I go to so many speeches on the Middle East that they blur, but last week I was so bowled over by a Palestinian speaker, both her presence and words, that we wanted to provide a transcript of her remarks. Aida Touma-Sliman is a Palestinian member of Knesset. She reminds me of a charismatic congresswoman, a Pat Schroeder or Bella Abzug. She is mature, thoughtful, direct, and also conservative, in her concern for order.
Touma-Sliman gives any American liberal a place to stand because as you will see, her overriding values are equality and dignity. She doesn’t seem to care what the state calls itself so long as it can guarantee as much to Palestinians; but the Hadash Party member reports that Israel has completely failed on that score. (And this is a person who has respect for the Jewish historical narrative that brought so many Jews to Palestine.)
Her remarks are newsworthy for several reasons. First, Touma-Sliman explains in a precise manner how the new nation-state law has officially established apartheid as the law in the entire “land of Israel” from river to sea. The law ends the two-state solution and makes official the claim, “A land without a people for a people without a land.” And so-called liberal Zionists were the first to put this law forward.
Second, Touma-Sliman states that she and many others in Israel and Palestine are going to “resist” this law till it is abolished, including by showing that it violates international law. P.S. Touma-Sliman is in hot water back in Israel over her New York trip because she went to the U.N. and surely discussed what the world is going to do about the racist law.
Third, she shows that the nation-state law is coupled with the highly-anticipated Trump “deal of the century,” in foreclosing the possibility of a Palestinian state and permitting the annexation of large portions of the West Bank.
Fourth, she tells us she was thrilled by that August 11 demonstration in Tel Aviv against the nation state law that brought together Jews and Palestinians. There is a vision of a hopeful future of reform in her speech. Liberal Zionists ought to be embracing this person, regardless of what that means to the Zionist project.
Touma-Sliman began her speech on August 18 at Goddard Riverside Community Center in New York by saying she had intended to talk about Gaza on her trip, but that the passage of the law making Israel “the nation state of the Jewish people” changed her plan. What follows are substantial excerpts of the speech. Annie Robbins and I transcribed it and trimmed it.
“This is a basic law that was legislated in the Knesset one hour before we left for our summer recess. At exactly 5 o’clock in the morning, like thieves in the night, the law was voted on. And for my regret, it passed, and it became a basic law in Israel, and with legislating this law, officially, Israel has become, in my opinion, the only and the last apartheid regime in this world.
“Many people would tell me, But what’s new? Israel has been discriminating against its Palestinian citizens and practicing policies of oppression against the Palestinians in the occupied territories since 70 years ago. What is new about a law that is giving a very basic base for discrimination and for avoiding even to think about equality and democracy. What’s new?
“I think there is a lot to speak about when we are talking about this law.
“It’s going to be three years since I was visiting the United States on a speaking tour. It was two months after we were elected to the Knesset… in the Joint List. I don’t know how many of you know about this achievement that we managed to put together. Four different parties ran for the Knesset together. Although we are coming from different ideological backgrounds from the Islamists to the Communists, we came together, and the main idea behind it was to give a big answer to also another law that was legislated, one election before that raised the threshold for the Knesset in a way that would never allow any of the four parties who are representing mainly the Palestinian community inside Israel and the democratic Jewish forces to be represented in the Knesset.
“Everybody thought that the right wing in Israel managed to find a way to keep us away from being politically represented in the Knesset, [and] we managed to put together the Joint List. We went to election and actually we raised the numbers of MK’s who are representing the Joint List into 13 members, and we became the third faction in the Knesset.
“We thought, Great, now we have an opportunity really to influence things and to change and maybe to direct the political situation in Israel into more democracy, into more equality, into more peaceful policies that might get eventually to a situation where we might end the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.
“The reaction from the right wing was very aggressive.
“I remember… when I was speaking with people in the United States, some of the audience looked very strangely to me and I thought that maybe I am exaggerating and maybe I’m a little bit imagining things about Israel and about the right wing in Israel. Because I was speaking about three major policies that would be led by Netanyahu’s government for this candidacy [election]. The first one was:
“–Netanyahu, one day before the last election in 2015, promised that he would take all the efforts to avoid establishing a Palestinian state beside Israel, one day before the election! I thought that in this candidacy Netanyahu would really work hard to implement his promise. To avoid, and actually, to eliminate a Palestinians state beside the state of Israel.
“–The second one was the incitement against the Palestinian community, the Arab citizens of Israel. And if you remember very well, not one day before the election but on the day of the election, Netanyahu said his famous sentence, ‘They are coming in groups [droves] to vote, and you should rescue the situation.’ He called upon the Jewish majority to come and vote because the Arabs are coming and voting. And everyone looked at it as an expression of racism. And I took it a little further and said, “It’s not only a racist way to speak about your own citizens, who are practicing a very basic right of voting, of participating. … They are called a dangerous group, as if they are acting in a terrorist way. This is not only a racist way to put it, but also anti-democratic. We noticed from that point that Netanyahu is taking off the mask of the only democracy in the Middle East, and he is going with his government to act to eliminate as possible the democratic basis that is still existing in the regime in Israel.
“–The third thing that was emphasized at that point is we noticed that he, with his government, is going to attack all the other columns or other parts of the democratic regime, like the judiciary system and the media in Israel.
“When you look today at what’s happening in the last three years, you understand that the basic law, the Jewish Nation State law, is actually a result of a process that did start way back. Not only in the last candidacy in 2015. This law was brought to the Knesset first in 2011, and not by Likud members. It was brought by who is now sitting in the Zionist Camp… by Tzipi Livni’s party. There were different versions. Meanwhile they changed a little bit in the articles of the law, but the last version that was legislated one month ago– it’s a horrible law. It should be an alert for everybody who is still thinking that the situation in Israel is proceeding to a better situation. On the contrary we believe that this law is bringing us into a dangerous situation…
“There are three different groups of Arabs who are affected directly by this law. One is the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Second is the Palestinian citizens or residents of East Jerusalem. Third are the Syrians who are living in the occupied Golan occupied Heights. These groups are affected directly because this law is putting them, not even — in the beginning we used to say we are second degree citizens — by this law we are totally absent. We didn’t get the second degree or the third degree citizenship. Because if you read the articles of the law, we do not exist there. This law is supposed to define the state of Israel, to define who are the citizens, who are the people of the state, and what are the different components that bring together a state. Like the anthem, like the flag, like all the components. When the law mentions “who are the people” that this state belong to or they belong to the state– we are not mentioned at all.
“It’s the state for the Jewish people all over the world. Not only citizens of Israel, but all over the world. In this law Israel actually opened its borders totally. There is no borders written in this law. It mentions what is the flag, it mentions what is the anthem, it mentioned who are the people, it mentioned who are the superior people inside Israel. But not the borders.
“And what is more dangerous is the fact that the law starts with two words. It starts with the land of Israel… The biblical land of Israel is not only including the West Bank, but it might also reach to Jordan and beginning of Iraq. And when you are legislating a basic law that is the component of the future constitution of Israel, and you do not mention the borders, and at the same time, sometimes in the articles you are using ‘land of Israel’ and sometimes ‘state of Israel,’ in order to create this confusion, as if ‘land of Israel’ is the same [as] ‘state of Israel,’ what you are saying is you are talking about the whole historical Palestine, or what is called in the basic law, the whole historical land of Israel.
“Sometimes the context that a law is legislated is very important in the interpretation of the law itself. [That context] is talking about an annexation of land, an annexation of settlements which are existing on Palestinian land in the West Bank. When you see that 26 laws are brought into the Knesset in the last two years, and those laws are racist, are directed against the Palestinian community and the Palestinian people, and it is also including components of annexation of Palestinian occupied land– Then you have to interpret this mixture of Israel land and state of Israel as speaking about the whole historical Palestinian land.
“Another article is very clear in this basic law: that Jerusalem, ‘unified Jerusalem,’ meaning East and West Jerusalem, of course which is hosting now the embassy of the United States, regretfully, is going to be the eternal capital of Israel.
“This is against international law and international resolutions. Because the international resolutions say very clearly that Jerusalem is an occupied territory, East Jerusalem is an occupied territory and it’s supposed to be– we hope it is going to be the capital of Palestine alongside Israel…. And this law cannot be legal as long as it is in contradiction, in many of its components, to international law.
“What is new about this law? If discrimination has existed– and it existed in Israel against the Arab citizens of Israel, against the Palestinian citizens of Israel– what is new about this law is that discrimination is stopping to be the not-normal situation. Actually this law creates a situation where discrimination is legal. Discrimination is the normal. And equality is the abnormal situation.
“Throughout the basic law there is not even once that the word equality is mentioned, or democracy. Usually in any constitution, equality for all citizens of the state is one of the conditions for having any constitution. Usually constitutions are built on two conditions. First, consent among the people of the state. And I’m telling you, there is no consent, it was passed by 62 members of the Parliament versus 55 of the Knesset and two abstained. Nobody asked the opinion of 20 percent of the citizens of Israel, the Palestinians, what they think about this basic law. When we said clearly we are against this law, nobody wanted to listen to that.
“The second condition for any constitutional legislation is the fact that it should guarantee equality of treatment for all citizens of any country and guarantee individual and collective rights for minorities. And this law, it’s not just that is does not guarantee, on the contrary it says very clearly, that it’s going to discriminate against 20% of the people who are citizens of Israel. It says very clearly in different items but also in one clear article that says developing and initiating Jewish settlements is a national priority. It’s written very clearly:
“The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and shall act to encourage and promote its establishment and strengthening.”
“Which means all the discriminatory policies that could have been challenged in the past, either by public actions or by legal processes; going to the Supreme Court, trying to change these policies, politically to affect the situation on the ground– it’s going to change from now. On the contrary, now who can really appeal to the Supreme Court? Those who do not want equality, those who want to intensify discrimination.
“I will give you just a very simple example. We have development budgets that are given to the local authorities by the central government in order to enhance and develop… localities. In the past there was discrimination in these budgets. We could appeal to the Supreme Court and ask for equal budgets as full citizens of the country, of the state. Now if there will be any minister in the future who would dare to think that he should give equal budgets to Jewish localities and Arab localities, this equal policy can be challenged now: going to the Supreme Court, and saying, ‘No, he cannot treat us equally, because it is written in the law that Jewish settlements have a superiority and have a special treatment from now on.’
“It has come upside down: from equality as a norm, and you can challenge discrimination, to discrimination is going to be the norm, and you have to challenge it.
“But the most dangerous side of this law lies in the fact that it is an attempt to close the door finally on the two state solution. Of course you hear very much these days about the Century Deal. I can see that you already know what I am going to speak about. Nobody knows what the Century Deal is going to be like…. Read this basic law, because in my opinion it contains all what is thought about to be the Century Deal.
“This law is not only challenging the future of democracy, equality, full citizenship inside Israel. It is challenging the historical narrative of that piece of land back home in the Middle East that is called by some the land of Israel and it’s called by some, historical Palestine. It says at the beginning:
“The land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people in which the state of Israel was established. The state of Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people in which it realizes its national, cultural, religious and historical right to self determination.”
“It says very clearly, you remember the slogan ‘People with no land came to a land with no people’? It’s the free interpretation… in this law. It erases the whole Palestinian narrative and only concentrates on one narrative. In my opinion it’s not the Jewish narrative, it’s the Zionist narrative. For me there is a difference between the Zionist narrative and the Jewish narrative.
“In this law one article says:
“In Israel there is a right of self determination solely for the Jewish people.”
“Which means that it denies the right of self-determination for the Palestinian people…. It means that in the whole land of Israel there is only the right of self determination for the Jewish people. Equal? No right of self determination for the Palestinian people. It’s only the beginning for denying the whole, agreed-upon solution for the continuous occupation of the Palestinian territories, occupied in 1967.
“When there is no right to self determination, when Jerusalem, united, is the eternal capital of Israel, when historically this is the land of the Jewish people, then actually we are not only closing the door… this law is finalizing that there will never be a state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel…
“The law is not only anti-democratic, we claim that it is establishing officially the apartheid regime inside Israel. And why are we saying an apartheid regime? Because, there are very clear components:
“– When you deny the fact that there are 20% of your citizens;
“– When you do not agree to include equality and you do not agree to include democracy and you say that one part of your citizens are superior to others.
“We claimed in the past that there is a deep contradiction between the definition of a Jewish and democratic state, and of course there was a lot of debate going on about that because some Jewish people believe that ‘No, there is a possibility to continue to be a Jewish state and to be democratic’ and we claimed that whenever there is a contradiction… the state usually wanted and supported the Jewishness of the state over the democratic side of the state.
“Now it’s very clear. When we got to a situation of contradiction, the Knesset says very clearly, ‘By this law, end of story, we don’t need to get into that dilemma anymore.’ Democracy is aside, democracy is neglected from the basic law. It’s not mentioned as the way the regime will exist in Israel, and it’s going to be only Jewish.
“This is a clear statement that is coming out of this law. Even when we are talking about the language of the state. By this law suddenly they mention that the only official language is Hebrew. Many argue and say, ‘But there’s nothing in the law that says Arabic was an official language in Israel.’ This is not true, because Israel, when it was established adopted a law, an Ottoman law, relating to many things in the the ordinary life of the people… and among others this law says very clearly there are three official languages in historical Palestine; English, Hebrew and Arabic.
“They denied English as the official language, and now they are canceling Arabic as an official language. If we in the past could appeal to the Supreme Court and say, ‘We need all the services delivered by the state,’ all the official documents can also be produced in Arabic, you can testify in a court in Arabic in your own language and the court should bring a translator to translate your testimony, now we cannot do it, Arabic is not an official language….
“For us, Arabic, official or not official, Arabic is not only a language, Arabic is a culture, Arabic is a way of life, Arabic is our way of expression, Arabic is our literature, is our history. It’s way beyond being an official language or not, it is connected to our — I don’t know how you say it in English? Sumud. Is there anything in English for sumud?”
[Audience member: “Steadfastness”.]
[Audience member: “To stay in place.”]
“This is one of our ways of staying in our homeland and continue to be as a national group developing and evolving. So for us, if it’s going to be official or not, this is the language that we are going to protect because it’s one of our ways to protect ourselves; as indigenous people, as a national minority.
“If I would have come to this tour two weeks ago… I would have come here very depressed. Last Saturday we were more than 60,000 people in Tel Aviv streets marching against the Nation State Law. [Applause.] And the good thing, We were not Palestinian Arabs alone, we were Jews and Arabs, Israelis, marching in the streets of Tel Aviv and saying we are not going to tolerate or coexist with this law. We are going to resist this law and we are going to abolish this law. That’s a decision we make. A lot of people say how are you going to abolish a basic law? A lot of our people, even in the beginning when we started talking about this, said ‘You are dreaming.’ They said, You know what, our fathers, our grandfathers lived under the military regime since 1948 up til 1965, and all that time there were crazy dreamers like me who said we are going to abolish the military regime, and it happened. They succeeded to do it and it was abolished. And we could continued after that. Not happily after but we continued.
“That’s the situation with this law. We are not going to tolerate a situation where anybody is telling us that there are superior people and there are some people, 20 percent of the citizens of Israel, who their status is not defined, their status is not mentioned.
“We are not going to tolerate a situation where any law is telling us that our people are going to continue to live under occupation. The Palestinians do not want to live under occupation. You see them since March in Gaza marching every Friday, in the Return March because they do not want to continue to live under occupation. In the West Bank also the people are very determined to get rid of the Israeli occupation.
“And you know what, there are Israeli Jewish people who want to get rid of that occupation. They are not paying the same price as the Palestinians, but they are still paying a price.
“For all those reasons we started to work very hard the day after the law, and we are going to continue our resistance to this law. We are going to continue to work against it on four different levels.
“Parliamentary. I have to tell you there were voices among us saying you have to abstain your membership in the Knesset because of this law. [But] I and … my party have this opinion: On the contrary, they wanted to push us away from the Knesset by raising the threshold and we came back even stronger! Now they want to push us out of the legal, equal citizenship. We are going to continue and we will be stronger, and we will change it.
“The other level we are continuing is the mass protest against this law. We started with that big demonstration which was the first step and we are continuing. We will have more actions in the future. We would like to see you part of the solidarity movement when we have actions.
“The third is the legal because there are now eight appeals in front of the Israeli Supreme Court against this law. We are not that hopeful because, to our regret, the current very rightwing government managed to change the situation inside the judiciary system and inside the Supreme Court… They said this very clearly… they want a ‘pluralist’ judiciary system. So they brought in more very rightwing settler justices into the Supreme Court. That is why we are not hopeful… But at least the [Supreme Court will] have to address this law. They have to criticize it, there’s no way to avoid that. We will use whatever comes from there to intensify the struggle against it.
“The third is the international arena. And coming here and talking to you is part of the effort of making the world understand We are confronting a new situation in Israel. And that the old paradigm cannot continue. There is a new reality and everybody should understand that.
“On the level of the people, and on the level of the decision makers, I’m not going to speak to your president at this point, (laughter) but we are going to be in contact with different governments all over the world in order to make them understand, what does it mean to hold all the people inside Israel and the Palestinian people, captured by this law, hostages by this law, condemned for a life without democracy without equality under an apartheid regime?
“I said at the beginning and I will emphasize again, this law is actually challenging two things. It’s not only challenging the Palestinians, it’s challenging the Jews, also in Israel. It’s challenging the narrative, the history, and it’s challenging the future of the people, both people.
“In one of my presentations about this law to people from my constituency, one of the old men in the audience told me, ‘Why you are so angry about this law? All those governments, all those regimes who took that path collapsed eventually. All those who started to act in a fascist way eventually had to go.’
“I said, ‘Yes, but it didn’t happen by itself.’
“This is the main issue. Their people did not sit and wait for them to collapse. We need to make them collapse. We need to act very seriously. I think it’s not up to anybody to decide that the Palestinian people should continue to suffer.
“A lot of people would say this is a beginning of the one state solution. I’m saying this kind of one state solution– it’s not the beginning of that kind, it’s already existing! But it is not a democratic, secular, equal one state. It’s an apartheid state.
“This is what is demanded now from the Palestinians: for them to accept, to sit and wait and see that this apartheid regime continues to control for many years to come, until it will collapse. No! It doesn’t work like this. History has told us that it doesn’t work like this. People will continue to fight for a better future.
“I said at the beginning it’s not going to be easy to abolish this law, because, for my regret, the majority of those who voted against the law, I mean the so-called Zionist left parties are not raising the demand of abolishing this law. They are saying ‘let’s correct it, let’s make some changes in that law’ and you have to remember some who have voted against it now, have submitted different versions of that law in the last 7 or 8 years.
“Actually we need now to bring the real discussion into the surface, of what kind of a state of Israel you want to live in? What kind? It means you need to define. Is it going to be a colonial state like it is now by this law? Is it going to be the state — I call this law the annexation law of the state of Israel to the state of settlers. It’s not annexing the settlers to the state of Israel, it’s annexing Israel to the state of settlers that is already controlling very much inside Israel.
“This discussion is going to take some time inside Israel to evolve into a normal situation. This situation will never be a normal democratic situation without ending the occupation over the Palestinian people in 1967 territories and without establishing the Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel with East Jerusalem as the capital and the right of return for all the refugees.
“Two months ago you would have heard all the Knesset members, all the ministers, all the media in Hebrew, saying about us, the Arab Palestinian MKs, that we do not deal with the rights of our own constituency, we are all the time focusing on the Palestinian issue in general. Of course it would have been an honor to be called this: that this is what I was doing.
“We are doing both, but for the first time the Knesset admitted by its basic law that there is no way to distinguish between the two issues. There is no way to separate the struggle for the civil rights inside Israel from the anti-occupation struggle and for the peace struggle. They decided… to admit it in a law. We knew this from the beginning, and we will continue to fight in that way.”