Debunking The Myth That Anti-Zionism Is Anti-Semitic

This article was first published in 2019

Anti-Zionism Is Not Anti-Semitism: A Definitive List Of Reasons WhyPhoto: Gili Getz

Peter BeinartPeter Beinart, The Forward, February 27, 2019

It’s a bewildering and alarming time to be a Jew, both because anti-Semitism is rising and because so many politicians are responding to it not by protecting Jews but by victimizing Palestinians.

On February 16, members of France’s Yellow Vest protest movement hurled anti-Semitic insults at the distinguished French Jewish philosopher Alain Finkielkraut. On February 19, swastikas were found on 80 gravestones in Alsace. Two days later, French President Emmanuel Macron, after announcing that Europe was “facing a resurgence of anti-Semitism unseen since World War II,” unveiled new measures to fight it.

Among them was a new official definition of anti-Semitism. That definition, produced by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, includes among its “contemporary examples” of anti-Semitism “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination.” In other words, anti-Zionism is Jew hatred.

In so doing, Macron joined Germany, Britain, The United States and roughly thirty other governments. And like them, he made a tragic mistake.


Anti-Zionism Is Not Anti-Semitism: A Definitive List Of Reasons Why

People take part in a rally against anti-Semitism on the Republic Square on February 19, 2019 in Paris, France. Image by Getty Images

Anti-Zionism is not inherently anti-Semitic — and claiming it is uses Jewish suffering to erase the Palestinian experience.

Yes, anti-Semitism is growing. Yes, world leaders must fight it fiercely. But in the words of a great Zionist thinker, “This is not the way.”

The argument that anti-Zionism is inherently anti-Semitic rests on three pillars. The first is that opposing Zionism is anti-Semitic because it denies to Jews what every other people enjoys: a state of its own. “The idea that all other peoples can seek and defend their right to self-determination but Jews cannot,” declared Chuck Schumer in 2017, “is anti-Semitism.”

As David Harris, head of the American Jewish Committee, put it last year, “To deny the Jewish people, of all the peoples on earth, the right to self-determination surely is discriminatory.”

All the peoples on earth? The Kurds don’t have their own state. Neither do the Basques, Catalans, Scots, Kashmiris, Tibetans, Abkhazians, Ossetians, Lombards, Igbo, Oromo, Uyghurs, Tamils, Quebecois nor dozens of other peoples who have created nationalist movements to seek self-determination but failed to achieve it.

Yet barely anyone suggests that opposing a Kurdish or Catalan state makes you an anti-Kurdish or anti-Catalan bigot. It’s widely recognized that states based on ethnic nationalism — states created to represent and protect one particular ethnic group — are not the only legitimate way to ensure public order and individual freedom. Sometimes it’s better to foster civic nationalism, a nationalism built around borders rather than heritage: to make Spanish identity more inclusive of Catalans or Iraqi identity more inclusive of Kurds, rather than carving those multi-ethnic states up.

You’d think Jewish leaders would understand this. You’d think they would understand it because many of the same Jewish leaders who call national self-determination a universal right are quite comfortable denying it to Palestinians.

Argument number two is a variation on this theme. Maybe it’s not bigoted to oppose a people’s quest for statehood. But it’s bigoted to take away that statehood once achieved. “It is one thing to argue, in the moot court of historical what-ifs, that Israel should not have come into being,” argued New York Times columnist Bret Stephens earlier this month. However, “Israel is now the home of nearly nine million citizens, with an identity that is as distinctively and proudly Israeli as the Dutch are Dutch or the Danes Danish. Anti-Zionism proposes nothing less than the elimination of that identity and the political dispossession of those who cherish it.”

But it’s not bigoted to try to turn a state based on ethnic nationalism — a state designed to protect and represent one ethnic group — into a state based on civic nationalism, in which no ethnic group enjoys special privileges.

In the nineteenth century, Afrikaners created several countries — among them the Transvaal and the Orange Free State — designed to fulfill their quest for national self-determination. Then, in 1909, those two Afrikaner states merged with two states dominated by English-speaking whites to become the Union of South Africa (later the Republic of South Africa), which offered a kind of national self-determination to white South Africans.

The problem, of course, was that the versions of self-determination upheld by the Transvaal, the Orange Free State and apartheid South Africa excluded millions of blacks living within their borders.

This changed in 1994. By ending apartheid, South Africa replaced an Afrikaner ethnic nationalism and a white racial nationalism with a civic nationalism that encompassed people of all ethnicities and races. It inaugurated a constitution that guaranteed “the right of the South African people as a whole to self-determination.”

That wasn’t bigotry, but it’s opposite.

Anti-Zionism Is Not Anti-Semitism: A Definitive List Of Reasons Why

A BDS protest of the Israeli Philharmonic outside Carnegie Hall today in NYC. Image by Photo: Gili Getz

I don’t consider Israel an apartheid state. But its ethnic nationalism excludes many of the people under its control. Stephens notes that Israel contains almost nine million citizens. What he doesn’t mention is that Israel also contains close to five million non-citizens: Palestinians who live under Israeli control in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (yes, Israel still controls Gaza) without basic rights in the state that dominates their lives.

One reason Israel doesn’t give these Palestinians citizenship is because, as a Jewish state designed to protect and represent Jews, it wants to retain a Jewish majority, and giving five million Palestinians the vote would imperil that.

Even among Israel’s nine million citizens, roughly two million — the so-called “Arab Israelis” — are Palestinian. Stephens says overturning Zionism would mean the “political dispossession” of Israelis. But, according to polls, most of Israel’s Palestinian citizens see it the opposite way. For them, Zionism represents a form of political dispossession. Because they live in a state that privileges Jews, they must endure an immigration policy that allows any Jew in the world to gain instant Israeli citizenship yet makes Palestinian immigration to Israel virtually impossible.

They live in a state whose national anthem speaks of the “Jewish soul,” whose flag features a Star of David and which, by tradition, excludes Israel’s Palestinian parties from its governing coalitions. A commission created in 2003 by the Israeli government itself described Israel’s “handling of the Arab sector” as “discriminatory.”

So long as Israel remains a Jewish state, no Palestinian citizen can credibly tell her son or daughter that they can become prime minister of the country in which they live.

In these ways, Israel’s form of ethnic nationalism—Zionism—denies equality to the non-Jews who live under Israeli control.

My preferred solution would be for the West Bank and Gaza Strip to become a Palestinian state, thus giving Palestinians in those territories citizenship in an ethnically nationalist (though hopefully democratic) country of their own.

I’d also try to make Israel’s ethnic nationalism more inclusive by, among other things, adding a stanza to Israel’s national anthem that acknowledges the aspirations of its Palestinian citizens.

But, in a post-Holocaust world where anti-Semitism remains frighteningly prevalent, I want Israel to remain a state with a special obligation to protect Jews.

To seek to replace Israel’s ethnic nationalism with civic nationalism, however, is not inherently bigoted. Last year, three Palestinian Members of the Knesset introduced a bill to turn Israel from a Jewish state into a “state for all its citizens.” As one of those Knesset members, Jamal Zahalka, explained, “We do not deny Israel or its right to exist as a home for Jews. We are simply saying that we want to base the existence of the state not on the preference of Jews, but on the basics of equality… The state should exist in the framework of equality, and not in the framework of preference and superiority.”

Anti-Zionism Is Not Anti-Semitism: A Definitive List Of Reasons Why

Israeli Arab lawmakers were ejected from parliament as they stood to protest a speech by Vice President Mike Pence. Image by Getty Images

One might object that it’s hypocritical for Palestinians to try to repeal Jewish statehood inside Israel’s original boundaries while promoting Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and Gaza. One might also ask whether Zahalka’s vision of Jewish and Palestinian equality in a post-Zionist state is naïve given that powerful Palestinian movements like Hamas want not equality but Islamic domination.

These are reasonable criticisms. But are Zahalka and his colleagues — who face structural discrimination in a Jewish state — anti-Semites because they want to replace Zionism with a civic nationalism that promises equality to people of all ethnic and religious groups?

Of course not.

There is, finally, a third argument for why anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism. It’s that, as a practical matter, the two animosities simply go together.

“Of course it’s theoretically possible to distinguish anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism, just as it’s theoretically possible to distinguish segregationism from racism,” writes Stephens. In reality, however, just as virtually all segregationists are also racists, virtually all anti-Zionists are also anti-Semites. You rarely find one without the other.

But that claim is empirically false. In the real world, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism don’t always go together. It’s easy to find anti-Semitism among people who, far from opposing Zionism, enthusiastically embrace it.

Before Israel’s creation, some of the world leaders who most ardently promoted Jewish statehood did so because they did not want Jews in their own countries. Before declaring, as Foreign Secretary in 1917, that Britain “view[s] with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” Arthur Balfour had supported the 1905 Aliens Act, which restricted Jewish immigration to the United Kingdom.

And two years after his famous declaration, Balfour explained that Zionism would “mitigate the age-long miseries created for Western civilization by the presence in its midst of a Body [the Jews] which it too long regarded as alien and even hostile, but which it was equally unable to expel or to absorb.”

In the 1930s, the Polish government adopted a similar tack. It’s ruling party, which excluded Jews, trained Zionist fighters from Betar and the Irgun on Polish military bases. Why? Because it wanted Polish Jews to emigrate. And a Jewish state would give them somewhere to go.

You find echoes of this anti-Semitic Zionism among some right-wing American Christians who are far friendlier to the Jews of Israel than the Jews of the United States.

In 1980, Jerry Falwell, a close ally of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, quipped that Jews “can make more money accidentally than you can on purpose.”

Benjamin Netanyahu in 2005 said, “we have no greater friend in the whole world than Pat Robertson” — the same Pat Robertson who later called former US Air Force Judge Mikey Weinstein a “little Jewish radical” for promoting religious freedom in the American military.

After being criticized by the Anti-Defamation League in 2010 for calling George Soros a “puppet master” who “wants to bring America to her knees” and “reap obscene profits off us,” Glenn Beck travelled to Jerusalem to hold a pro-Israel rally.

More recently, Donald Trump — who told the Republican Jewish Coalition in 2015 that “You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money” — invited Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress, who has said Jews are going to hell for not accepting Jesus, to lead a prayer at the ceremony inaugurating the American embassy in Jerusalem.

In 2017, Richard Spencer, who leads crowds in Nazi salutes, called himself a “white Zionist,” who sees Israel as a model for the white homeland he wants in the United States.

Anti-Zionism Is Not Anti-Semitism: A Definitive List Of Reasons Why

Richard Spencer, a white nationalist, calls himself a Zionist. Image by Getty Images

Some of the European leaders who traffic most blatantly in anti-Semitism—Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Heinz-Christian Strache of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party and Beatrix von Storch of the Alternative for Germany, which promotes nostalgia for the Third Reich—publicly champion Zionism too.

If anti-Semitism exists without anti-Zionism, anti-Zionism also clearly exists without anti-Semitism.

Consider the Satmar, the largest Hasidic sect in the world. In 2017, twenty thousand Satmar men — a larger crowd than attended that year’s AIPAC Policy Conference — filled Brooklyn’s Barclays Center for a rally aimed at showing, in the words of one organizer, that “We feel very strongly that there should not be and could not be a State of Israel before the Messiah comes.”

Last year, Satmar Rebbe Aaron Teitelbaum told thousands of followers that, “We’ll continue to fight God’s war against Zionism and all its aspects.”

Say what you want about Rebbe Teitelbaum and the Satmar, but they’re not anti-Semites.

Neither is Avrum Burg. Burg, the former speaker of the Knesset, in 2018 declared that settlement growth in the West Bank had rendered the two state solution impossible. Thus, he argued, Israelis must “depart from the Zionist paradigm, and move into a more inclusive paradigm. Israel must belong to all of its residents, including Arabs, not to the Jews alone.”

Other Jewish Israeli progressives, including former deputy Jerusalem mayor Meron Benvenisti, Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy and the activists of the Federation Movement, have followed a similar path.

Can one question their proposals? Of course. Are they anti-Semites? Of course not.

To be sure, some anti-Zionists really are anti-Semites: David Duke, Louis Farrakhan and the authors of the 1988 Hamas Covenant certainly qualify. So do the thugs from France’s Yellow Vest movement who called Finkielkraut a “dirty Zionist shit.”

In some precincts, there’s a growing and reprehensible tendency to use the fact that many Jews are Zionists (or simply assumed to be Zionists) to bar them from progressive spaces. People who care about the moral health of the American left will be fighting this prejudice for years to come.

Anti-Zionism Is Not Anti-Semitism: A Definitive List Of Reasons Why

Pro-Israeli protesters with an Israeli flag confront Ultra-Orthodox Jewish anti-Zionism protesters who joined a pro-Palestinian demonstration. Image by Getty Images

But while anti-Zionist anti-Semitism is likely on the rise, so is Zionist anti-Semitism. And, in the United States, at least, it’s not clear that anti-Zionists are any more likely to harbor anti-Semitic attitudes than people who support the Jewish state.

In 2016, the ADL gauged anti-Semitism by asking Americans whether they agreed with statements like “Jews have too much power” and “Jews don’t care what happens to anyone but their own kind.” It found that anti-Semitism was highest among the elderly and poorly educated: “The most well educated Americans are remarkably free of prejudicial views, while less educated Americans are more likely to hold anti-Semitic views. Age is also a strong predictor of anti-Semitic propensities. Younger Americans — under 39 — are also remarkably free of prejudicial views.”

In 2018, however, when the Pew Research Center surveyed Americans’ attitudes about Israel, it discovered the reverse pattern: Americans over the age of 65 — the very cohort that expressed the most anti-Semitism — also expressed the most sympathy for Israel. By contrast, Americans under 30, who according to the ADL harbored the least anti-Semitism, were least sympathetic to Israel.

It was the same with education. Americans who possessed a high school degree or less — the most anti-Semitic educational cohort — was the most pro-Israel. Americans with “postgraduate degrees” — the least anti-Semitic — were the least pro-Israel.

As statistical evidence goes, this is hardly airtight. But it confirms what anyone who listens to progressive and conservative political commentary can grasp: That younger progressives are highly universalistic. They’re suspicious of any form of nationalism that seems exclusive. That universalism makes them suspicious of both Zionism and the white Christian nationalism that in the United States sometimes shades into anti-Semitism.

By contrast, some older Trump supporters, who fear a homogenizing globalism, admire Israel for preserving Jewish identity while yearning to preserve America’s Christian identity in ways that exclude Jews.

If anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are both conceptually different and, in practice, often espoused by different people, why are politicians like Macron responding to rising anti-Semitism by calling anti-Zionism a form of bigotry?

Because, in many countries, that’s what communal Jewish leaders want them to do.

It’s an understandable impulse: Let the people threatened by anti-Semitism define anti-Semitism.

The problem is that, in many countries, Jewish leaders serve both as defenders of local Jewish interests and defenders of the Israeli government. And the Israeli government wants to define anti-Zionism as bigotry because doing so helps Israel kill the two state solution with impunity.

For years, Barack Obama and John Kerry warned that if Israel continued the settlement growth in the West Bank that made a Palestinian state impossible, Palestinians would stop demanding a Palestinian state alongside Israel and instead demand one state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, neither Jewish nor Palestinian, that replaces Israel.

Defining anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism reduces that threat. It means that if Palestinians and their supporters respond to the demise of the two state solution by demanding one equal state, some of the world’s most powerful governments will declare them bigots.

Which leaves Israel free to entrench its own version of one state, which denies millions of Palestinians basic rights.

Silencing Palestinians isn’t a particularly effective way to fight rising anti-Semitism, much of which comes from people who like neither Palestinians nor Jews.

But, just as importantly, it undermines the moral basis of that fight.

Anti-Semitism isn’t wrong because it’s wrong to denigrate and dehumanize Jews. Anti-Semitism is wrong because it’s wrong to denigrate and dehumanize anyone. Which means, ultimately, that any effort to fight anti-Semitism that contributes to the denigration and dehumanization of Palestinians is no fight against anti-Semitism at all.

Peter Beinart is a Senior Columnist at The Forward and Professor of Journalism and Political Science at the City University of New York. He is also a Contributor to The Atlantic and a CNN Political Commentator.

Life Under Occupation: The Misery at the Heart of the Conflict

An eviction in East Jerusalem lies at the center of a conflict that led to war between Israel and Hamas. But for millions of Palestinians, the routine indignities of occupation are part of daily life.

Israeli soldiers firing tear gas towards Palestinian protesters in the town of Kfar Qaddum. Samar Hazboun for The New York Times

David M. Halbfinger and Adam Rasgon, The New York Times, May 22, 2021

JERUSALEM — Muhammad Sandouka built his home in the shadow of the Temple Mount before his second son, now 15, was born.

They demolished it together, after Israeli authorities decided that razing it would improve views of the Old City for tourists.

Mr. Sandouka, 42, a countertop installer, had been at work when an inspector confronted his wife with two options: Tear the house down, or the government would not only level it but also bill the Sandoukas $10,000 for its expenses.

Such is life for Palestinians living under Israel’s occupation: always dreading the knock at the front door.

The looming removal of six Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem set off a round of protests that helped ignite the latest war between Israel and Gaza. But to the roughly three million Palestinians living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 war and has controlled through decades of failed peace talks, the story was exceptional only because it attracted an international spotlight.

For the most part, they endure the frights and indignities of the Israeli occupation in obscurity.

Even in supposedly quiet periods, when the world is not paying attention, Palestinians from all walks of life routinely experience exasperating impossibilities and petty humiliations, bureaucratic controls that force agonizing choices, and the fragility and cruelty of life under military rule, now in its second half-century.

Underneath that quiet, pressure builds.

If the eviction dispute in East Jerusalem struck a match, the occupation’s provocations ceaselessly pile up dry kindling. They are a constant and key driver of the conflict, giving Hamas an excuse to fire rockets or lone-wolf attackers grievances to channel into killings by knives or automobiles. And the provocations do not stop when the fighting ends.

No homeowner welcomes a visit from the code-enforcement officer. But it’s entirely different in East Jerusalem, where Palestinians find it nearly impossible to obtain building permits and most homes were built without them: The penalty is often demolition.

Mohammed Sandouka amid the ruins of his home in East Jerusalem. Dan Balilty for The New York Times

Mr. Sandouka grew up just downhill from the Old City’s eastern ramparts, in the valley dividing the Temple Mount from the Mount of Olives.

At 19, he married and moved into an old addition onto his father’s house, then began expanding it. New stone walls tripled the floor area. He laid tile, hung drywall and furnished a cozy kitchen. He spent around $150,000.

Children came, six in all. Ramadan brought picnickers to the green valley. The kids played host, delivering cold water or hot soup. His wife prepared feasts of maqluba (chicken and rice) and mansaf (lamb in yogurt sauce). He walked with his sons up to Al Aqsa, one of Islam’s holiest sites.

In 2016, city workers posted an address marker over Mr. Sandouka’s gate. It felt like legitimation.

But Israel was drifting steadily rightward. The state parks authority fell under the influence of settlers, who seek to expand Jewish control over the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Citing an old plan for a park encircling the Old City, the authority set about clearing one unpermitted house after another.

Now it was Mr. Sandouka’s turn.

Plans showed a corner of the house encroaching on a future tour-bus parking lot.

Mr. Sandouka’s children salvaging household items as their home is demolished. Dan Balilty for The New York Times

Zeev Hacohen, an authority official, said erasing Mr. Sandouka’s neighborhood was necessary to restore views of the Old City “as they were in the days of the Bible.”

“The personal stories are always painful,” he allowed. But the Palestinian neighborhood, he said, “looks like the Third World.”

Mr. Sandouka hired a lawyer and prayed. But he was at work a few months ago when someone knocked on his door again. This time, his wife told him, crying, it was a police officer.

The knock at the door is not always just a knock.

Badr Abu Alia, 50, was awakened around 2 a.m. by the sounds of soldiers breaking into his neighbor’s home in Al Mughrayyir, a village on a ridge in the West Bank.

When they got to his door, a familiar ritual ensued: His children were rousted from bed. Everyone was herded outside. The soldiers collected IDs, explained nothing and ransacked the house. They left two hours later, taking with them a teenager from next door, blindfolded.

He had taken part in a protest four days earlier, when an Israeli sniper shot and killed a teenager who was wandering among the rock-throwers and spent tear-gas canisters.

Badr Abu Alia inside his house in the West Bank town of Al Mughrayyir. Samar Hazboun for The New York Times

Al Mughrayyir was one of the few villages still mounting regular Friday protests. They began after settlers cut off access to some of the villagers’ farmland. The boy’s death became a new rallying cry.

The army says it raids Palestinian homes at night because it is safer, and ransacks them to search for weapons, in routine crackdowns aimed at keeping militance in check.

But the raids also inspire militance.

Mr. Abu Alia seethed as he described seeing his son outside in the dark, “afraid, crying because of the soldiers, and I can do nothing to protect him.”

“It makes you want to take revenge, to defend yourself,” he went on. “But we have nothing to defend ourselves with.”

Stone-throwing must suffice, he said. “We can’t take an M-16 and go kill every settler. All we have are those stones. A bullet can kill you instantly. A little stone won’t do much. But at least I’m sending a message.”

Settlers send messages, too. They have cut down hundreds of Al Mughrayyir’s olive trees — vital sources of income and ties to the land — torched a mosque, vandalized cars. In 2019, one was accused of fatally shooting a villager in the back. The case remains open.

For Majeda al-Rajaby the pain of occupation never goes away. It slices straight through her family.

A twice-divorced teacher, Ms. al-Rajaby, 45, is divided from her five children by the different ways Israel treats Palestinians depending on where they are from.

Majeda al-Rajaby teaching children at the UNRWA school in the Shuafat refugee camp. Samar Hazboun for The New York Times

She grew up in the West Bank, in Hebron. But both her ex-husbands were Jerusalem residents, allowing them to travel anywhere an Israeli citizen may go. The children were entitled to the blue IDs of Jerusalem residents, too. Hers remained West Bank green.

Both her husbands lived in Shuafat refugee camp, a lawless slum inside the Jerusalem city limits but just outside Israel’s security barrier. West Bankers are not allowed to live there, but the rule is not enforced.

She had thought she was marrying up. Instead, she said her husbands “always made me feel inferior.”

Ms. al-Rajaby at home in Anata, on the West Bank. Samar Hazboun for The New York Times

After the second divorce, she was left on her own, with her green ID, to raise all five children with their blue IDs. The distinction could be life-threatening.

When a daughter accidentally inhaled housecleaning chemicals, Ms. al-Rajaby tried to race her to the closest hospital, in Jerusalem. Soldiers refused to let her in. As a teacher in Shuafat, she had a permit to enter Jerusalem, but only until 7 p.m. It was 8:00.

Her children are older now, but the distinction is just as keenly felt: Ms. al-Rajaby allows herself to be excluded from joyful moments and rites of passage so her children can enjoy advantages unavailable to her.

She stays behind on the Palestinian side of the security barrier while they head off to Jaffa or Haifa, or on shortcuts to Hebron through Jerusalem, a route forbidden to her. “West Banker,” they tease her, waving goodbye.

One daughter is 21 now and engaged and goes on jaunts into Israel with her fiancé’s mother. “I should be with them,” Ms. al-Rajaby said.

Last summer, Ms. al-Rajaby moved out of Shuafat to a safer neighborhood just outside the Jerusalem city limits, in the West Bank. That means her children could lose their blue IDs if Israel determined that their primary residence was with her.

“I’m not allowed to live there,” she said of Shuafat, “and my daughters are not allowed to live here.”

Constrained as she is, Ms. al-Rajaby wants even more for her children than freedom to move about Israel.

In 2006, her daughter Rana, then 7, was burned in a cooking accident. An Italian charity paid for treatment at a hospital in Padua. Mother and child stayed for three months.

The experience opened Ms. al-Rajaby’s eyes. She saw green parks, children in nice clothes, women driving cars.

“It was the moment of my liberation,” she said. “I started thinking: ‘Why do they have this? Why don’t we?’”

Today, she urges all her children to see the world, and holds out hope that they might emigrate.

“Why,” she asked, “should someone keep living under the mercy of people who have no mercy?”

Try as they might to make their accommodations with Israel, Palestinians often find themselves caught in the occupation’s gears.

Majed Omar once earned a good living as a construction worker inside Israel. But in 2013, his younger brother was spotted crossing through a gap in Israel’s security barrier. A soldier shot him in the leg.

Mr. Omar, 45, was collateral damage. Israel revoked his work permit just in case he had ideas about taking revenge — something Israel says happens too often.

He sat unemployed for 14 months. When Israel reissued his permit, it only allowed him to work in the fast-growing West Bank settlements, where workers are paid half as much, searched each morning and supervised by armed guards all day.

Majed Omar working construction in the settlement of Ariel in the West Bank.  Dan Balilty for The New York Times

Which is how he came to be the foreman on a crew that remodels Jewish homes and expands Israeli buildings on land the Palestinians have long demanded as part of their hoped-for state.

In a small way, it’s like digging his own grave, Mr. Omar said. “But we’re living in a time when everyone sees what’s wrong and still does it.”

Violence is often sudden and brief. But the nagging dread it instills can be just as debilitating.

Nael al-Azza, 40, is haunted by the Israeli checkpoint he must pass through while commuting between his home in Bethlehem and his job in Ramallah.

At home, he lives behind walls and cultivates a lush herb and vegetable garden in the backyard. But nothing protects him on his drive to work, not even his position as a manager in the Palestinian firefighting and ambulance service.

Recently, he said, a soldier at the checkpoint stopped him, told him to roll down his window, asked if he had a weapon. He said no. She opened his passenger door to take a look, then slammed it shut, hard.

He wanted to object. But he stopped himself, he said: Too many confrontations with soldiers end with Palestinians being shot.

“If I want to defend my property and my self-respect, there’s a price for that,” he said.

Nael al-Azza in his garden outside his house in Bethlehem. Dan Balilty for The New York Times

His commute is a 14-mile trip as the crow flies, but a 33-mile route, because Palestinians are diverted in a wide loop around Jerusalem along a tortuous two-lane road of steep switchbacks. Even so, it ought to take less an hour — but often takes two or three, because of the checkpoint.

The Israelis consider the checkpoint essential to search for fleeing attackers or illegal weapons or to cut the West Bank in two in case of unrest. Palestinians call it a choke point that can be shut off on a soldier’s whim. It is also a friction point, motorists and soldiers each imagining themselves as the other’s target.

Idling and inching along, Mr. al-Azza compared traffic to blood flow. Searching one car can mean an hour’s delay. The soldiers are so young, he said, “They don’t feel the weight of stopping 5,000 cars.”

He thinks only of those delayed. “When they impede your movement and cause you to fail at your job, you feel like you’ve lost your value and meaning,” he said.

Nael al-Azza sitting in traffic while heading to work along the winding road leading from Bethlehem to Ramallah in the West Bank. Samar Hazboun for The New York Times

A few nights each week, delays force him to sleep at work and settle for video calls with his three children.

On weekend outings, the checkpoint takes a different toll on his family.

“I try to keep my kids from speaking about the conflict,” he said. “But they see and experience things I have no answer for. When we’re driving, we turn the music on. But when we reach the checkpoint, I turn it off. I don’t know why. I’ll see them in the mirror: All of a sudden, they sit upright and look anxious — until we cross and I turn the music back on.”

Mr. al-Azza inside a small shack outside his house in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Samar Hazboun for The New York Times

Deadly scenarios constantly play out in Mr. al-Azza’s head: What if a tire blew out or his engine stalled? What if a young soldier, trained to respond instantly, misconstrued it as a threat?

“It’s not possible to put it out of mind,” he said. “When you’re hungry, you think about food.”

No Palestinian is insulated from the occupation’s reach — not even in the well-to-do, privileged “bubble” of Ramallah, where Israeli soldiers are seldom seen.

Everyone Sondos Mleitat knows bears the scars of some trauma. Her own: Hiding with her little brother, then 5, when Israeli tanks rolled into Nablus, where she was raised.

In the dark, she said, he pulled all his eyelashes out, one by one.

Today, Ms. Mleitat, 30, runs a website connecting Palestinians with psychotherapists.

Sondos Mleitat at her office in Ramallah. Samar Hazboun for The New York Times

Instead of reckoning with their lingering wounds, she said, people seek safety in social conformity, in religion, in the approval gleaned from Facebook and Instagram likes. But all of those, she said, only reinforce the occupation’s suffocating effects.

“This is all about control,” she said. “People are going through a type of taming or domestication. They just surrender to it and feel they can’t change anything.”

After her uncle was killed by Israeli soldiers at a protest, she said, his younger brother was pushed into marriage at 18 “to protect him from going down the same path.”

But a nation of people who reach adulthood thinking only about settling down, she said, is not a nation that will achieve independence.

“They think they’re getting out of this bubble, but they’re not,” she said.

Ms. Mleitat working next to her fiance, Majd, at their office in Ramallah. Samar Hazboun for The New York Times

Mr. Sandouka earns about $1,800 in a good month. He hoped the lawyer could quash the demolition order. “I thought they would just give us a fine,” he said.

Then he got another panicked call from home: “The police were there, making my family cry.”

Khalas, he said, enough. He would tear it down himself.

Early on a Monday, his sons took turns with a borrowed jackhammer. They almost seemed to be having fun, like wrecking a sand castle.

Finished, their moods darkened. “It’s like we’re lighting ourselves on fire,” said Mousa, 15.

“They want the land,” said Muataz, 22. “They want all of us to leave Jerusalem.”

In 2020, 119 Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem were demolished, 79 of them by their owners.

When all was rubble, Mr. Sandouka lit a cigarette and held it with three beefy fingers as it burned. His pants filthy with the dust of his family’s life together, he climbed atop the debris, sent photos to the police and contemplated his options.

Mr. Sandouka’s children demolishing their home in East Jerusalem. Dan Balilty for The New York Times

Moving to the West Bank, and sacrificing Jerusalem residency, was unthinkable. Moving elsewhere in Jerusalem was unaffordable.

A friend offered a couple of spare rooms as a temporary refuge. Mr. Sandouka’s wife demanded permanency.

“She told me if I don’t buy her a home, that’s it — everyone can go their separate ways,” he said.

He turned his eyes uphill toward the Old City.

“These people work little by little,” he said. “It’s like a lion that eats one, and then another. It eventually eats everything around it.”

Fact Sheet: Palestinian Citizens of Israel

Fact Sheet: Palestinian Citizens of Israel
Palestinian citizens of Israel protesting the passage of the Jewish nation-state law. Tel Aviv, August 2018. (Photo: Reuters)

Institute for Middle East Understanding (IMEU), March 17, 2021

Basic facts & figures

  • There are 1.9 million Palestinian citizens of Israel (as of December 2019), comprising 21% of Israel’s population.
  • 83% of Palestinian citizens of Israel are Muslim, 9% are Christian, and 8% are Druze, according to Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.
  • Most Palestinian citizens of Israel live in three areas: the Galilee in the north, the so-called “Little Triangle” in the center of the country, and the Negev desert (Naqab to Palestinians) in the south.
  • There are more than 60 Israeli laws that discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel.
  • There are 60,000 to 70,000 homes (as of 2020) belonging to Palestinian citizens of Israel that are threatened with destruction by the government because they were built without official permission, which is extremely difficult for them to obtain.

Who are Palestinian citizens of Israel?

  • In 1948, approximately 750,000 indigenous Palestinians were expelled from their homeland by Zionist militias and the new Israeli army during Israel’s establishment as a Jewish majority state. Approximately 150,000 Palestinians remained inside Israel’s borders following the armistice that ended the resulting war, many of them internally displaced and denied the right to return to their homes, most of which were destroyed by Israel.
  • Most Palestinians who survived the expulsions were granted Israeli citizenship but between 1949 and 1966 they were governed by repressive military rule, forced into segregated “ghettos,” had most of their land taken from them for the use of Jewish Israelis, and severe restrictions were imposed on their freedom of movement, speech, and ability to earn a living. 
  • Military rule was lifted in 1966 but today Palestinian citizens of Israel continue to have their land taken from them and homes destroyed, and suffer from widespread, systematic discrimination affecting almost every aspect of their lives.

Systemic discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel

  • As part of an effort to maintain the Jewish majority created by the expulsions of 1948, Israel has passed a series of laws to limit the growth of the remaining Palestinian population and their towns and villages, and marginalize them politically. Today, there are more than 60 laws that discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel directly or indirectly, based solely on their ethnicity, impacting virtually every aspect of their lives, including housing, employment, education, healthcare, and who they can marry. 
  • In 2018, the Israeli Knesset (parliament) passed the “Jewish nation-state” law as one of the country’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws, which was widely condemned as racist and entrenching apartheid in Israel. Among other things, it declares

The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”

“The state views the development of Jewish settlement [segregated housing for Jews-only] as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.”

  • Israel’s Basic Laws also bar political candidates and parties from advocating for a secular democracy in which all citizens are fully equal, regardless of their religion or ethnicity, by calling for an end to Israel’s system of Jewish privilege. In 2018, legislation calling for Israel to become a state based on full equality for all citizens introduced by Palestinian citizens of Israel was banned by a committee and prevented from even being debated by the Knesset. A Knesset legal advisor explained the bill was rejected because it included “several articles that are meant to alter the character of the State of Israel from the nation-state of the Jewish people to a state in which there is equal status from the point of view of nationality for Jews and Arabs.”

Confiscation of Palestinian property, destruction of Palestinian homes, ‘Judaization’ of Palestinian land in Israel

  • Since 1948 when the state was established, Israel has used laws such as the British Mandate-era Land (Acquisition for Public Purposes) Ordinance law and the Absentee Property Law to confiscate millions of acres of Palestinian land for the use of Jewish Israelis. The Absentee Property Law, passed in 1950, allows the government to expropriate land belonging to Palestinians, including Israeli citizens, who were forced from their homes during Israel’s establishment and prevented from returning. Israel also declared large amounts of land belonging to Palestinian citizens of Israel “closed military zones,” and then used a law dating from the Ottoman Empire era to take it over. According to one estimate, of 370 Jewish towns established by Israel between 1948 and 1953, 350 were built on confiscated Palestinian land.
  • After displacing tens of thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel, destroying many of their homes and villages, and taking most of their land for the use of Jewish Israelis, Israel made it extremely difficult for them to build or expand their homes or the boundaries of their towns. In May 2020, Human Rights Watch issued a report entitled, Israel: Discriminatory Land Policies Hem in Palestinians; Palestinian Towns Squeezed While Jewish Towns Grow, concluding:

“Decades of land confiscations and discriminatory planning policies have confined many Palestinian citizens to densely populated towns and villages that have little room to expand. Meanwhile, the Israeli government nurtures the growth and expansion of neighboring predominantly Jewish communities, many built on the ruins of Palestinian villages destroyed in 1948.”

  • These restrictions have caused serious overcrowding in many communities. When Palestinian citizens of Israel are then forced to build without government approval to meet the natural growth of their families, Israel destroys the structures. In 2018, Israel passed the “Kaminitz Law” to expedite the process of destroying Palestinian homes built without official permission. According to the Arab Center for Alternative Planning, as of 2020 there were an estimated 15%-20% of Palestinian homes in Israel lacking difficult to obtain permits, and between 60,000 and 70,000 homes at risk of being totally destroyed by Israel as a result. As of 2015, 97% of the demolition orders issued by Israeli courts were against Palestinian citizens of Israel, even though they only made up about 20% of the population.
  • The expropriation of Palestinian land, restrictions on the growth of Palestinian communities, destruction of Palestinian homes, and simultaneous promotion of segregated Jewish communities, form part of a policy of “Judaization.” In recent decades, Palestinian communities in the Galilee in the north and the Negev in the south have been targeted by the government for Judaization. In the Negev, entire Bedouin villages are being destroyed to make way for Jewish towns. In one prominent case, Palestinian Bedouins in the village of Umm al-Hiran were forced out to make way for a new town for Jewish Israelis called Hiran. In 2019, Israel announced a plan for the Negev that will displace some 36,000 Palestinian Bedouin from their homes.
  • In February 2018, then-Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked defended the policy of Judaization from critics who say its racist and a violation of the human rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel, declaring:

“I think that ‘Judaizing the Galilee’ is not an offensive term. We used to talk like that. In recent years we’ve stopped talking like that. I think it’s legitimate without violating the full rights of the Arab residents of Israel… There are places where the character of the State of Israel as a Jewish state must be maintained and this sometimes comes at the expense of equality.”

  • Since the founding of the state in 1948, Israel’s government has established more than 900 localities for Jewish Israelis, but none for Palestinian citizens of Israel except for a small number of government-planned towns intended to house Palestinians displaced from their original communities by Israel. There are also dozens of Palestinian villages and communities in Israel, some of which pre-date the establishment of the state, that are unrecognized by the government, receive no government services, and are not even listed on official maps. As of 2017, only about 3% of all land in Israel is under the jurisdiction of Palestinian municipalities, even though Palestinian citizens of Israel make up 21% of the population

Discrimination in access to land & housing

  • The Israeli government directly controls 93% of the land in Israel and systematically discriminates against Palestinian citizens of Israel in its allocation through official agencies like the Israel Land Authority and quasi-governmental Jewish National Fund. Combined with the discriminatory Admissions Committee Law, approximately 80% of state lands are off-limits to Palestinian citizens of Israel, who face significant legal obstacles in gaining access to this land for residential, agricultural, or commercial development. 
  • In 2011, the Knesset passed the “Admissions Committees Law,” which allows more than 300 small majority-Jewish towns to exclude applicants for residency who don’t meet vague “social suitability” standards. As noted by Human Rights Watch in a statement entitled Israel: New Laws Marginalize Palestinian Arab Citizens:

“The measure anchors in law a practice that has been the basis for unjustly rejecting applications by Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel as well as members of socially marginalized groups such as Jews of non-European ancestry and single-parent families… Parliamentary statements indicate that the law's sponsors intended it to allow majority-Jewish communities to maintain their current demographic makeup by excluding Palestinian Arab citizens, an act of discrimination on the basis of their race, ethnicity, and national origin.”

Discrimination in family reunification & immigration

  • The Nationality and Entry into Israel Law prevents Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza (including those who were expelled from towns and villages that became Israel in 1948) who are married to Palestinian citizens of Israel from gaining residency or citizenship status. The law forces thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel to either leave Israel or live apart from their spouses and families.
  • The Law of Return allows Jews from anywhere in the world to immigrate to Israel and receive automatic citizenship, regardless of their family origin, while denying indigenous Palestinians the right to return to the lands they were expelled from during Israel’s establishment, preventing the reunification of many Palestinians families.

Discrimination in funding & access to education & healthcare

  • The Israeli government systematically discriminates against Palestinian citizens of Israel in allocation of state resources to their communities. In 2009, Israel passed the Economic Efficiency Law giving the government broad power to designate “National Priority Areas” without any criteria and direct enormous amounts of resources to Jewish municipalities over Palestinian ones.
  • Jewish and Arab children are educated in separate school systems, with Jewish students receiving a far greater share of state funding. As of 2016, on average Jewish students in Israel received 78% to 88% more funding than Arab/Palestinian students did, according to Israeli government statistics. 
  • In November 2020, citing the Jewish nation-state law, an Israeli court ruled the Jewish majority city of Carmiel didn’t have to build a school for Arab children or reimburse their parents for costs incurred sending them to study in other towns. In dismissing a lawsuit from the parents, the court declared, “Establishing an Arabic-language school… [and] funding school rides for Arab students… could change the demographic balance and damage the city’s [Jewish] character.”

Attempts to erase/deny Palestinian identity & history

  • The so-called “Nakba Bill”, passed in 2011, bans public funding for institutions and groups involved in activities commemorating the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians during Israel’s establishment as a Jewish-majority state in 1948.
  • ​​In 2014, the Knesset passed a law distinguishing between Christian and Muslim Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, declaring that Christian Palestinians in Israel are not in fact Arab, part of an effort to divide Israel’s minority Palestinian population. This despite the fact that almost all Christian Palestinians are Arabs, and consider themselves to be such, and have long formed an integral part of Palestinian society.

Notable examples of state violence against Palestinian citizens of Israel

  • On October 29, 1956, Israel Border Police massacred 48 Palestinian citizens of Israel in nine separate incidents as they returned to their home village of Kafr Qasim after a curfew they were unaware of had been imposed a few hours earlier. The dead included six women, one of them pregnant, and 23 children as young as eight years old. After the massacre made international news, the killers were convicted and sentenced to long prison sentences. However, after the international headlines faded they were pardoned and all freed within a year.
  • On March 30, 1976, Israeli soldiers and police killed six Palestinian citizens of Israel and wounded about 100 others during protests against a wave of land expropriations that were part of a government plan to “Judaize” the Galilee in northern Israel by taking Palestinian land and giving it to Jews. This event marked an important turning point in the political consciousness of Palestinian citizens of Israel and came to be commemorated annually by Palestinians around the world as Land Day.
  • In October 2000, Israeli police snipers killed 12 Palestinian citizens of Israel (and one Palestinian resident of Gaza) and injured hundreds of others as they protested against the brutal violence being inflicted by the Israeli army against Palestinians in the occupied territories during the first days of the Second Intifada (uprising) against Israel’s military rule. Despite a commission of inquiry finding there was no justification for the use of live ammunition against unarmed protesters, no one was ever charged in the killings.

Notable examples of racist incitement against Palestinians from Israeli leaders
Political leaders

  • Over the past decade, open incitement and race-baiting against Palestinian citizens of Israel by Israeli political leaders have become commonplace, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leading the way. Ahead of the April 2019 election, Netanyahu wrote on Instagram: “Israel is not a state of all its citizens. According to the Nation-State Law that we passed, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish People – and them alone.” His ruling Likud party also placed cameras in polling stations as part of an effort to suppress the votes of Palestinian citizens of Israel. Ahead of the September 2019 vote, he told a crowd of supporters “[Arabs are] trying to steal the election from us.” During the 2020 campaign, he ran on the slogan “Bibi or Tibi,” the former referring to Netanyahu’s nickname and the latter to a prominent Palestinian member of the Knesset, Ahmad Tibi. It was part of a campaign to convince Israelis if they didn’t elect him, his main rival would form a government with parties representing Palestinian citizens of Israel. In 2015, he notoriously declared: “Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves,” as part of an effort to get out the right-wing vote. 
  • In both 2019 and 2021, Netanyahu also made electoral alliances with virulently racist, extreme right-wing political parties that openly call for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from Israel/Palestine. One of the parties, Jewish Power, is composed of followers of the notorious Meir Kahane, whose Kach party was labeled a terrorist organization by the US government after one of his followers gunned down 29 Palestinians as they prayed in the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron in 1994. In February 2021, Jewish Power leader Itamar Ben-Gvir called for the expulsion of Palestinian citizens of Israel deemed disloyal.”
  • Another prominent Israeli politician notorious for race-baiting and incitement against Palestinian citizens of Israel is Yisrael Beiteinu party leader Avigdor Lieberman, who served as Minister of Defense (2016-2018) and Minister of Foreign Affairs (2009-2012, 2013-2015) under Netanyahu. Lieberman, an immigrant from Moldova in the former Soviet Union, has campaigned on slogans like “Only Lieberman understands Arabic” and “No loyalty, no citizenship.” He also pushed for a law that would force Palestinian citizens of Israel to swear allegiance to Israel as a “Jewish state,” thereby formally acquiescing in their own permanent second-class status. His party advocates paying Palestinian citizens of Israel to move to a Palestinian state if one is created. In March 2015, he called for Palestinian citizens of Israel who do not accept second-class citizenship as non-Jews in a Jewish state to be beheaded, declaring: “Those who are with us deserve everything, but those who are against us deserve to have their heads chopped off with an axe.”

Religious leaders

  • In April 2019, the head of a state-funded pre-military religious school in the West Bank settlement of Eli, Rabbi Eliezer Kashtiel, was recorded teaching his students that Palestinians and other non-Jews have “genetic problems” and want to be “slaves,” stating:

“The gentiles will want to be our slaves. Being a slave to a Jew is the best. They’re glad to be slaves, they want to be slaves… All around us, we are surrounded by peoples with genetic problems. Ask a simple Arab ‘where do you want to be?’ He wants to be under the occupation. Why? Because they have genetic problems, they don’t know how to run a country, they don’t know how to do anything. Look at them… Yes, we’re racists. We believe in racism… There are races in the world and peoples have genetic traits, and that requires us to try to help them… The Jews are a more successful race.”

  • In March 2016, Israel’s chief Sephardi rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, told supporters that according to Jewish law, indigenous Palestinians and other non-Jews “should not live in the Land of Israel,” explaining they’re only allowed to live in Israel to “serve the Jewish population” and that one day God will come and drive them out, stating:

“If our hands were strong, if we had governing power, then non- Jews shouldn’t live in the Land of Israel… But our hands aren’t strong. We’re awaiting our righteous Messiah, who will be the true and complete redemption, and then they’ll do this. Who will be the servers? Who will be our assistants? Therefore, we leave them here in the land.”

  • In January 2015, the chief Ashkenazi rabbi of the city of Kiryat Motzkin, David Meir Druckman, published an article justifying a recent attack by Jewish extremists on a bilingual school for Jewish and Arab children in Jerusalem, which he derided as “merely a preparatory school for assured assimilation.” He also expressed support for a notoriously racist and violent group called Lehava, which opposes the mixing of Jews and Arabs, and condemned the display of Christmas trees in Israel. He began his article:

“Not only is the mall crawling with Arabs luring poor daughters of Israel into their nets, not ceasing by day or night, but the entire main street of Kiryat Haim… is full of decorated spruce trees… Not one person raised a voice in protest!”

  • In October 2014, Dov Lior, chief rabbi of the West Bank settlements of Hebron and Kiryat Arba, head of the Council of Rabbis of Judea and Samaria [the West Bank], and leading figure in the religious Zionist movement, called for Israel to “cleanse” all Arabs from areas under its control, stating: “We must strive to clean the entire country.”  In January 2011, he told a “women’s health conference” that “Gentile sperm leads to barbaric offspring.”
  • In August 2013, Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan, then-Deputy Minister for Religious Affairs under Netanyahu, declared: “[Palestinians] are beasts, they are not human.” In December 2013, he declared: “A Jew always has a much higher soul than a gentile, even if he is a homosexual.”
  • In May 2012, Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman, Spiritual leader of the United Torah Judaism party, which was part of Netanyahu’s coalition government, told supporters the world was created for Jews and that Palestinians and other non-Jews are “murders” and “thieves” declaring:

“There are eight billion people in the world. And what are they? Murderers, thieves, brainless people… But who is the essence of this world? Has God created the world for these murderers? For these evil-doers?”

  • In 2010, the chief rabbi of the city of Safed, Shmuel Eliyahu, issued a ruling forbidding Jews from renting property to Arabs. When critics condemned the ruling as racist, dozens of municipal chief rabbis also on the government payroll signed a letter supporting Eliyahu. One of the signatories, Yosef Scheinen, chief rabbi of the city of Ashdod, stated, “Racism originated in the Torah… The land of Israel is designated for the people of Israel.”
  • In September 2010, the late spiritual leader of the Shas party, which was part of Netanyahu’s coalition government, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, declared that Palestinians and other non-Jews were created to “serve” Jews, stating: “Goyim [non-Jews] were born only to serve us. Without that, they have no place in the world – only to serve the People of Israel… Why are gentiles needed? They will work, they will plow, they will reap. We will sit like an effendi and eat. That is why gentiles were created.” The influential Ovadia, who was Israel’s chief Sephardi rabbi from 1973 to 1983, had a long history of virulent racism against Palestinians and other non-Jews. 
  • In August 2010, Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira and Rabbi Yosef Elitzur, heads of a state-funded religious school in the settlement of Yitzhar in the occupied West Bank, published a book condoning the murder of Palestinian and other non-Jewish children on the grounds they may grow up to pose a threat to the state, writing that non-Jews are “uncompassionate by nature” and attacks against them “curb their evil inclination.” Several other prominent rabbis also endorsed the book.

The Institute for Middle East Understanding (IMEU) is an independent non-profit organization that provides journalists with quick access to information about Palestine and the Palestinians, as well as expert sources, both in the United States and in the Middle East. Both through its website and its staff, the IMEU works with journalists to increase the public’s understanding about the socio-economic, political, and cultural aspects of Palestine, Palestinians, and Palestinian Americans.

Second Class Citizens

Kevin Walsh, July 6, 2016

A 2009 study of the legal status of Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip concluded that Israel’s practices constitute colonialism and apartheid and are illegal under international law.6 The study took 18 months, and contributors included jurists, academics and international lawyers from Israel, the occupied Palestinian territories, South Africa, England, Ireland and the United States.7

In fact, these conditions exist not only in occupied Palestine, but in Israel as well. A 2012 poll showed that the Jewish public supports ethnic segregation between Arabs and Jews, and 58% of Jewish Israelis called Israel an apartheid state. One commentator noted, “If the use of the term apartheid is anti-Semitic, as some of Israel’s PR agencies claim – then most Israelis are guilty of anti-Semitism.” 8

A 2005 letter to the Badger Herald argued that Israel was not South Africa:

    The divestment campaign in South Africa was appropriate and legitimate because it garnered international recognition of apartheid, an internal system of exploitation and segregation forced upon a black majority by a white minority. Divestment legitimately targeted corporations that profited from this egregious situation. While some have argued that Israel is conducting apartheid policies against the Palestinian people and Arab-Israeli citizens, this comparison is absurd. Arab-Israeli citizens retain the same civil and political rights that any Jew possesses in Israel, with the ability to vote in elections and serve their constituents as elected officials. (emphasis added)

Unfortunately, this is not true. Israeli laws, and the civil and political rights they define, are different for different Israeli citizens. Israel’s purpose in this is to maintain its status as a Jewish state, as Roland Nikles commented:

    In a 2010 interview, Peter Beinart — as liberal a Zionist as you’ll find — said: “I’m not even asking [Israel] to allow full, equal citizenship to Arab Israelis, since that would require Israel no longer being a Jewish state. I’m actually pretty willing to compromise my liberalism for Israel’s security and for its status as a Jewish state.” 2

Then Nikles continued:

    The problem is, however, once you accept unequal treatment of citizens based on ethnicity and religion in some respects, it becomes a slippery slope. Where do you draw the line? 2

Adalah, the legal center for Arab minority rights in Israel, has published “The Discriminatory Laws Database” which has more than 50 laws “enacted since 1948 that directly or indirectly discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel in all areas of life, including their rights to political participation, access to land, education, state budget resources, and criminal procedures.” 3

Arab Israeli citizens do not enjoy equal rights in Israel. Here are some examples:

  1. There is a law discriminating between Jewish and Palestinian Israeli citizens regarding rights to recover property in Israel owned before the 1948 War. The 1950 Absentees Property Law says that Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes by Jewish forces, but are currently known as citizens of Israel, are deemed “present absentees”. Present absentees are regarded as absent by the Israeli government because they left their homes, even if temporarily and involuntarily. Israeli law allows Jews to recover their land, but not Palestinian Israeli citizens.1 “The Israeli Absentees Property Law of 1950 declared expropriated Palestinian absentee property, even of Palestinian Israeli citizens, as state land, and continues to refuse the return of the refugees.” 11

  2. There is a law allowing Jews who lost property in East Jerusalem and the West Bank during the 1948 war to reclaim it. Again, Palestinian Israeli citizens who lost property in West Jerusalem or the state of Israel in the 1948 war cannot recover their properties. Israeli legislation allows Jewish Israeli citizens to recover their land, but not Palestinian Israeli citizens.1
  3. There is a law that denies citizenship and Israeli residence to Palestinians who reside in the West Bank or Gaza Strip and who marry Israelis. While the stated justification was to prevent terrorists from entering Israel, it allows Israel “to maintain the state’s democratic nature, but also its Jewish nature” — its Jewish demographic majority. Critics say the law disproportionately affects Arab citizens of Israel, since Palestinians in Israel are more likely to have spouses from the West Bank and Gaza Strip than other Israeli citizens.1
  4. There are laws that establish separate educational systems that are funded unequally.2 According to a 2005 study by Hebrew University, three times more was spent on the education of Jewish children than on Palestinian Israeli children.1
  5. There is a law that empowers hundreds of local Jewish communities to exclude applicants based on ethnicity or religion. Israel’s Supreme Court upheld this law in September 2014.3 Palestinian Israeli citizens are barred from living in 68% of all towns in Israel by admissions committees.5
  6. The Israeli government is more restrictive in issuing building permits in Palestinian Israeli communities than in Jewish, and omits Palestinian Israeli towns from specific government social and economic plans.1 Buildings without permits are illegal, and this is a commonly cited reason for demolishing Arab buildings.
  7. There is a law prohibiting anyone from calling for a boycott of Israel, its institutions, or any person because of their affiliation with Israel, including the settlements in the occupied territories. The law was upheld by Israel’s Supreme Court on April 15, 2015.3
  8. There is a law that bans any political party that denies the existence of Israel as a “Jewish” state. A party advocating equal rights for all Israeli citizens regardless of ethnicity is illegal.3
  9. The Israeli government has promoted programs like the Prawer plan which will displace tens of thousands of Bedouin Israeli citizens from their homes in the Negev desert, forcing them to relocate and lose land. At the same time, the government is offering incentives for young Jews to build new Jewish communities in the Negev.4

Americans are too willing to assume that the only democracy in the Middle East has a written Constitution and Bill of Rights like theirs. The examples above are legal discrimination by the Israeli government. This unequal treatment under the law applies to over 1.7 million Israeli citizens in Israel, more than 21% of the population.1 By comparison, African Americans are only 13% of the U.S. population.12 Whether this discrimination is apartheid is still strongly debated, because that label has frightening implications for the Jewish state of Israel.

Related Articles

  • Israel announces new resettlement plan for Negev Bedouins, Ma’an News Agency, July 26, 2016.
  • Endnote:
    Israel operates under a combination of legal precedents, common law, and the Basic Laws of Israel. As of today, the Basic Laws do not cover all constitutional issues, and there is no deadline for a constitution.10 As the Israel State Archives notes

      Israel, famously, has no constitution. Fact. The reason, according to general opinion, is that back in 1948, the religious parties didn’t want one, because it might conflict with the Bible, so the secular politicians humored them at the time, and what started as a temporary act of politics became a permanent condition.” 9

    1 “Arab citizens of Israel”, Wikipedia, accessed June 23, 2016
    2 “The Adalah database of 50 discriminatory laws in Israel”, Roland Nikles, Mondoweiss, June 14, 2015
    3 “The Discriminatory Laws Database”, Adalah, May 30, 2012
    4 “Discrimination Against Israeli Arabs Still Rampant, 10 Years On”, Ron Gerlitz and Jabir Asaqla, Haaretz, October 2, 2013
    5 Identity Crisis: the Israeli ID System, Visualizing Palestine, June 7, 2014. Different population groups under Israeli sovereignty today are segregated based on a system of colored ID cards controlled by the Israeli Ministry of Interior.
    6 Occupation, Colonialism, Apartheid? A re-assessment of Israel’s practices in the occupied Palestinian territories under international law, Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa, May 2009
    7 Israel and the apartheid analogy, Wikipedia, accessed July 3, 2016
    8 Poll: Israelis support discrimination against Arabs, embrace the term apartheid, Noam Sheizaf, +972, October 23, 2012
    9 Who Needs a Constitution? Israel State Archives, April 25, 2013
    10 Basic Laws of Israel, Wikipedia, accessed July 3, 2016
    11 Nakba Fact Sheet, Jewish Voice for Peace, accessed July 4, 2016
    12 The Black Population: 2010, U.S. Census Bureau, September 2011