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Israel has been ‘Arizona’ all along

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I am encouraged by the wave of justified indignation, and spontaneous boycott movement, against the new Arizona law. Indeed, requiring citizens and legal resident to carry proof of their status at all times, and encouraging police to profile passersby who "look suspicious", runs counter to the soul of democracy. The bigots who put together the Arizona law should be made to pay. And hopefully it will be declared unconstitutional.

This is also a teaching opportunity, to explain to fellow Kossacks why the country I come from, Israel, has never really lived up to its "Middle East’s Only Democracy" (TM) branding.

See? In Israel, laws like the Arizona one – and worse – have been in effect ever since independence. No, I’m not talking about the Occupation, but inside Israel proper.

Any resident sixteen years of age or older must at all times carry an Identity card, and present it upon demand to a senior police officer, head of Municipal or Regional Authority, or a policeman or member of the Armed forces on duty.

And guess against which ethnic group this requirement is enforced most often…. some more details and some personal anecdotes below.

In Israel, one of the rites of passage is going (sometime after your 16th birthday) to the Interior Ministry and getting your first ID card. And yes, you do tend to carry it with you at all times when leaving the home.

What happens it a police officer asks you for it and you don’t have it? Well, in principle they could arrest you and you might spend a night (used to be a couple of nights) in jail. In practice, to Jewish-Israeli citizens who look and sound Jewish-Israeli, this rarely happens. Very rarely. I mean, they might get in trouble with the police if they engage in wrongdoing, but almost never they would be booked just for not carrying an ID.

Things slightly change if you are a non-Jewish Israeli. In 1988 I boarded the night bus from Tel Aviv to Eilat (extreme south of the country). Two Bedouin-Israeli youth were about to board, when a policeman came and started questioning them. They got smart and talked back. I know that in America you never talk back to police, but in Israel it is more common and socially acceptable, and Jews would usually get away with it. But being Bedouin, the policeman got mad and asked them for their ID’s. They didn’t have ID’s on them. They didn’t get to board the bus, instead they seemed to have gone on a field trip with the policeman.

Now, this goes on all the time. If you walk a typical Israeli downtown, especially in Jerusalem, you will always see police officers or soldiers "chatting" with some Arab-looking men and checking their ID’s. The police are acting completely within their rights. See, that’s the beauty: in Israel citizens don’t really have inherent rights because there is no Constitution. There have been some "Basic Laws", including a "Human Rights and Dignity Law", representing an attempt to cobble together a quasi-Constitution. Former Chief Justice Aharon Barak has invented for them the self-serving, completely blown-out-of-proportion brand-name "the Constitutional Revolution". Truth be told, these laws are subject to change or cancellation by a 61-member majority of the 120-member Knesset – and they have been changed countless of times. Much worse: all these laws have gaping loopholes left in them for "security considerations" and "security measures", which allow all security forces to continue business as usual, including routine profiling and ID checking (see below for a partial list of these "security measures").

Recently I’ve become sick of hearing – either from Israelis or from right-wing Americans – how the rest of the world should learn from us if they want, say, to improve travel security while retaining convenience. A couple of weeks ago we returned from a home visit in Israel. Our inspection was the most lax I encountered anywhere in recent years. They couldn’t care less if we have liquids and how many. Simple reason: they profile and are proud of it. We are immediately recognized as typical middle-class Jewish Israeli family. Free pass. If we were something else (say, a typical middle-class Palestinian family), the story would have been much different.

They claim you can’t argue with success. But consider this:

  1. From a mathematical perspective, Israeli security only has to deal with the n=1 problem. The vast majority of their effort is spent profiling, questioning and strip-searching a single target group: Palestinians. Most other security services have more "suspect" ethnic groups to deal with, or they must intercept risks not immediately evident from appearance or other profiling.
  2. The Israeli "solution" – i.e., profiling and collectively punishing anyone who looks like, or is affiliated with, a Palestinian – is simply anti-democratic. Dictatorships can adopt it (well, actually, dictatorships don’t really wait for the Israeli example, this is how dictatorships operate in the first place). But democracies cannot afford to do so and remain democracies. Israel is fortunate (or rather, unfortunate) that most of its citizens are raised to believe that we are a democracy, but never really care to check what this term entails.

Ironically, Israel’s ID law originates from the British Mandate’s 1945 Emergency Defense Regulations, enacted to counter… a wave of organized Jewish terrorism. The suite of regulations, all still in effect and used mostly against Palestinians – citizens, residents and Occupied – also includes the authority to demolish homes, arrest without trial (nowadays euphemised as "administrative detention"), to court-martial civilians, to censor the press, etc. Which does bring us to the Occupied Territories. In the West Bank, a Palestinian caught by our soldiers without an ID is liable to immediate imprisonment, which might last 18 days without trial. And yes, they will be arrested if they don’t have an ID on them.

Since the lot of Jewish-Israelis is so much easier – meaning, the authorities don’t see a point in enforcing the ID law on us – most Israelis are quite complacent with all this. They also err to think they live in a democracy, and mistake their nationality-related privileges for inalienable rights. Not. They are privileges in both senses: we get more freedoms than other groups in Israel-Palestine get. And the authorities, when push comes to shove, see these as privileges, which they reserve the full right to withdraw when they see fit.

And most Israelis call us progressives "suckers". We at least know what the real game is.

One last aspect, or irony: if all the above wasn’t enough, until 2003 the ID included an explicit "Nationality" designation, with the options being "Jewish", "Arab", "Druze", "Circassian" (the last two being small minorities who generally cooperate with the Jewish majority). Mine for example, issued 1994, says "Jewish". Again, no one cared much about kind of "democracy" this is where a police officer can demand this document from you and ascertain which ethnic/national group you belong to.

But then, a group of Reform-converted Jews, for whom the Interior Ministry denied the "Jewish" designation to preserve the Orthodox monopoly over conversions, appealed to the High Court to be registered "Jewish", and won. The fundamentalist Interior Minister decided to respond by removing the "Nationality" designation altogether. He’d rather remove it, than admit that Reform-converted Jews are formally "Jewish" in Israel.

So the fundamentalist, anti-democrat politician ended up inadvertently nudging Israel’s draconian ID a bit towards equity and democracy, in order to counter the boutique, spoiled, NIMBY, narrow concern of otherwise-fully-privileged Reform Jews (whose American counterparts often see no other evil in Israel except for the discrimination against Reform Jews). A little story that summarizes the many ironies of public life in Israel.

This post originally appeared on the Daily Kos.

Assaf Oron (b. 1966) is an Israeli human-rights/anti-Occupation activist (also holding US citizenship) and an applied statistician currently living in Seattle.

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