In her well-researched book, Shira Robinson shows how the Israeli authorities shut Palestinians out of mainstream society by establishing a discriminatory system of privilege, writes Joseph Dana
Israel’s meticulous battle over nationality is plainly distilled on the state ID card. Israeli ID cards have long listed whether one is an Arab, Jew or otherwise, with no recourse to the seemingly natural option of “Israeli” nationality.
Life has been defined along these strict religious and ethnic binaries to establish clear parameters between the privileged class and others. ID cards, the physical embodiment of this policy, allow security officials to perform frequent “random” ID checks around bus stations, in airports and busy pedestrian areas.
For many Palestinian citizens of Israel, their ID cards simply invite unnecessary harassment from security officials.
Few, if any, western countries have one’s ethnicity or religion listed on a national ID card but that inconvenient fact has not brought about any serious pressure to change the discriminatory system in Israel. Ironically, the only changes to the ID card in the last 60 years have come from the religious establishment.
In 2001, the Israeli interior ministry began to phase out the use of “Jewish” and “Arab” labels in the nationality section of the ID card. At the time, the ministry was run by Shas, a religious party that objected to an Israeli high court order requiring it to still identify non-Orthodox Jews as “Jewish” on the cards.
Instead of removing the nationality line in the ID card, the interior ministry replaced “Jewish” and “Arab” with asterisks.
It is rumoured that the number of asterisks varies depending on one’s ethnicity and even one’s relationship with Orthodox Judaism.
While ID cards might seem like a superficial bureaucratic necessity, the issue of nationality is a divisive one in Israel. Last summer, a motion to include an “Israeli” nationality, which in principle could include both Jews and Arabs, was rejected by the Israeli high court. In Israel, one can’t be seen in the eyes of the state as an Israeli, only as a Jew or an Arab.
How it came to pass that Israel, which proudly promotes its enlightened, western-style democracy, entrenched a discriminatory system of privilege into the fabric of Israel’s government is one of the subjects of a new book by Shira Robinson, Citizen Strangers: Palestinians and the Birth of Israel’s Liberal Settler State.
Robinson’s well-researched and detailed account of Israel’s dramatic formation period and the creation of what she calls “a liberal settler state” is a welcome academic addition to Israeli and Palestinian historiography.
Through state documents and forgotten interviews with Israeli officials, Robinson, an associate professor of history and international affairs at the George Washington University in Washington, unpacks exactly how Israel’s founding fathers carefully avoided creating a real democracy based on equal rights and access to resources after Israel was established in 1948. Instead, these politicians were obsessed with the large population of Palestinians that managed to remain after the dust of the 1948 war settled. Under international law, these people – the last vestiges of historic Palestine’s indigenous inhabitants – were entitled to full citizenship. However, this is not what transpired. Israel used an elaborate system of military laws, outright discrimination and clever diplomacy to ensure the Palestinians received, at best, second-class Israeli citizenship that would preserve Jewish privilege in the country until today.
In the words of Robinson, Citizen Strangers traces the contradictions of Israel as a modern colonial state whose procedural democracy was established by forcibly removing most of the indigenous majority from within its borders and then extending to those who remained a discrete set of individual rights and duties that only the settler community could determine.
The book’s most striking revelation for any observer of the Middle East is how Israel’s current matrix of control over Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza originated in the early 1950s. For example, Robinson presents a detailed discussion of the permit structure, which originated in late 1948. All aspects of life, from employment to food rationing, were delineated by permits for both Palestinians and Jews. While Israeli Jews were first to receive new national ID cards as early as 1949, Palestinians were subjected to a humiliating battle to secure permits for travel between villages and towns, as well as working privileges. Those Palestinians who were unable to acquire the necessary permits were quickly dispatched to Israel’s military justice system and their property was, in some cases, available to be expropriated by the newly formed state. Shockingly, Robinson notes that in some villages and towns, Israeli officers had to meet monthly quotas for the numbers of Palestinians they arrested for permit violations and were even rewarded for exceeding the quotas.
One could draw a straight line connecting the permit structure that was created in the late 1940s to control Israel’s newly conquered Palestinian population with Israel’s modus operandi for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
Accordingly, what ultimately emerges from this book is a detailed narrative of the development of Israel’s military rule over Palestinians. Early in the volume, Robinson argues that the most important step that Israeli leaders took to ensure absolute Jewish rule over Palestinians in the state’s founding years was to “entrench rather than abolish the military regime” that British mandate authorities had created in the 1940s.
The entrenchment has never stopped in Israel and currently exists in radical proportions in the West Bank and Gaza. Incidentally, the only serious source of opposition to these developments at the time came from the Israeli Communist Party. Robinson presents a number of stimulating diversions into communist newspapers and public discussions, that have long been invisible to an English-speaking audience.
The Israeli cabinet was given sweeping authority to issue and revoke military orders at will in the late 1940s. In “border areas”, which had a broad and undefined dimension, Israeli authorities could establish “security zones” that efficiently gave the Israeli military the ability to remove Palestinian villagers from their homes and expel them out of the country.
Robinson reveals in raw detail the complex legal arguments that resulted in the entrenchment of these policies.
Over the past several years, as criticism of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has become more acceptable in mainstream discourse, especially in the United States, many prominent liberals in Israel have argued that the 1967 takeover of the Palestinian Territories was a break in modern Israeli history. Liberals such as the famed Israeli writer David Grossman forcefully noted that Israel was a liberal democracy, albeit with some hiccups, before 1967 and the occupation of the West Bank fundamentally changed the country. Citizen Strangers demonstrates that this is simply not the historic picture.
As Robinson’s diligent research demonstrates, all the systems of legal warfare, the suffocating permit structure and entrenched military rule that define Israel’s West Bank colonial adventure existed in Israeli society from the beginning. There was no break in Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians; the country merely took over more Palestinian land and along with it more Palestinians. The brutal truth, which many Israeli and American liberals don’t or can’t acknowledge, is that Israel’s democracy has been severely flawed from the outset because of its insistence on engineering total Jewish privilege in society.
Current Israeli trends indicate that the country is returning to the siege mentality of 1948. The present Israeli parliament, one of the most conservative in the country’s history, is resurrecting laws from the 1950s. One contentious law would require a loyalty oath from all non-Jewish residents recognising the Jewish and democratic character of Israel. Ironically, this is exactly the same idea that was debated in the 1950s but shelved because of perceptions that it would make the country appear anti-democratic in the eyes of the West.
The reappearance of the loyalty oath in Israeli policy circles underlines why Citizen Strangers is a timely book for understanding the layers of modern Israeli society and its relationship with Palestinians. After 65 years, many wars and a continuing military occupation, Israel faces the same challenges of 1948. Given its military strength and American diplomatic support, laws entrenching Jewish privilege over democracy that were considered toxic in the 1950s are now acceptable.
If history is any guide, Israel, left to its own devices, will chose privilege over democracy as the governing principle of society.
Joseph Dana is a journalist based in Istanbul.