Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Israel’s “Arab Problem” – Part One

Zionism was intended to solve Europe's "Jewish Problem," the supposed inability of the Jews to assimilate and become equal citizens of the European states. In the late nineteenth century, which saw the rapid rise of nationalism and political anti-Semitism, some European Jews, especially in Russia and Poland, considered their main nationality to be Jewish (and were considered to be such in some of the multi-national empires), and even later, when the age of empire ended, they distinguished between their citizenship and their nationality in their own self-consciousness.

This model of separating nationality and citizenship, inherited from the multi-national empires of Europe, was adopted by the founders of Israel at a time when volkish nationalism had been discredited after World War II, although it did remain in some places, especially in ethnic communities with nationalist aspirations. In Germany, for example, originally one of the most ethnic of ethnic states, ethnicity has been made coextensive (at least in theory) with citizenship. When a Russian Jew today becomes a German citizen, she becomes part of the German people; her nationality on her passport is not Jewish or Russian but German. In some of the new emerging republics in the Former Soviet Union, by contrast, the distinction between ethnicity and citizenship is more pronounced, and in the New Europe we hear of legislation that wishes to promote that distinction because of fears of foreign immigration.

Some times it is said that there are two types of nationalism: one in which the state precedes and creates the nation (e.g., the USA), the other in which the nation precedes and is embodied within the state. This is a drastic oversimplification; in fact, each state constitutes its own type, and those types change over time, as in the case of Germany.

When the founders of Israel decided to create a state of the Jewish nation they ran into several problems: first, most of the world's Jews had no desire to live in such a state, nor did they see it as their homeland; second, the founders did not have a clue as to how to determine membership in the Jewish people (Ben Gurion famously solicited opinions on the question, "Who is a Jew"). But the greatest problem followed from the exclusion of the citizens from membership in the nation-state because they were of the wrong nationality. This, perhaps, could have been finessed if nationality carried with it merely symbolic rather than practical ramifications. But the practical ramifications were embraced wholeheartedly, and an ideology of not sharing power and resources with the Arab minority – a minority formed by the effective expulsion of the majority of Palestine's residents, arose. This ideology, it should be noted, preceded Arab resistance to the Zionist settlers; it was framed positively in the ethos of "Hebrew labor," for example, in the pre-state period. It was always conceived as pro-Jewish rather than as anti-Arab. But with the growth of Arab nationalism, and with the jockeying for power and control in a post-colonial Palestine, an Arab community that had always been excluded by the Zionists was now a hostile community, as it understood the statist-designs of the Jewish settlers. Zionist prophecy had become self-fulfilling; an exclusivist ideology had created enemy outsiders, and even when they did not act as enemies they were suspected of harboring hatred in their hearts.

Liberal Zionists in Israel often view the period between 1948 and 1967 as a sort of Paradise Lost, a peaceful period that preceded the occupation and settlement of the West Bank and Gaza. Yet for the Arab citizens of Israel, it is the period in which the Zionists imposed their vision of what it means to be a "loyal minority with equal rights" on what was considered to be a potential fifth column. On the one hand, there were genuine attempts by the Zionists to educate and to raise the standard of living and welfare of the "Israeli Arabs," following models of education that nineteenth century colonial societies had adopted, in which curricula and teachers were controlled by the state apparatus for the sake of the improvement and control of the minority. Unlike the ultra-orthodox or the religious Zionist sectors, no educational autonomy was given to the Palestinian Arabs for "security reasons" – the community had to be molded and carefully cultivated. Villages and clans were rewarded by political patronage if votes were delivered to the Zionist parties, mostly Mapai. Arab teachers who displayed signs of pan-Arabism or Palestinian nationalism were dismissed; attempts to divide and conquer the sector by fostering religious differences between Muslim and Christian and sowing ethnic divisions between Druze and other Arabs were rife. Vast swaths of territory, private and public, were expropriated for new and existing Jewish settlement; no Jewish lands, to my knowledge, were ever transferred to Palestinian Israelis, and no new Palestinian settlements were built; on the contrary, close to 500 villages were destroyed.

Israelis were at once proud of the achievements of "Israeli Arabs" and were ashamed at the growing gaps between the communities. "See what we have done for the Arabs" and "Compare them with their brethren in Arab lands," stock assertions in the paternalistic lexicon of colonialism, were very much part of Israel's positive self-image. Very few people saw the widening gaps between the communities as resulting not from the minority status of the Palestinians but because the very definition and raison d'être of the state excluded Palestinians from power-sharing and a just allocation of resources. This was not mere institutional discrimination against a minority; this was foundational state discrimination against the remnants of a native population, ethnically cleansed in order to create an ethnic state with a strong Jewish majority.

In short, the Zionist founders created, unconsciously, an ethnic state that matched in many respects a nineteenth century volkish vision of the European ethnic state, one that mirrored their own feelings of national exclusion, despite their being Russian and Polish citizens. As they themselves believed that they could never be equal citizens and members in a nation to which they did not belong, they created a state in which non-Jews, when they had nationalist feelings at all, would not find their nationalism appreciated or represented, nor would any substitute nationalism be offered to them. The expectation is that they would either accept their fate or leave. As the Jews had been considered "alien intruders" by anti-Semitic Russian and Polish nationalists, so would the Palestinians be considered aliens by the "returning natives," who would grant them individual citizenship rights as a sort of noblesse oblige, since the Jews "were commanded to show kindness to the strangers in their midst."

It is often said that the discrimination against the Israeli Palestinian minority is exacerbated because of the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. Some point to the fact that during the Oslo period, the lot of Palestinian Israelis significantly improved. That was not on account of a peaceful atmosphere in the country, or expectations of an imminent peace, but because the Rabin government rested on the extra-coalitional support of the Arab and Jewish Arab political parties. It is not that the peace-process enabled that support but rather vice-versa; the support enabled the peace-process to continue. Indeed, the integration of the Palestinian Arabs into the political system, even as opposition supporters outside the ruling coalition, is often decried by the right because Israel is a Jewish state, and only Jews have the right to decide its fate. This widespread view among Israelis is the chief reason for the discrimination and marginalization of the Palestinian Arab – they are expected to be disloyal or at least not to feel a part of the State. "They should be grateful for what we have done for them and for the liberties they enjoy" And why? Because they are strangers in their own homeland.

Israel's 'Arab Problem' was not the inevitable creation of Zionism, or even of the Jewish state idea. It was created by the specific kind of Jewish state that was founded in 1948, a state that embodied the exclusivist ethnic nationalist ethos of the founders, who passed and implemented ethnically discriminatory laws and policies in the early years of the state – and in recent days. The sort of Jewish state that Israel became is more discriminatory and marginalizing of its minority than most contemporary ethnic states. For example, whereas other ethnic-states accord preference in immigration to members of its majority ethnic group, Israel bestows automatic and immediate citizenship to anyone who is considered Jewish religiously or racially, provided that he or she was not an adherent of another religion. Again, unlike many other ethnic states, which accord preference in citizenship to native minorities, Israel's Arab minority is not considered favored in immigration; on the contrary, there are emergency orders forbidding spouses of Israeli citizens to become naturalized, if the citizens are Palestinian Arab. Again, unlike other ethnic states that have procedures for nationalizing those who are not members of the majority ethnic group, Israel has no naturalization procedure besides the fiat of the minister of Interior. A minister of Interior from a rightwing or religious party ensures that there will be no naturalized citizens.

The specific Israeli version of Zionism, then, is largely responsible for creating the 'Arab Problem' and has left it with three main solutions within which there are endless variations: a) replacing the Jewish ethnic state with a liberal democratic state that will be neutral regarding its principal ethnic groups, though respecting and even fostering the groups' cultural heritages and identities; b) modifying the Jewish ethnic state so as to empower the Palestinian minority through cultural autonomy and empowering it politically (at present it has virtually no political power); c) expelling the Palestinians forcibly and providing them wish a generous resettlement package.

I have argued for the first alternative in my Zionism without a Jewish Ethnic State; a more eloquent statement is in Bernard Avishai's book, The Hebrew Republic. The second alternative has been argued in several documents produced several years ago by various Israeli Palestinian groups.

As for the "transfer" option, it has been advocated in recent years by Rabbi Meir Kahane, Rehavam Zeevi, Avigdor Lieberman, and, recently, by Daniel Gordis in his book Saving Israel; Gordis does not enthusiastically support this option, but implies fairly strongly that it may be the best way to go.

In subsequent posts I will discuss Gordis's discussion of transfer as well as the various proposals to empower the Palestinian minority.


pabelmont said...

By 1930, there was considerable popularly expressed Jewish desire/intent to produce a Jewish State -- and consequently Arab antagonism to a Jewish State, which was seen as uprooting or suppressing the non-Jewish people of Palestine (then a very large majority!).


By 1947, of course, Jewish action toward a Jewish State with a Jewish majority was even greater and an even greater threat to those whose home and homeland had been Palestine, in some cases for 500, 1000. or 2000 years.

Unknown said...

You forgot about the multi-national states of Canada (which was bi-volkish until 40 years ago then transcended that) and Belgium (on which the jury is still out).

Juan said...

Jerry, your commitment to the truth no matter how politically incorrect that truth may happen to be is most admirable! E. g., the sentence below:

"This was not mere institutional discrimination against a minority; this was foundational state discrimination against the remnants of a native population, ethnically cleansed in order to create an ethnic state with a strong Jewish majority."

Juan said...

This article provided me with invaluable historical context for the current I-P standoff. I have several comments.

First, the Israeli ideology of not sharing power/resources with the Arab minority--though short-sighted--is understandable and fairly common in human history when ethnic group competition is present. (See Kevin McDonald's writing on this topic.) Moreover, the Israelis had only recently experienced the Holocaust and had on this account alone good reason to be fearful of the Arab majority. The fear of Arabs combined with Israeli military superiority made "ethnic cleansing" a very attractive alternative.

O.K., what's my main point here? Simply that it was not so much the particular brand of Zionism that led to the "exclusivist ethnic nationalism." Rather, the Israeli Zionists used their religious beliefs in ways that justified ethnic nationalism, which is exactly what other population groups have done for milennia in order to justify maintenance of their dominance over other groups.

Of course, if you take Jewish (and most other) religious precepts seriously, you are going to object vigorously to using them to justify the oppression and exploitation of others. And this Jerry has done and continues to do quite effectively.

Joachim Martillo said...

Nationality and ethnicity were more complicated in the German Empire than you indicate.

Pre-WW1 imperial Germany included a lot of historic Poland. Poles were citizens prone to separatism and thus bad.

Zionism was crafted to be a good ethnic nationalism -- territorial aspirations were directed outside of Germany and for Eastern European ethnic Ashkenazim prone to radicalism.

The German Jewish Zionist leadership never expected to emigrate to Palestine but intended to keep high positions in German politics and in the German economy.

Eastern European ethnic Ashkenazim who migrated into rump Germany could be assimilated to liberal Enlightenment German Jewish values via Zionism.

Brandeis followed this model to some extent in the USA without the separation of citizenship and nationality.

Jerry Haber said...


Thanks for your comment. I was not referring in my piece to the German Empire; I was referring to the German state as an example of an ethnic state. Multi-ethnic empires were, as you know, common before the end of World War I.

But things are ALWAYS more complicated than my posts present them!

Unknown said...

Just thinking re the dual personality of Jake the Sheik and Yisrael that the new name he acquires seems now to be just for hasbara and Yacov is still trying to steal Esav's birthright by hook,crook, or transfer all over again.

Joachim Martillo said...

BTW, Russian Jews welcomed to Germany are considered Traeger Deutscher Kultur (Bearers of German Culture).

Boeckh's formulation of German nationalism around German language appears to have won out in the end. He wanted to include Yiddish as a German dialect in order to extend German territorial claims.

The situation is somewhat ironic on many grounds.

Here is some linguistic technical irony.

After I read Jechiel Bin-Nun's Jiddisch und die deutschen Mundarten as well as Paul Wexler's work in Yiddish linguistics I think I would accept Wexler's idea that Yiddish is a relexified Slavic language that at least partially acquired German vocabularly along Jewish trade routes in German-speaking territories -- hence the difficulty of identifying a set of German territorial parent dialects for Yiddish vocabulary.

Jerry Haber said...

Joachim, I genuinely thought I was publishing your comment with my name and that of Phil Weiss, but it came through twice, and I deleted itinadvertantly. So I am republishing it here. In the future, please use the Haber moniker.


Every once in a while Professor Haber or Phil Weiss posts a blog entry that I find simply incomprehensible.

If we are looking at involuntary transfer as a solution to the conflict over Palestine, why are we only discussing the involuntary transfer of the native Palestinian population?

Why not look at the removal of the Zionist settler colonist population as the proper solution?

Doesn't Gordis see that the logic of transfer applies far more strongly to the Zionist settler colonists?

Under Nuremberg Tribunal Law and the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, the native Palestinian population has suffered an immense tort at the hands of Zionist colonists, who do not count as a protected population under the Nuremberg Precedents or the Convention.

Removing the Zionist colonists would be reasonable relief because ethnic Ashkenazim, Moroccan Jewish Arabs, Iraqi Jewish Arabs, and Yemeni Jewish have no claim whatsoever to historic Palestine beyond a twisted and extremist misinterpretation of certain religious texts and mythology.

To be realistic, transferred Israeli Jews could easily assimilate into Jewish communities throughout the world while another forced transfer of the native Palestinian population would probably create at least another two generations of Muslim anger against the USA.

Believing that the State of Israel saved the Jewish people is questionable at least.

Replacing am yisrael or klal yisrael with haam hayehudi is a reinterpretation of Eastern European Ashkenazi ethnicity for the purpose of staking an insupportable claim to Palestine.

We need an open discussion of Jewish history since the assassination of Czar Alexander II. Arguing that Christian anti-Semitism is an eternal threat to Jews simply is not supported by the factual data.

I know that the discussion could be painful, but I am really tired of Zionist platitudes.

Zionism probably closed havens for Jews throughout the Islamic world during the Hitler years while the role of ethnic Ashkenazim in Bolshevism and communist revolutionary activity throughout Central and Eastern Europe made it hard for the USA, Canada, Latin American countries, and the UK to accept larger numbers of Jewish refugees after the German Nazis took power than were granted asylum.