Incorporation and exclusion: Israel’s Palestinian citizens

Issue: 152

Miriam Scharf

A review of Shourideh C Molavi, Stateless Citizenship: The Palestinian-Arab Citizens of Israel (Haymarket, 2014), £20

Israel defines itself as a Jewish State although many of its citizens are not Jewish. It is the state of all Jews worldwide rather than those who live within its territories; the only state in the world that defines itself in this way.

In Stateless Citizenship Shourideh Molavi focuses on the ’48 Palestinians, those who were living in Israel when the state was founded in 1948, and who remained after the Nakba, the expulsion of about 750,000 Palestinians. The book concentrates more on how these Palestinian citizens of Israel cause a legal problem, rather than a political problem. The Zionist project demands that Jewish dominance is maintained, that the ethnic cleansing begun in 1947-8 is continued, and that those Palestinians who stay are kept as a suppressed minority. This book makes the case that the Palestinians within the 1948 Green Line, 20.5 percent (1.6 million) of the Israeli population, have been controlled through their ­incorporation as “stateless citizens”.

These Palestinians hold Israeli citizenship and have some rights, but they do not have a Jewish national identity. Most are Muslim, including 200,000 Bedouins, some are Druze and some Christian. Molavi says that “the State of Israel continues to deny the existence of its Palestinian-Arab citizenry as an indigenous population, a national group, or even as a national minority… Israeli (ab)uses of citizenship…have situated these people on the periphery of both Israeli and Palestinian society” (p3).

At a time when the refugee and migrant crisis is showing democratic states to be all too ready to deny or diminish rights to whole groups of people, a discussion of citizenship is useful. Each European state is harbouring or promoting forms of racism. But comparisons with racism in Europe are limited as in Israel the Palestinians are the indigenous group and Zionism, the enforcement of Jewish hegemony over Palestinians by colonisation (nowhere in the book is this called a racist ideology), is the founding ideology of the state. So in Israel the content of citizenship from the beginning has been a key political question. The fact is that “access to the home, the city, the state and the land itself in the State of Israel in the form of civic identification, claims, rights and membership, is deliberately designed to exclude the non-Jewish community” (p4). As Molavi points out repeatedly, the Israeli state allows no separation of Jewish identity and national identity. Legal challenges or petitions calling for an Israeli national identity, or for legal amendments referring to Israel as “a state of all its citizens”, are rejected. Conceding an Israeli national identity or equal citizenship would allow the idea of Palestinian Israelis being included as equals; this is not to be.

How does Israel square this inequality with its claim to be a democracy? Molavi cites court cases and government policies to show that, where this contradiction arises, it was always the practice, and is now enshrined in law, that maintaining the Jewish character of the state outweighs democratic criteria.

Molavi reviews some of the key critical scholarship on the exclusionary nature of Palestinian citizenship, examining various formulations. She uses these as a springboard for her thesis that “it is through inclusion within the Israeli citizenship regime that they are excluded” (p181). The idea of an incorporation regime is a conceptual framework increasingly accepted in academic circles. Molavi develops this with a chapter on Yasemin Soysal’s work (see Limits of Citizenship, Migration and Post-national Citizenship In Europe), though she insists her own idea of “stateless citizenship” is a different conceptual tool.

Molavi says that “the historical matrix of colonialism within which the Jewish national movement burgeoned is explained as a main source of the Israeli incorporation regime and the multi-faceted discrimination faced by Arab citizens today”, ie that Zionism is the problem. Included among the plethora of discriminatory legislation she describes are the recently passed laws banning citizens from organising or promoting boycotts of Israeli goods or services and the Loyalty Oath (Bill at the time of writing). The latter requires citizens to declare an oath to Israel as a “Jewish, Zionist, and democratic state, to its symbols and values, and to serve the state in any way demanded”, a substantial change from the previous, “I declare I will be a loyal citizen of the State of Israel.” The laws target all areas of life and force concessions to the dominance of Zionism, strengthening the Jewish character of state institutions and weakening their democratic features. An important aspect of this is the denial of collective in addition to individual rights for Palestinians. An example is rewriting of Arab village names in Hebrew characters—a measure claimed by the government as an example of inclusion! If any doubts remain as to Israel’s lack of legitimacy as a democratic state then Molavi cites the 2002 electoral law amendment, which prevents any person or political party standing, “if their aims and actions either explicitly or implicitly deny or challenge the Jewish and democratic nature of the State of Israel” (p71).

The book contains a summary of key events following the Nakba: the “Military Administration” restrictions and land confiscations, the beginning of minimal spaces for political participation in the 1970s, the establishment of Land Day, and the development of the High Follow-Up Committee to represent the interests of Arab citizens of Israel culminating in support for the first intifada of 1987. The results of the Oslo Accords fed the Israeli Palestinians solidarity with the second intifada 2000-2002. Since then Molavi notes there has been “increased securitisation and isolation of Arab citizens in what had become a heavily polarised Israeli society” (p13). It would have been helpful to use the historical framework to contextualise developments in Zionist practice and laws. For example the batch of aggressive laws introduced by the Israeli State in 2002 surely parallels its brutal military response to the second intifada.

Some of Molavi’s reviews of previous scholarship seem solely for academic consumption. However, she does take on the “liberal” Zionist argument in Alexander Yakobson and Amnon Rubinstein’s 2009 book Israel and the Family of Nations, a text worth critiquing. The formula used to legitimise a Jewish State is that any denial of this “undermines the principles of universal equality since it denies the right of the Jewish people to self-determination and national independence”. Molavi points out that “even the most liberal Zionists consider exclusive Jewish democratic control as vital for the existence of a Jewish national home, regardless of its legal, political and human costs. And with these two factors as priorities, the liberal Zionist ideology proves incapable of implementing even the most basic principles of liberalism.” Molavi concludes that Yakobson and Rubinstein “are trying to divert the reader from the devastating historical record to the myth of a basically virtuous colonial-settler project” (p146). Other contemporary liberal Zionist authors are also examined. But the focus being on present citizenship, surely Molavi did not need to include Theodor Herzl’s Orientalist depictions of Arabs and Golda Meir’s denial of the word “Palestinian”? A clear statement that Israel as a Jewish State has been built on the denial of Palestinians to self-determination would not have gone amiss.

It is disconcerting that Molavi uses the terms “Arab citizens” and “Arab Israelis” interchangeably with “Palestinian citizens” and “Palestinian Israelis”, ignoring both Jews of Arab origin, and the Druze, neither of whom identify as Palestinian. This aside, she has lifted some interesting questions from other scholars as to naming citizens: Anton Shammas asks for a new definition of being Israeli, one that includes Arabs, while Baruch Kimmerling suggests that, if in France you can have a French Jew, can you have, in the Jewish State, a Muslim Jew or a Christian Jew? This conundrum arises because “neither Jewish nationalism…nor the Israeli State were able to invent a purely secular or a civil national identity” (p149). Molavi looks at various ideas of Palestinian citizenship; Miloon Kothari, writing on the right to adequate housing, explains: “Nationality status in Israel is not linked to origin from, or residence in a certain territory, as is the norm in international law…ethnic criteria [are] the grounds for the employment of full rights” (p149).

Molavi uses many studies to show that the constitutional definition of the state as Jewish, bolstered by structural and institutional policies of dominance and control, essentially prevents Palestinian Israelis from having any meaningful citizenship.The Arabs in Israel by Sabri Jiryis (1976) is referenced as giving a useful history of the systematic expropriation and oppression of the colonial project from 1948. Elia Zureik’s The Palestinians in Israel: A Study of Internal Colonialism states the “primacy of Israeli political economy, its class structure and Jewish-Arab relations” in defining the situation of Palestinians in Israel as an “internal colony” (p161). Ian Lustick’s Arabs in the Jewish State: Israel’s Control of a National Minority focuses on how the quiescence of the Palestinian minority has been obtained, the aim being “to control the Arab community in Israel rather than to eliminate, integrate, absorb or develop it” (p163). Finally, Ilan Pappé adopts a systematic view of Israel as a settler-colonial society (p166), showing how Palestinians are viewed as part of a group outside Israel, not as part of Israel. Molavi also emphasises the importance of independent Arab scholars.

Although chapters can appear like a collection of separate essays, this sampling of scholarship gives the reader a range of analytical and conceptual frames, and outlines the practical and theoretical effects of the foisting of Jewish nationalism on Palestinian citizens.

It is disappointing that the author does not comment on or critique how Palestinian “statelessness” has fed the idea of a two-state solution. She does not mention the possibility of a single—secular and democratic—state although her analysis seems to support this as a way to challenge and resolve Palestinian “statelessness”. It is impossible to divorce the treatment of Palestinians within the Green Line from actions of Palestinians outside, indeed from regional and global changes, yet Molavi avoids such wider analysis. With a text focused on academic debate and critique, any activist reader must work hard to get useful ammunition. Nevertheless, she has contributed to showing that the Israeli state, from its inception to the latest legislation, is far from being a democracy in its discriminatory treatment of its non-Jews.

Miriam Scharf is a socialist and activist in Newham, east London.