On Being an Israeli Arab


The news stories say it all, I think.

Antiwar.com quotes Arab members of the Israeli parliament as being warned by Israel’s intelligence agencies, "There is a limit to democracy." Opposition to Israel’s current Gaza onslaught by Israel’s own Arab citizens will not be allowed, and that senior Arab political and religious leaders in Israel will be held responsible for all unrest they may encourage or provoke. Any who stoke unrest risk their positions and possibly even their liberty and lives.

And here, for years, we’ve been told by apologists — umm, sorry, spokespeople and defenders — for Israel that "their Arabs" have the same right as all Israeli citizens. When the Israeli state starts threatening Jewish Israelis this way (and maybe it is, who knows?) then we’ll see some real equality.

On the BBC World Service Thursday, former prime minister of Israel Shimon Perez told the interviewer that public opinion would not determine when the "war" against Gaza would end. The Israeli state has a duty, first and foremost, to protect its citizens, and that duty could never be made subservient to "public opinion." Only the state itself would determine when that duty was carried out properly, when its murderous military operations would end.

In these two pieces, you have the logic of the state and of state power — and of all states — neatly folded into one exquisite little lethal origami animal.

First, the state makes the determination of who belongs to the state, and of what constitutes belonging. In Israel, Arabs may be "citizens," but they are hardly equal citizens. And yet, excluded as they are, they are still subject to the state. Loyalty is still demanded of them, obedience to it laws and edicts and principles is still required, and allegiance is still expected. The lesson is clear — the state has the right to reject some "citizens," to use disproportionate state power to keep them "in line," but they, in turn, cannot reject the state. The only response they are allowed it to appeal to the state’s own founding principles or noblest ideals using the official organs of the state. Or approved non-state means ("We shall overcome someday!").

But secession is simply not allowed. Non-participation is not allowed. Rejection is not allowed. There is no saying "no" to the state that says "no" to you.

Of course, the "progressive" answer to forceful exclusion by the state is forceful inclusion, the expectation being that those deliberately and purposefully excluded from full rights and privileges of "citizenship" really ache to have them. And maybe some do. But maybe some don’t. Maybe many don’t. Their opinions, however, do not matter. The principle of the progressive here is the same statist principle — there is no saying "no" to the state. All must be subject equally to state power, all must be allowed or encouraged (or possibly even compelled) to exercise their "rights, duties and responsibilities as citizens."

Second, for all those who harbor the illusion that the state exists to protect you, Perez’s statement makes it clear — the state gets to determine not only who gets protected, but what protection even means. You don’t get to choose to be protected, you don’t get to choose how you are protected, you don’t even get to choose whether or not you want state protection. You are "protected" when you don’t want it in ways you never wanted, and left "unprotected" in ways you don’t want. But you don’t get to choose. The state wages war either nearby or far away (with the same indiscriminately murderous results) and calls this protection and, voil, you are protected. You don’t get to object, to say "excuse me, but that’s not what I asked for or wanted." You don’t get to say, "well, I don’t feel safer" or "I don’t believe the deaths of hundreds or many thousands makes me any safer."

I say this as a first-hand witness and survivor of the carnage at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. I don’t consider myself protected by anything American arms have done since that day. I wouldn’t have voted for the Afghanistan war as waged or the Iraq war at all. I do not approve of much that the Bush regime has done in my name since then, and I suspect I will approve of nothing the Obama regime will continue to do in my name.

(Indeed, I shudder at the prospect of renewed humanitarian militarism at the hands of a Barack Obama regime.)

But, of course, none of that matters — something Shimon Perez also makes quite clear. Public opinion is irrelevant when governments of democratic societies make war. It makes me wonder just why democracy, in this instance, is any better than aristocracy or dictatorship? Really, just how "accountable" are democratic governments anyway? The only people who feel truly represented are those most emotionally and ideologically tied to the ruler and the regime — Bush Republicans who viewed him as a "good Christian man" who had all the right values, the legion of sparkly-eyed Obama supporters who view him as something between a pastor to the nation and the messiah. Those are the only people who are truly represented, and then only because they can be expected to never say "no" to the leader or his regime anyway. Yes, this is truly democracy, the form of government the world has been waiting for.

The rest of us are Israeli Arabs, subjects of a state that, when it’s feeling self-righteous, heralds our rights and our freedoms while at the same time quietly and deliberately denying them. And warning us to behave ourselves upon pain of death when the state feels threatened.

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a seminarian and freelance editor living in Chicago. Visit his blog.

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