Something that at first glance might seem paradoxical is happening in the current protests against the new Israeli government’s plans for its so-called reform (or obliteration, to be more accurate) of the judiciary: The absence of Palestinian citizens of Israel among the protesters.
Considering the number of rabid, racist, anti-Arab members of the current administration, many of them unashamedly so, it was surely to be expected that the Arab Palestinian community in Israel would mobilize in large numbers and be at the forefront of these weekly demonstrations.
But the opposite is happening: Most Palestinians are staying away from this display of public dismay about the government’s brutal attempt to fatally wound the democratic system, despite the fact that they, more than any other segment of Israeli society, are the ones likely to pay the heaviest price for the changes.
For those who are surprised at this behavior, chiefly the Jewish progressive elements who are genuinely endeavoring to prevent this most recent version of a Benjamin Netanyahu government from being the last to preside over a liberal democracy, it is time for a reality check.
They should listen to the resentment of their Palestinian compatriots for the Jewish Israeli society in all its shades, and join arms with them in ensuring that a just, equal and respectful society for all its people is what characterizes the Israel of the future.
The hesitation, even absence, of the Arab voice in the protests is not the paradox it might at first appear to be; it is their own protest within the protest, against all strands of the Israeli-Zionist discourse that has marginalized them since the establishment of Israel in 1948 and denied them their history and identity.
To begin with, a state that defines itself by its Jewishness sends an immediate message to those who are not Jewish: You do not belong here and/or do not have equal status with your Jewish neighbors. This tension between Jewish and democratic could have been resolved over the years with the required wisdom, ideological flexibility, tolerance of the other, and adherence to the principle of equality for all citizens, not to mention goodwill toward the Arab-Palestinian minority.
Instead, Palestinians have been discriminated against through legal means, as well as informally, from the very first day of Israel’s independence, and lived under military administration for the first 18 years of the state’s existence. It made very little difference to them whether a left- or right-leaning government was in power.
Rejecting participation in the current protests against the government’s judicial coup, as with previous protests, is a result of the deep-rooted feeling among Palestinian Israelis that they are not welcomed by the vast majority of the Jewish population, and that there is no intention to develop an equal partnership with the rest of the society.
To begin with, the Jewish population, individually and officially, refuses to recognize them as Palestinians and insists on referring to them as “the Arabs of Israel,” to differentiate them from other Palestinians. This has a lot to do with the Jewish-Zionist obsession with the demographic balance between the Jewish and Palestinian populations.
It is a combination of denial, ignorance and fear, but the fact remains that the Arabs who live in Israel are Palestinians who survived the 1948 war and the Nakba without being forced into exile or driven away by the violence, including that committed by the Israeli army. But it does not make them, or their descendants, any less Palestinian. That is merely a fiction invented to suit the Zionist narrative but it is a leitmotif of all Israeli governments and institutions, confirmed by the country’s ideology, with very minor differences.
Tragically, the participation of an Arab Palestinian party in the previous Israeli government, for the first time in the country’s history, only emphasized the widespread hostility to the Palestinian minority in the country at large. One of the main accusations in the venomous attacks by the right against the previous Bennett-Lapid government, with no foundation whatsoever, was that it included Hamas and terrorist supporters, despite the fact that the Ra’am party led by Mansour Abbas was one of the most responsible and moderate forces in that government.
Shunning the protests might not serve to improve the status of Palestinians in Israel but it should at least serve as a wake-up call for the progressive elements in Israel who would like to coexist with Palestinians as equals, to up their game. In what threatens to be a crucial watershed in the country’s history, at this point when its very democratic future is in the balance, the group of citizens who are likely to be most affected by the government’s agenda is remaining silent out of despair and distrust of the rest of society, because of being increasingly forced to exist as second-class citizens.
This is a development that should reverberate across the country. It is also happening, ironically, at a time when the number of Palestinians in Israel graduating from universities is higher than ever and, despite the hardships, many are improving their economic conditions, although they still lag behind the Jewish population.
Whether it is the result of the Nation-State Law that legalized the discrimination against Palestinians in Israel, or other legislation that limits their access to land and construction and excludes them from national decision-making centers, or the racism ingrained in Israeli society, many Israeli Palestinians have been left bruised, angry and, as a result, disengaged.
Years of neglect have led to high levels of violent crime in this community, claimed many lives and spread fear among its members, which has added to the perception that their lives are worth much less than those of their Jewish neighbors.
And yes, there is the nexus with the situation on the other side of the Green Line, and the cruel occupation and blockade of their brethren in the West Bank and Gaza while others languish in refugee camps in neighboring countries. Not only did the organizers of these demonstrations refuse to include these issues on their agenda but most of the Jewish participants are utterly blind to the indisputable correlation between the 55 years of oppression of millions of Palestinians and the constant erosion of Israel’s democracy.
No democracy can survive when it discriminates against so many of its own citizens (20 percent in this case) and deprives an entire nation of its most basic human, political and civil rights, characteristics that are more common to authoritarian regimes than democratic states.
The game is up and the results of the anti-democratic actions against the occupied and blockaded Palestinians have now spilled over to the other side of the Green Line, and Israel’s Jewish population is living in willing denial of that.
And so they should not be surprised that when they need their Israeli Palestinian neighbors to join them in efforts to save Israel’s democracy, they are encountering a very reluctant response.