The time will have to come for Israel to declare its hand: is it “a state of the Jewish people throughout the world” as it defines itself, or a state of all its citizens, both Jewish and non-Jewish? So far Israel has managed to convince the Western world that it is the only democracy in the region, but neglects to add that this democracy works only for its Jewish citizens. This is the conundrum: Israel has been unable to reconcile what it says it is, with want it wants to be — democratic and exclusively Jewish.
All of Israel’s one million plus Palestinian residents — the survivors and descendants of the 1948 Zionist ethnic cleansing of Palestine — have long felt discriminated against, despite Israel paying lip-service to their democratic rights. They also felt on the sidelines of what was being played out in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, that is until Azmi Bishara, the outspoken political leader of the National Democratic Assembly (NDA) or Balad in Israel and a Knesset member, began campaigning for the collective rights of Palestinians. His vision is not just for change inside Israel, but involves an all-inclusive civil rights struggle against political Zionism — the racist and colonialist policies that have dispossessed, marginalised and oppressed all Palestinians for almost 60 years. This is what Israel is at pains to put down by any means. It cannot afford to have someone like Azmi Bishara rallying people to his way of thinking. Now, after many attempts to muzzle him, Israel has finally succeeded in getting him to resign from the Knesset and to stay out of the country.
A list of unpublished charges were drawn up against Bishara whilst he was abroad — charges so serious that they would likely have landed him in jail on his return. While the charges themselves are not known, it is not difficult to guess at what they involve. Bishara has been previously charged with undermining the “Jewish nature of the state”, but the charges have always been dropped. This time it seems that Israel’s state security services may have formulated charges that not only label Bishara a national security threat, but accuse him of treason and espionage. The media is not allowed to discuss any of it and even Bishara himself is reticent on the matter, no doubt to protect himself from being further arraigned because he is adamant that he will eventually return to Israel.
Effectively, Bishara and the NDA skated on thin ice legally whenever they called for full and complete equality between Jews and Palestinians in a state for all its citizens. Israel’s Basic Law stops people from participating in elections if any party platform implies the “denial of the existence of the state of Israel as the state of Jewish people”. Only recently, Israel’s Shin Bet (secret police) let it be known that it would “disrupt the activities of any groups that seek to change the Jewish or democratic character of Israel, even if they use legal means.” However, Bishara’s intention was not to create a fifth column inside Israel. He was in favour of exercising his and his movement’s democratic civil rights to demand that Israel treat all its citizens equally and recognise its Palestinian citizens as a national minority in their own homeland. The latter demand, of course, is enormously contentious because that would require Israel to acknowledge the falsity of its own historical narrative of exclusive rights to a land it claimed was without people. From that would follow that the indigenous Palestinians were, and still are being, systematically uprooted to make way for an exclusively Jewish democratic state in all of the land.
The discourse has been taken up in the Palestinian public arena and now Israel is beginning to feel the same stirrings that finally exposed Apartheid South Africa for the racist state it was. It knows that sooner or later it will be forced to commit to being a “Jewish state only” or recognise the Palestinians as equal citizens and a national minority in their own land. Already Palestinian intellectuals have drafted a document called The Democratic Constitution which envisages Israel as a multicultural democracy for the people living and born there. Whatever Azmi Bishara does now in exile, the seed has burst: he has inspired a subjugated people to seek again their liberation. What is surprising is that Israel has taken so long to understand the lessons of history — that no one person or state no matter how powerful can oppress a people forever. However, Israel still has the option to switch course and institute democracy for all, and if genuinely undertaken, this may well be the solution worth working towards for both peoples.