A Return to the 1950s? The Bishara Affair


The Israeli media is full of articles, interviews and reports concerning “the Bishara affair.” No one, however, is allowed to tell the readers what this is all about, and rumors, guesses and the Israeli security officials’ leaks are replacing real information.

At least one thing is crystal clear: the young and charismatic Palestinian leader and Knesset member from the National Democratic Alliance (Balad), is the target of an orchestrated campaign of de-legitimation, which may lead to his indictment for…for what? Most of the journalists are insisting that Bishara is too clever to act outside the borders of the law, and that during all the years he has been careful not to cross the lines. If the leader of Balad has not committed an illegal act, the only things that remain are his political opinions. And today, Azmi Bishara is being targeted for his strong opposition to the war in Lebanon and his public support for the Lebanese national resistance, including the Hezbollah.

No doubt, Azmi Bishara is one of the best products of the new generation of political leaders among the Palestinian minority of Israel. A generation that demands its civil rights and refuses to beg for these rights; a generation which takes the Israeli self-definition of being a democratic state very seriously. “Israel should be a state of all its citizens” is the main demand of Balad. As columnist B. Michael explains in Yediot Aharonot on 13 April 2007: “The wise readers should try to find in their memory one single democracy in the world which is not ‘a state of all its citizens.’ [...] Whoever speaks about a state that it is not a state of all its citizens, is like someone who claims that a mother is not the mother of all her children. [...] A state for all its citizens is merely a tautology.”

These obvious words, however, are not shared by the majority of the Israeli public opinion makers. In the same issue of Yediot Aharonot, senior political analyst Alex Fishman writes: “Already in 1996, Bishara was speaking about ‘a state of all its citizens.’ This is, in fact, a codeword for the ideological motto of the radical current among the Israeli Arabs, since the fifties.” The crime of Azmi Bishara is in fact to demand that Israel’s state institutions, structures, laws, regulations, practices and official ideology fit its self definition as a democratic state. The hysterical campaign against him confirms how far the Israeli state is from a democratic state, even though, unlike apartheid South Africa, the Palestinian minority is granted civic rights.

The tautological dimension of a democratic state for all its citizens is so obvious, that, following Balad, the Israeli Communist Party and Meretz left-Zionist party felt obliged, several years ago, to add to their program “Israel as a State for all its citizens.”

In fact, what Balad (and before Balad, the anti-Zionist Matzpen group) is claiming, and attacked for, is as simple as that: as long as a state does not see itself as a state for all its citizens, and acts accordingly, it is not a democracy, even if all the citizens participate in the electoral process.

If Israel is not a state for all its citizens, what is it? One doesn’t have to make academic analysis in order to define the real character of the State of Israel; its own self-definition (in the Declaration of Independence, e.g.) provides us the answer: Israel is the state of the Jewish people (all over the world). Such a definition has a double implication: while a Jew from Brooklyn, has, as a Jew, “a share” in the State, the Palestinian citizen of Tarshiha in the Galilee is no more than a dweller, a kind of tolerated resident, a guest, a kind of immigrant in his/her own country.

Exaggerated? Not at all. Which democratic country has had so many laws proposed (all rejected until now) that speak of canceling citizenship for this or that reason, its non-majority ethnic citizens? Which (even non-democratic) country, except Israel, denies the right of its citizens to have family reunification with her/his spouse, if they are not Jews, and de facto obliges them, by law, to emigrate if they want to live as a family?

The “citizenship” of the non-Jewish Israeli population is not a basic right resulting from being a citizen, but “provided” by the (Jewish) sovereign, and therefore, conditioned, shaky, provisory. As a “Jewish Democratic State,” the sovereign in Israel are not all the citizens, but “the Jewish people.” The basic, obvious, tautological democratic demand for an Israeli State as a State for all its citizens is in fact the demand that the sovereign shall be the collectivity of all citizens, and not a specific ethnic group.

In that sense, Israeli scholars Oren Yiftachel and Yoav Peled definition of Israel as an ethnocracy and not a democracy is extremely pertinent.

MK Azmi Bishara is attacked today for challenging the non-democratic character of Israel as an ethnic state with all his talent and strong democratic sensitivity, and for putting a mirror in the face of the fake Israeli liberals—a mirror which doesn’t lie and shows the deformed face of Israeli democratic pretensions.

However, the Bishara affair cannot be limited to an attack against a brilliant critic of the Israeli regime, and must be integrated into its broader context. For Azmi Bishara is not the first one to challenge the oxymoron of “Jewish Democratic State,” and definitely not the most extremist in this criticism. Moreover, such criticism was a real fashion among Israeli critical scholars and intellectuals between the mid-eighties and late nineties. However, we are not in the eighties, but in 2007, and that makes all the difference.

In October 2000, the Israeli ruling elite initiated a radical “counterreformation” concerning the place and rights of the Palestinian citizenry of Israel. After a couple decades of partial liberalization of the whole Israeli system—following three decades of a quasi-totalitarian society—including a real improvement of the status of the Palestinian minority, especially during Rabin’s era, Ehud Barak, the most racist among the Israeli PMs ever, decided to put a stop to what was perceived as an erosion of the “Jewish character” of Israel.

The murder of twelve peaceful Palestinian demonstrators was a bloody indication that the party is over, and the Palestinian citizens should remember that they are merely tolerated by the Jewish majority, not equal in the sovereign citizen body. Following the massacre, a series of severe verbal attacks and threats against Palestinian MKs, and more generally, a old-new policy of an iron-fist against the whole Arab population, and the social and political gains of the last two decades.

The Palestinian population, however, didn’t return to its “natural” place, as a tolerated minority, and continued to fight for true equality: last year, several representative Palestinian institutions produced four working papers in which were formulated demands for true equality and citizenship, challenging in different ways, the Jewish non-democratic nature of the State. To a large extent, the leadership of the Palestinian community of Israel refused to get the message, and answered Barak’s old-new discourse by strengthening their demand for rights and equality.

Following the publication of these working papers, the head of the Israeli Intelligence described the entire Palestinian population as “a strategic threat” to Israel. Indeed, this was a return to the discourse of the 1950s, and an indication of what the security and political establishment has in mind!

There should be no mistake: the campaign against Azmi Bishara is definitely part and parcel of a much broader offensive, one that concerns each and every Palestinian citizen of Israel. Those Palestinian leaders who are trying to single out Azmi, to shout with the wolfs of the Israeli establishment and media in charging Bishara’s “extremism,” to publicly criticize its “negative role towards Jewish public opinion,” hoping by that to save themselves from future attacks, are dead wrong. They refuse to understand the broader context of the global counterreformation, one that need be the concern of every Israeli.

To unite behind Azmi Bishara is not only a basic democratic duty, but also the only way to protect civil liberties in Israel, and to initiate a strong popular reaction to that counterreformation that is threatening every Israeli citizen.

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