On July 19th, the few Palestinian members of Israel’s Knesset (parliament) strenuously objected to a bill making Jewish citizens “more equal” than others. But to no avail. CTIP guest columnist Yousef Jabareen, an elected member of the Knesset, explains that in Israel the word “democracy’ does not mean what it does in Canada. Read more.
Guest column by Dr. Yousef Jabareen, MK (member of Israel’s parliament)
“Israel”, prime minister Netanyahu likes to repeat to anyone who will listen, “is the only democracy in the Middle East”.
But on Thursday July 19th, I watched in despair and frustration as a majority of Israel’s Jewish parliamentarians passed a law (The “Nation State Law”) which deprived me, a Palestinian citizen born in Israel, of many of my basic democratic rights. And I could not help reflecting on how different the Israeli notion of “democracy” is from Canada’s, which I had the opportunity of visiting in 2016.
In both Canada and Israel, “majority rule” is a key element of the definition of democracy.
But in Canada, “democracy” means much more than a simple “majority” in the Parliament. It also means equality for all citizens. No citizen has more legal rights, or a higher standing than others.
In Canada, “democracy” also means legal protections for minorities. French, the mother tongue of about 20% of Canadians, is an official language. It means that discrimination of all kinds, whether against French speaking Canadians or Black, Brown or Indigenous Canadians or women, is illegal. (I understand, of course, that discrimination still occurs in Canada. But it is punishable by law.)
In Israel however, none of this is true. “Democracy” has only one dimension – “majoritarianism”. That is, whoever is in the majority – in this case Jewish Israelis – can make any rule it wants. That majority can, and does, confer special, superior status on itself. The minority has the right to complain but has little protection, little political power and little recourse.
The recently passed “Jewish nation-state” law formalizes in law the superior rights and privileges that Jewish citizens of the state enjoy over its indigenous Palestinian minority, who comprise roughly 20% of the population. It rescinds the status of Arabic as one of Israel’s two official languages, deepens racial segregation by directing the government to “encourage and promote” Jewish towns, and declares that the right to self-determination in Israel is “exclusive” to the Jewish people, denying the history and ancient Palestinian roots in this land.
To use an imperfect Canadian analogy, imagine that a White Anglo Saxon (WASP) majority of Canada’s parliament were to amend the country’s constitution to declare that Canada is a “WASP” country? That English would be the only official language. That it would be legal for towns like Westmount, or Oakville to bar Black, or Brown, or Muslim people from moving there? That only WASP Canadians had the right to self-determination but not Quebec or indigenous Canadians?
Yet that is what is happening in Israel to its non-Jewish citizens.
The status of the Palestinian minority inside Israel
I come from an Arab-Palestinian background. I was born in a town called Umm al-Fahem, as was my father, and his father before him. Umm al Fahem pre-dates the State of Israel by centuries. My mother tongue is Arabic. Today I am part of Israel’s Palestinian minority.
Umm al Fahem is classified by Israel as an “Arab” municipality. It has never been given the same quality of public services as the “Jewish” towns which surround it, including in housing, education, healthcare and public transportation.
Equality proposed… and rejected
In one sense, there is little new in the “nation state law”. But it entrenches in law, and legalizes, and deepens Israel’s existing practices of racial discrimination.
It does not have to be like this. Only a few days ago, the Knesset rejected without debate a different law, in part inspired by a week long visit I made to Canada in 2016. The bill I proposed called for Israel to guarantee full equality, as Canada does, for all of its citizens, regardless of religion or race.
My proposal was defeated, confirming what Palestinians in Israel have always known: in Israel only Jews enjoy the full rights and privileges of citizenship.
We will continue our legal struggle for recognition of the Palestinian nation and for equal citizenship rights iican Israel. The denial of our individual and collective rights forces us to do so.
We are encouraged to see so many people around the world, (including many American and Canadian Jews), who have expressed their opposition to this Israeli law. We appeal to our friends in Canada, and to the Canadian government, to support our shared vision for enlightened democracy and the well-being of all people, regardless of race or religion.
We hope that international pressure can force Israel to reconsider this racist legislation and adopt an alternative based on “democracy” as the rest of the world understands that word.
See Dr. Jabareen’s presentation to the European Parliament concerning the Nation State law below.
Dr. Yousef Jabareen is a Palestinian citizen of Israel. He was elected to the Israeli Knesset (parliament) in March 2015. He has a Ph.D. in human rights law from Georgetown University in Washington D.C. He came to Canada in October 2016 on a study tour organized by Canada Talks Israel Palestine, a Canadian NGO.
Canada Talks Israel Palestine (CTIP) aims to promote a serious discussion in Canada about the complicated and emotional Israel/Palestine issue. We accept guest columnists from time and encourage brief comments (under 100 words) from serious readers. To learn more about what we do, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.