‘You cannot be a democracy and not a state of all its citizens’: Jamal Zahalka on what the rejection of the ‘State of all its Citizens’ bill means for Israel

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Last month, the Presidium of the Israeli Knesset voted to disqualify a proposed bill that called for Israel “to be defined as a state of all its citizens” before it even reached the Knesset floor for deliberation.

The bill, entitled “Basic Law: A Country of All Its Citizens,” was submitted by MKs Jamal Zahalka, Haneen Zoabi and Joumah Azbarg of the Balad party of the Joint List political bloc.

It called for the state of Israel to treat its Jewish and Palestinian citizens equally, and to recognize the rights of its Arab minority as equal to the Jewish majority.

Israeli media outlets, and the Knesset itself, noted that the move was “highly unusual,” in that it marked the first time proposed legislation had been disqualified before being discussed in the plenum during the past two Knesset terms.

Despite the loss, the Balad MKs have stepped up their campaign for the bill and are increasing efforts to raise awareness on what they say is a dangerous decision with severe implications for Israeli society and the future of the state.

MK Zahalka spoke to Mondoweiss about the party’s motivation behind proposing the bill, its significance in the current Israeli political climate, and the consequences of the outright rejection of the bill and what it represents.

Mondoweiss: Tell us about this proposal. What are the basic tenets of the bill?

Zahalka: Our party, Balad, since its establishment in 1996, presented the idea of a “state of all its citizens” as the major position of our identity. If you ask someone “What is balad?” they will say “It is the state of all its citizens.”

We entered into the Knesset on this platform decades ago. It’s not something new that we are bringing to the table. This law speaks about the basic premise that the state is for all its citizens, and is not a state for only part of its citizens.

The law stresses that the state should be for all its citizens, taking into account that it has two nationalities in the country, not just one. The bill proposed that there be two official languages, Arabic and Hebrew. It speaks about the recognition of the cultural and religious rights of every group in the country. It speaks about separation between religion and state, which does not exist in Israel, and that people’s civic rights should be upheld according to international law and universal values.

Mondoweiss: Why is necessary to propose such a bill in Israel today?

Zahalka: The question of equal treatment of citizens is not a question in most countries in the world. There should be no question that the state belongs to all the citizens, not just to one group of the citizens, in this case, the Jewish population of Israel.

The bill is simply based on the the principle of equality, and not hierarchy — that people are equal, not superior or inferior. It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean that each group does not have its collective rights; they do. Each person has a right to belong to a cultural or religious group of their choosing. We recognize that collective rights are a part of individual rights.

The bill says that the state should be a democratic state, the regime should be democratic, this is the main article of the bill. You cannot be a democracy and not a state of all its citizens.

Mondoweiss: Were you surprised when the bill was banned from even being discussed?

Zahalka: I wasn’t surprised at all. In 2003, there was a decision of the Knesset election committee to ban Balad, my party, because of the idea of the state of all citizens. The state took the position that “Balad wants 100% equality in Israel, and this is in direct conflict with the fact that this is a Jewish state for Jews, and this will take away Jewish privilege in the country.”

Eventually the High Court ruled in our favor, saying that we cannot be banned for proposing a democratic position. But this legal battle, over a decade ago, showed everyone the state’s true stance on democracy and equality. And their position has clearly not waivered.

Mondoweiss: What motivated Balad to propose this bill now?

Zahalka: Our bill was proposed in the context of discussions around the right-wing “Nation State bill,” which talks about establishing towns for Jews only, and we said, this is the exact definition of apartheid, living separately, not living in the same place, Jews and Arabs.

We oppose this law strongly, because this law officially would legitimize the already existing discrimination against our community, and officially establishes two statuses of citizenship: first-tier citizenship for Jews, and second-tier for Arabs.

Mondoweiss: Many Palestinian citizens of Israel say that this system of discrimination, and being treated as second-class citizens already exists.

Zahalka: Yes, that is true. Let’s say if we want to go live in a Jewish area in the Galilee, we will face many discriminations and problems along the way, but legally, we still can. This law would change that. It would enshrine and legalize this discrimination, and put our communities at even more risk.

Today, the right-wing might say “there are too many Arabs in Jewish cities.” But tomorrow, the second step might be to say “let us forcibly transfer Arab citizens out of Jewish towns.”

The government does not want us to live in Jewish cities, but they also refuse to build cities for Arabs. Since 1948, Israel has developed over 600 new Jewish towns. Meanwhile, not a single new Arab town or village has been built. Zero.

So, yes, this discrimination already exists. But this “Nation State” law will make that discrimination legitimate, and will open the door for new discriminations.

Mondoweiss: Critics of your bill have said it “denies the existence of the State of Israel,” and that is the reason it why it was banned. What is your response to that?

Zahalka: We do not deny Israel or its right to exist as a home for Jews. We are simply saying that we want to base the existence of the state not on the preference of Jews, but on the basics of equality.

We don’t say that the state is not for Jews. We say it is for Jews and Arabs, but they want it to be only for the Jews.  The state should exist in the framework of equality, and not in the framework of preference and superiority.

Mondoweiss: What are the consequences for Israel and its lawmakers when they ban the discussion of a bill like this?

Zahalka: The current political climate in the country is extremely volatile under the right-wing government. At the end of the day, the “state for all its citizens” bill is extremely important in the current political climate, because it is the only secular project in the government.

When Israel says it is a Jewish state, and does not allow for any discussion on the topic, it chooses religion over democracy. If we want to live in a true state of equality, we have to move towards being a secular government.

Israel has to decide, if they want a Jewish or a democratic state. They cannot have both. When you speak about the current so-called Israeli democracy, the term democracy itself misleading.  The state was established on the crime of expulsion and the crime of transfer. Israel changed the demography of the country, expelled most of the Palestinians, created an artificial Jewish majority, and then they made elections to declare it a Jewish state.

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