A tightly-argued book on the oppression of Palestinians living in Israel reveals the imperialist background of the Israeli style of apartheid, argues Joe Glenton.
Ben White, Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy (Pluto 2012), forward by Haneen Zoabi, xiv, 128pp.
The devil, they say, is in the details. This is doubly the case with apartheids. The real perniciousness of Israel’s policies against the Palestinians is not best understood through the foaming-at-the-mouth Zionist rhetoric that we hear. Armchair racists are easy to deal with: move the cursor to ‘report’ or just ignore them. Nor is Israel’s persecution best understood in its penchant for killing women and children, or expansionism, or bulldozing houses, though there is can be no apology strong enough to excuse those activities. The real venom, the most terrifying and fascistic racisms, are the ones enacted in laws and constitutions; the official xenophobia. The Israeli Arabs, White argues, are too often overlooked. Israeli Arabs being Palestinians who live in Israel, rather than dodging bulldozers in the occupied territories – lucky them… Or not, as they have their own set of oppressions to negotiate.
Ben White’s short book spells these out clearly and addresses a number of issues in the Palestinian saga. Firstly, the issue of Israel’s obscurantist claims to be Jewish and democratic. There is no doubt that it is democratic, but only if you are Jewish. The claim tries – and fails – to ignore that Jews are not the only people who live in Israel. Secondly, White exposes the mystical, hair-splitting law-speak which always accompanies, and reinforces, racist regimes. He reveals how and why racism in the only ‘democracy’ in the region is okay by law.
Their history is intertwined with that of their kin in the shrinking gulags. White provides a shocking history lesson. If Israel’s polices are particularly vicious, it is because they were inducted by the best; Britain. While many at the time portrayed Palestine as a terra nullius, Churchill – sounding characteristically liberal - at least accepted that there were people on the land originally when he ‘bigged up’ the Jewish claim at the 1937 Peel Commission, saying ‘I refuse to admit the dog in the manger has the final right to the manger, even though he may have lain there for a very long time’ (p.5). The tone displays an imperialist tendency to compare colonised people to animals, manifested by, among others, Wellington, and recalling his refutation of the Irish claim that he was one of theirs. ‘A man might be born in a stable,’ he quipped, ‘but it doesn’t make him a horse’. Imperial hubris, then, from the very beginning, followed by more of the same.
One particular feature of the Israeli constitution must rank alongside bombing for peace, securing stability in Afghanistan by putting 130,000 foreign troops in it, and American artillery exploding in Iraq being explained away as ‘the sounds of freedom’. This is 1985’s Section 7A of the Basic Law, which prohibits any denial of ‘the nature of the state as democratic’ (p.15). Basic Law it may be, but such legislation can hardly be presented as democratic. Alarms bells could be forgiven for shaking loose of their mountings.
Further, there are no less than 11 laws and 48 ordinances of Israeli law which depend on the State of Emergency in force since 1948; these include restrictions on travel from abroad and, that staple of terror tactics, baking at night (p.16). The laws also allow the army to seize property and attempt to legitimate the seizure of maritime vessels (as recently demonstrated on the Gaza Flotilla). These laws also mean that the rabbinate alone decides who gets buried in a state cemetery; the key criteria is being a recognizably orthodox Jew. Israel, then, is a state where you are even discriminated against post-mortem, based on your faith (p.16).
This kind of thing is not anomalous, but rather should be of no surprise in a country where senior figures can make xenophobic statements unchecked. In 2004, a security minister felt confident enough to say ‘there are Arab citizens in the State of Israel. This is our greatest sorrow’ (p.54). While a local councillor in the same year said ‘I am not a racist…but many Jewish families are afraid that Arabs will start relationships with their daughters’ (p.55). It is by no means an obscure observation that people who start sentences with ‘I am not a racist’ are racists. This one, by playing the oldest card in the racist repertoire, that of casting women as both property and feckless cattle incapable of choosing appropriate partners, also manages to be a raging sexist. Impressive! Rather like a comment I heard directed against a work colleague suggesting that he was not effeminate because he was gay, but because he was European.
The competition for the most all-encompassing bigotry aside, White’s book has heroism in it. The passionate MK Haneen Zoabi, a Palestinian firebrand whose struggles in Parliament are touched upon, is one. Her emotive introduction rings out like something from Arundhati Roy and I took her for a writer before I realised the title MK basically meant MP. She has faced repeated political attacks by Israeli MPs in parliament and has been accused of betraying the state. There has been some talk of removing her parliamentary privileges, not least from those on the committee which governs the immunity of politicians (p.80). The plight of just one of the many jailed activists is also mentioned. Ameer Makhoul was snatched by Shin Bet (the intelligence agency charged with deterring those who challenge the Jewishness of the state), tied to a chair for two weeks and sleep-deprived until he felt liking confessing. He got nine years in an Israeli prison, while his wife, activist Janan Abdu, fights on. ‘We are patient’ she says ‘we resist’ (p.79).
White finishes with prescriptions for peace and highlights simple requests: freedom to return, reparations, equality, the end of apartheid (p.90). These are no more than political decisions and in the face of White’s carefully evidenced arguments, what stands in the way is the structure of empire. He adds to the wealth of reasons to support the Palestinian cause in both the occupied territories and Israel. Meanwhile, Israel has already demonstrated its willingness to kill civilians willy-nilly, and this against the background of bellicose words over Iran. It is nonetheless surrounded by increasingly energised Arab revolutions, and every demonstration in the revolutions has had at its core demands for Palestinian freedom.
Personally, I feel White’s book and his specialised expertise are worth tapping into. He highlights a group I was less familiar with and he does it clearly. The book is short at around a hundred pages, and the arguments are tight and clear. I have been able to move past familiarity with just the key words of the conflict – Nakba, Gaza, Judaisation, apartheid - to a position of greater knowledge. The occupation is sickening, based as it is, on the same flaccid claims about ‘security’ and ‘terrorism’ that have been used to pillage Afghanistan and Iraq.
In closing, I have had bigger things than home-made Kazan rockets fired at me; the Taliban had a good line in 107mm Chinese white phosphorous rockets. They are both piffling armaments, neither justify Apache helicopters, infantry assaults or a racist framework of laws. They do, however, merit a serious, adult enquiry into why people are shooting at you. What is required is an even-handed role by the hegemon and for Israel to pull its bloody finger out. If that fails, which is likely, it is down to the rest of us. We are, I’m told, all Palestinians.