation of a Palestinian state.
My own optimism comes from a different quarter: In Emil Habibi’s novel, The Pessoptimist, one of the characters is noted for her habit of seeing the positive even in the most calamitous of events. With that in mind I strive to discover a kernel of hope in the election process if not in its outcome: For the first time since Israel’s creation factional issues didn’t keep Palestinian voters in Israel focused on internal quibbling. Their leaders, especially Ayman Odeh, tried to reach across the racial divide. On a televised panel discussion of heads of the various political parties Lieberman gave him the chance to show his metal: a self-controlled, mature and sophisticated politician responding in the best Hebrew idiom to the former bar bouncer’s racist baiting. Lieberman tried and failed to drag him into name-calling and racist discourse. Instead Ayman stayed the course with peace and human rights discourse. The advantage was not lost on some of Tel Aviv’s youth who declared their support of the Joint List. For a brief period Odeh was the sweetheart of the Israeli media. Another candidate on the same list, MK Ahmad Tibi, is a familiar figure on many evening Hebrew TV entertainment programs. And the Palestinian novelist and Haaretz columnist Sayed Kashau has a regular following both in print and on the screen where his seasonal serial “Arab Labor” has a Jewish mass following. I take these media exceptions as good omen.
It is my belief that the Palestinian Arab minority in Israel has a mission it cannot shirk: forcing true democracy on the Jewish majority that continues to slide down the slippery slope of racism to where such terms as ‘fascism’ and ‘apartheid’ are no longer considered inappropriate, even by Israel’s friends, in describing its behavior towards its Palestinian citizens, not to mention the 4.5 million Palestinians under Israeli occupation. It is our ordained destiny, it seems, to save Israel from its the-whole-world-is-against-us paranoia. It is our role to coax Israel back from its Masada Complex stand. We have little choice but to fulfill this impossible mission; the alternative is too bleak to contemplate. It would mean suffering genocide at the hands of the rising stars of Israeli ultranationalist racism, from regular soccer fans chanting “death to Arabs” to Lieberman announcing “we need to pick an axe and cut off his head.” What makes the threats of Lieberman and Netanyahu, not to mention other ultra-racist settler leaders, more frightening to us is the rhetoric of their foreign supporters. Bill Maher for example looks from a safe distance and declares: “Round them up.”
The prospect of being rounded up by Maher’s followers and an axe put to our collective neck by Lieberman’s makes it urgent for us, the Palestinian Citizens of Israel, to demand another spare country as a safe haven. But the example of Israel serves as a warning to us. Founded under the guise of providing a secure and safe haven for the Jews, it has proven to be the most dangerous country for them (and for Palestinians.) We have to seek an alternative model. I believe we have found that, thanks to the fertile imagination of a group of Jewish and Palestinian intellectuals and activists: a unitary secular and democratic state for all of the population residing west of the Jordan River based on full equality and respect of the internationally recognized rights of the Palestinian refugees. Badil, the Palestinian organization for the right of return, has joined Zochrot, the Israeli Jewish-Arab organization advocating for peace and reconciliation, in tackling the many thorny issues involved in imagining such a just end to the near seven-decade status quo. That is where I place my money before the next Intifada devalues it. What makes the dream more than a mere wishful thought is the mounting success of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement initiated in 2005 by the Palestinian civil society using the successful model of the South African anti-apartheid struggle. The BDS movement is catching on at a much faster rate than its South African role model ever did. Its spread among the American and European public is at the verge of snowballing to the stage of irreversibility in the foreseeable future. When the Israeli leadership feels the economic heat it will return to its senses from the current high of colonialist euphoria.
A month ago, on February 24, the Center for Palestine Studies at the University of Columbia hosted the launch of Chief Complaint, a book of short stories from my medical practice in my home village of Arrabeh in Northern Israel. Hearing my account of the suffering of the Palestinian citizens in Israel, a member of the audience raised the question of the incidence of psychosis among them. To her surprise I had to admit that my impression was that such afflictions were not outstandingly high and neither were psychosomatic diseases or suicide. Then I was challenged to explain the apparent contradiction. I reverted to historical stipulation: Palestine was at the crossroads of the ancient world. Every megalomaniac in history who aspired to conquer the world, from the leaders of the Hyksos to those of the Hebrews, the Persians, the Greeks, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Moghuls, the Crusaders, the Turks and the British, led their armies across Palestine, subdued its populace and imposed their dogma on its defeated masses. Over time, such victorious marauders faded into the local Palestinian substrate to add one layer after another of humanity that further colored the cumulative genetic mix of “the locals.” That is a cookbook recipe for hardiness and resilience. Gravity works to the advantage of those rooted in the ground. No wonder Palestinians don’t crack up all that easily, I explained.
As our late national poet, Mahmoud Darwish, famously wrote: “I come from there … and remember.” On the eve of the Land Day commemoration I can’t but recall the events I witnessed first hand 39 years ago. The two Israeli leaders, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize, sent their top crack troops in tanks to our villages, all to stop us from striking for one day in protest against a new wave of confiscation of our best agricultural land. The Joint List plans a march on Jerusalem in a few days. What if Netanyahu, Lieberman and their ilk decide to stop the six-day march? Will we be able to bear their wrath?