Monday, July 9, 2012

National Service for Palestinian Israelis?

Every so often the suggestion is raised that Palestinian citizens of Israel, like Jewish citizens, should do some form of national service. Since Israel effectively bars them from military service, and since most of them have no desire anyway to fight in an army that oppresses Palestinians, the proposed alternative is some sort of non-military national service. The claim has been heard recently because of the work of the Plessner Committee, which is recommending military and national service for the ultra-othodox.

A state that defines itself as a state of the Jews, and only of the Jews, and then foundationally discriminates in a myriad of ways against its non-Jewish citizens, cannot morally demand equality of obligations. The answer is to transform the State of Israel into a state of all its citizens, with equal rights and obligations for all. With 5 1/2 million Jews, and with Israel's history, it would still very much be a state in which Hebrew and Jewish culture would be dominant in the public sphere, a state that would look like an ethnic democracy rather than an ethnocracy. And in that case, we could have the philosophical and practical argument about whether national service is a good idea.

Some of my liberal Zionist friends will demur, and it's for them that I write this post. Some, like Peter Beinart, will claim that while Israel is a flawed democracy, it is a democracy nonetheless. They will say that it is indeed unfortunate that there has been a systematic, inegalitarian distribution of resources that favor Jews at the expense of Arabs. But Israel has, at least, in principle, the resources that can make the system more egalitarian. Who knows? Were the Palestinian Israelis to accept some sort of national service, perhaps that would make it easier for them to be accepted within the society, and then they could make the case for a more equitable distribution.

Akiva Eldar, a man whom I respect immensely, agrees with me that under the present circumstances, Palestinian Israelis should not be required to participate in national service. But he also argues today in Haaretz that Palestinian Israelis have more political power than they they think. Instead of staying home in droves whenever there are national elections (only a bit over 50% vote), they could promise to vote for a center-left coalition if some of their political demands are met. After all, and here I return to Beinart, during the years of the second Rabin government, because of coalition arrangments, there were significant steps taken to bridge the gaps between Arab and Jewish citizens. It is, theoretically, possible -- if only the Palestinian Israelis would vote.

Sadly, Eldar's stance is typical liberal Israeli self-delusion. Discrimination against Palestinian Israelis is not just institutional, it is foundational. They are 20% of the population, yet they have virtually no political power. Why not? Because it's a Jewish state.

Beinart's invoking the second Rabin government is illuminating. . Rabin was elected in part because of the Arab vote. Yet even Rabin did not have the political will or ability to bring the Arab political parties into the government coalition. Why not? Because it's a Jewish state. So Arab Israelis could expect to get further funding if they supported the government outside the coalition, and hence not control any ministries, which is the main source of resources for all parties.

Even this was too much for many Israelis, who claimed that the Oslo process was illegitimate because it rested on Arab votes. Attempts to require a Jewish majority on major issues in the Knesset failed, but narrowly. The one time that an Israeli government made some serious gestures towards its Arab citizens, it lost its legitimacy in the eyes of those who had been brought up to believe that Israel was a state of the Jews, not of its citizens.

The lessons of Rabin's failure was learned well by the next Labour prime minister, Ehud Barak. In the 1999 elections close to 75% of the Palestinian Israelis voted, and over 95% of them voted for Ehud Barak for prime minister. When Barak won in a landslide, he promised to the be prime minister of "kulam," everybody. What he meant was that he was going to be the prime minister of all the Jews, left, right, and center, religious and non-religious. He did not want to be perceived as the prime minister of the Arabs. So despite the fact that no sector supported him more than the Arab one, he refused to meet with the Israeli Arab political leaders after the election, not even extending them the courtesy of being invited to informal coalition talks. After all, he thought, they were in his pocket; who else would they support? After the fiasco of Camp David, the beginning of the Second Intifada, and the October police riots against Palestinian Israelis, leaving 13 Palestinian Israelis dead, and despite Barak's attempts to placate the Arab citizenry before the election with Or Commision report (whose recommendations were not implemented), only 18% of Palestinian Israelis voted in the 2001 elections. And why should they? Wouldn't it be more convenient for them to simply flush their ballot down the toilet?

From 1948 until the present, Palestinian Israelis have been effectively "present absentees," people who dot the Israeli landscape but who are not seriously noticed by Israeli Jews. When they were under military government in the 1950s and 1960s, voter participation was very high. As Karin Schefferman of the Israeli Democracy Institute reported in 2009

In the 1950s and 1960s, the voting rate of the Arab citizens of Israel was very high - from 90% in 1955 to 82% in 1965. Neuberger (1965) suggests that the high turnout during these years was actually imposed by the dominant Mapai party, which took advantage of the clan social structure of the Arab population and used the military government to pressure Israel's Arab citizens to vote for Mapai's satellite parties: "The Israeli Arab Democratic List", "Agriculture and Development", "Cooperation and Brotherhood" and "Progress and Development". Therefore, the high voting rates during these years do not necessarily indicate a desire to participate, but rather fear of the Israeli regime

I suppose that there is a certain amount of progress if some of the citizenry doesn't live in fear of the government, and unlike their Palestinian brethren on the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinian Israelis do not live in fear. As ethnocracies go, Israel is pretty enlightened and liberal.

But the idea that increased voter participation is going to significantly help the Palestinian Israelis is a liberal Zionist myth. A visiting professor of US Constitutional law recently asked me, "How many Knesset seats would it take for the Palestinians to be a member of the coalition?" I answered, "61, i.e., a majority -- because no Jewish prime minister will ever invite them into a coalition."

And why not? Because it's a Jewish state. The hand-wringing of the widening gaps between Jews and Arabs allow Israelis to sleep better at night.

But it is just more liberal Zionist mauvais foi


Richard Witty said...

You speak of past-present conditions that are partially a result of there not being admired Arab leaders.

This is an opportunity (present-future) for there to be respected Arab participants in the life of Israel, thereby redefining what Israel is (even if slowly).

It takes work and time to change racism. Racism is a composite of attitudes, some truthfully racial, others more of stereotypes.

The way that communities earn their peer status (its NEVER just granted, that is superficial), is by contributing first.

If you are an advocate of Israel for its citizens, and not only for its Jewish citizens, you will advocate for Arab contribution to Israel, for them to make a difference, an inexpendible difference.

Making no change, is keeping things the same.

Richard Witty said...

You speak of past-present conditions that are partially a result of there not being admired Arab leaders.

This is an opportunity (present-future) for there to be respected Arab participants in the life of Israel, thereby redefining what Israel is (even if slowly).

It takes work and time to change racism. Racism is a composite of attitudes, some truthfully racial, others more of stereotypes.

The way that communities earn their peer status (its NEVER just granted, that is superficial), is by contributing first.

If you are an advocate of Israel for its citizens, and not only for its Jewish citizens, you will advocate for Arab contribution to Israel, for them to make a difference, an inexpendible difference.

Making no change, is keeping things the same.

edwin said...

I like your blog. The question of whether it is worth continuing is an interesting one.

One question is how many readers do you have?

I am reading "Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship: Quakers, African Americans and the myth of racial justice". Friendship in this case is a double entendre.

In many ways it makes depressing reading - especially with a number of parallels with Israel's treatment of the Palestinians and the outcome decided by civil war.

The collapsing of the two state "solution" is one of the parallels that really surprised me. I did not realize that early effort in the fight against slavery involved wide spread acceptance of a two-state solution.

One of the lessons was that continual confrontation was necessary for the gains that occurred. In your face, but polite seemed to be required - repeatedly. Refusal to accept the status quo is important. Boycotts, while not accomplishing what people wished they would accomplish probably helped to focus criticism on slavery. Upsetting people was absolutely required.

So - If you have the readership, I would encourage you to continue. I truly hope that this travesty will not continue beyond our life-times, but if it does than this will not be the first time that people took action knowing that the issues of injustice would outlive them.

jhamnesty1 said...

I agree that Israel cannot honestly claim to be an egalitarian society, when it comes to distribution of resources and power. Israeli Arabs suffer shameful discriminationn -- just ask Ir Amim, for visceral proof.

But you seem to miss the point of the "liberals" -- Beinart, Eldar, et al -- which is that the political system is less the problem than the ethnocratic attitudes of the citizenry or rulers. I.e. -- it's not because of Israel's formal or "foundational" identity as a Jewish state. It's because of what particular Jewish rulers felt politically able to do.

How many times did we hear about the US: "A black person could become president, but it will never happen." Like African Americans, Israeli Arabs are an unpopular minority unlikely to be embraced by most governing coalitions -- even though it is legally and nstitutionally possible, were the political will to change. In contrast, Israel's public identification as a Jewish State requires a formal change, as does the Law of Return.

And if tomorrow Israel did formally shed the title "Jewish State" and ended the Law of Return, (but all else equal) nothing about the coalition politics you described would change. Which means it really has nothing to do with Israel's being a Jewish State, and everything to do with the particular Jews who happen to dominate it.

Jerry Haber said...

"It's not because of Israel's formal or "foundational" identity as a Jewish state. It's because of what particular Jewish rulers felt politically able to do."

No, you have it backwards. Because Israelis here are raised to see Israel as a state of the Jews, because they understand the state foundationally to be that way, and that is how it is understood in its foundational documents, they act in the way they act.

Yes, the Communist Party could, in principle, capture 20% of the United States Senate. And, yes, there could be a Communist president. As far as I know, there is no US law against it. But Americans don't see themselves as communists, and even if they allow that there are Communist citizens, the political imagination boggles at there taking a role in the country qua Communist.

So the idea that because there is no law forbidding an Arab from becoming Prime Minister means that there could be an Arab Prime Minister some day is truly, truly bizarre. Sure, there can be an Arab prime minister, just as there can be a communist President of the United States.

Let's take some baby steps first.

Let's first work for getting the Israeli courts and Israeli institutions to recognize Israeli nationality. Right now, my nationality is recognized by the state of Israel as "Jewish" and not Israeli. If I want to register myself as Israeli, I cannot. The Supreme Court as gone on record saying that there is no such as being an Israeli national.

Please show me in the founding documents of the United States -- which were written when there were many black slaves (though not all blacks were slaves), where it says that America is a White nation, or even a Christian nation.

You don't get it. Beinart doesn't get it. You have to live here, I guess, in order to get it.

Jerry Haber said...

I ahould add that most Americans who live here don't get it either.

Look, one can have a state that is functionally and emotionally a Jewish state where there can be true equality. But not this Jewish state, which was founded in such a way as to permanently privilege one group over another.

Could things change -- sure, I hope they will. I can't wait till Israel becomes a liberal democracy. Or, for that matter, Jewish in some non-racial/ethnic sense of the term.

Maybe we can start by emending the Law of Return so that hte criterion of Jewish identity is not the same as the Nuremberg Laws.

Then we can start promoting a shared Israeli identity.

Of course, Arabs will still suffer discrimination. But at least the society will be founded -- nominally -- on the notion of truly equal membership in the nation state. Then we can get rid of the sixty-plus laws that discriminate against Arabs.

For those, you can read Ben White's lastest book.

Arab prime minister, indeed!

Richard Witty said...

Again, the active contribution of Arab Israelis (or whatever term) will make a big difference in their status in Israel.

Frankly, it would go further than even the changes in South Africa, which made the racial screen irrelevant for the highly intelligent, but not change the conditions for the masses.

As odd as it is, the Israeli political condition is further along than "Jerry" presents. There have been Arab members of the Israeli Supreme Court. (It took the US 150 years, before it had its first black Supreme Court member. We've never had or will have a communist Supreme Court member).

When you say "I can't wait", I'm not sure what you mean.

Do you mean that you will act in the ways that you can to transform both the consciousness and the institutions of Israeli society?

How do you envision that?

External force, BDS? (I think that would make things worse before they had any prospect of getting better, and then they won't get better as a result of that.)

Persuasion before courts? I think that has a better prospect.

Jerry Haber said...

"The active contribution of Arab Israelis (or whatever term) will make a big difference in their status in Israel."

Richard, Arab Israelis already make an active contribution to the state in a variety of fields, although there is a very low glass ceiling to their promotion, and they are almost entirely absent from the government sector, despite repeated broken promises from left and right wing governments.

So I assume you were referring to the national service/military debate.

Well maybe you are right, so let's try to make a test.

Let's try to imagine that there is a whole sector of Arabs who do military service. That service is known to the Israeli public, who openly profess great pride in the fact that there are Arabs who serve the Jewish state, fight its wars, and even die in its service.

Let's assume that after almost sixty years of their contribution, they have not made any advancement in Israeli society, that they are disgruntled because they were, in effect, lied to, that an overwhelming number of them now -- for the first time since the early years of the state, when they were literally forced against their will to do military service -- are opposed to compulsory military service.

Hard to imagine a group like that?

Ever head of the Druze?

Yes, you heard me right. According to Haaretz around 3 weeks, polls of the Druze are overwhelmingly in favor of doing away with compulsory Druze service. Reason? They have not been advanced at all in Israel society, despite their service.

Or in Hebrew the phrase is, The Kushi did what he was asked to do; the Kushi can now go.

But I understand why you would think otherwise. You are a liberal, a decent sort, and you want to believe that the sort of tokenism you referred to (yes, there is an Arab on the supreme court, and he will probably be the last Arab for a long time, since the nomination process is moving towards a political one and not one controlled by a professional liberal elite...but how much of that did you know)

This sort of tokenism allows liberal Zionists to sleep at night. What there is systematic discrimination in terms of allocation of funds, chances for advancement, accusations of fifth-column, a majority of Israelis saying they don't think Arabs should have equal rights with Jews? Heck, every country has problems, I am sure that when peace comes, things will improve.

And I am telling you that the 1948 regime is unable to give more than lipservice to equality because it is foundationally discriminatory.

Or to put it differently -- there is no analogy between Israel and the United States. Period. Those who think there is are deluding themselves.

Let's face it -- equality is viewed by most Israelis as an existential threat. That's why when I want American to a be a liberal democracy, a nation state of all its citizens without distinction of religion, color, creed, sexual orientation, you name it -- I am considered a moderate.

But when I feel the same sentiments about Israel, I am called a radical leftist.

That's because this state is deeply, deeply out of kilter. It needs to be recalibated -- and BDS is one of the ways it will be, God willing.

Richard Witty said...

There is analogy between Israel and Ireland, Israel and South Africa, Israel and India, and Israel and the US in which once service is universal, that meritocracy inevitably begins as a basis of integration rather than family, ethnicity, party or any other form of favoritism.

In South Africa, it is NOT BDS that broke apartheid, but a large combination of efforts. Specifically, I once worked as an assistant for an IBM exec who worked in South Africa. His division of IBM had a non-discrimmination policy, and did hire competent and educated (there were many, mostly from British Christian schools) black employees. There definitely was a firm glass ceiling, but before positions changed, hearts and minds changed.

De Klerk NEVER would have shifted without the confidence from high and middle black leaders (political and commerce) that they were mature and competent, non-discriminatory themselves.

It is a prerequisite sequence. Hearts and minds making a path for the possibility of changing institutions. There is no magic.

The path is not of "all", as that will obviously be an impossibility. It is a path of critical mass though.

I prefer to continue to move forward.

I see the militant approach (including BDS), any attraction for it felt and certainly expressed ever, as much of a prospect of backfiring (more actually), than your despair about mandatory social/military service.

I describe the effects of successful BDS as nearly certainly firming the bunker mentality of Israelis, rather than loosening it. And, that rather than instituting a darkness before the dawn, it will end up instituting a darkness before a greater darkness.

Your accusations of milquetoast may be correct, or may be utterly incorrect and misguided.

One thing that happens too damn often, is when militants demand all or nothing and get nothing, they stop attempting to move things forward comrehensively, socially.

I know you've seen it. Why not enhance paths that do exist, even if they have a possibility of failure.