With the passing of a new nation state law, comparisons between Israel and apartheid South Africa look increasingly hard to refute. Being an Arab citizens of Israel has long meant being subjected relentlessly to an unapologetically dehumanising duplicity. The state that cites their presence to argue before the world that it is unprejudiced metes out explicitly prejudicial treatment to them under the world’s glare. Their status could not be anything but second-class in a land where the symbols of the state – the flag, the anthem, the national emblem – assert its Jewish character to the exclusion of all others.
But this week, Israel dropped even the pretence of fairness when its parliament added a fresh piece of legislation to its basic laws, explicitly identifying Israel as an instrument for the realisation of Jewish aspirations alone. As Arab members of the Israeli Knesset indignantly tore up copies of the bill, Jewish legislators from the right-wing coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu jeered triumphantly: it was a moment that captured the hideousness of everyday life for non-Jews in Israel. As Ahmad Tibi, the veteran Arab-Israeli lawmaker, put it, this is the “official beginning of fascism and apartheid”.
The new law creates a legal hierarchy of citizenship and places Arabs below the Jews by demoting their language. The use of Arabic, which will henceforth be given a “special status” in state institutions, will be regulated by the government. The question of whether or not the state will address 21 per cent of its population in their own language will depend on the whims of governments, rather than being guaranteed by the law.
Even more egregiously, the law enjoins the state to adopt “the development of Jewish settlement as a national value” and “to encourage and promote” the “establishment and consolidation” of this “value”. In practice, this means that a citizen of a foreign state who cannot place Israel on a map is entitled to a more privileged status under Israeli law, by virtue of his or her Jewish faith, than an Arab citizen born on the soil over which Israel was erected. If this does not constitute racism, the word has no meaning.
What passes for democracy in Israel – where elections are a self-validating ritual of an exclusionary state that disenfranchises millions of Palestinians over whom it maintains the power of life and death – has always represented the triumph of brazen fabrication over the reality of ruthless occupation and ugly bigotry. Israel’s declaration of independence promised equality for “all its inhabitants irrespective of religion”, before the state progressively drained, through military aggression and legislative discrimination, the Arab territories it annexed. Israel today is what it set out to be: a majoritarian state where minorities are reduced to nonentities.