Colonization at work: Palestinian citizens and the 2021 Israeli elections

Reem Khamis-Dakwar

Mondoweiss  / January 7, 2021

Reem Khamis-Dakwar says that within Israel’s political system Palestinian citizens have the status of pets, “domesticated in the service of Zionist parties in the Knesset.”

With the fourth Knesset election in four years scheduled for March 23, 2021, we are witnessing more and more provocative acts designed to attract Palestinian voters from Zionist parties on the so-called “left” and the right alike. These acts underscore the othering of Arab citizens by Israeli politicians, who reduce Arabs to a single box on the list of candidates even as they form internal coalitions, while also highlighting how the inherent power relationships within the Zionist state are the same ones reiterated and voiced by Arab candidates within these parties. 

To illustrate this argument, I would like to discuss two of the latest developments in the preparations for the upcoming Knesset elections: the selection of the Arab candidate for Meretz, and Netanyahu’s appeal to Arabs for their votes.

On January 4th, 2021 my schoolmate Ghaida Rinawie-Zoabi accepted the nomination to be placed fourth on the Meretz list to the Knesset. There are reports (as yet unconfirmed in the media) that many revered Arab activists within Meretz were not informed or engaged in this nomination decision, and that they have expressed frustration at the fact that Rinawie-Zoabi was not even an active member of the party, and critics view the method of her selection as a form of long standing paternalism.

Being elected within a Zionist party may seem to be a means to pave the road toward influence as part of a coalition or even government, but this is not necessarily the goal most Palestinian wish (or should wish) to achieve, and Zionist parties have never included Arab parties as active participants in governing coalitions.

A critical review of Rinawie-Zoabi’s acceptance speech reveals stereotypical representation and marginalization of Palestinians, couched in the language of power and dominance. Rinawie-Zoabi describes a new generation of Arabs that is a proud collective, and a vision of “joint ownership of the state”, speaking these words while standing at a podium inscribed in Hebrew: House of Zionists of America (which is the the name of cultural center in Tel Aviv where the event was held). There could hardly be a more stark reminder of the ideological and institutional commitments and constraints of the Jewish state of Israel, and of the Zionist parties, like Meretz, that aim to perpetuate rather than dismantle their established systems of oppression. 

Rinawie-Zoabi’s colonized perspective is clarified further when she poses an enthusiastic rhetorical question: “when was the last time you heard an Arab saying joint ownership of the state – not only the space, but the state?” – a clear reference to the Jewish state. Next, she embraces the implicit prejudicial representations of Arabs as violent people, describing “the moment that [she] decided to be someone who would influence the system from within.”

That moment, she says, happened when she was holding a birthday cake for her daughter, and saw a street quarrel turn into a knife fight. At that instant, Ghaida recalls, she decided “not to wait for someone to solve our problems for us” – making it clear she is referring to Arab youngsters in an Arab city, implicitly priming the mental representation of Arabs as violent yet helpless, a people who could experience empowerment if they would only accept the form in which it is offered.

This worn trope is no different than the stereotypical, biased representations we see in the U.S.—head-shaking, sorrowful discussions of criminal acts carried out by people of colour in their communities, only serving to bolster prejudice and give dominant groups the green light for their racist ideas and assumptions of their own dominance. 

Lastly, Rinawie-Zoabi in her speech refers to the functioning of Israel’s healthcare system during the pandemic as a model for how Israel could be, if all its citizens were really equal. In keeping with the rest of her speech, her analysis naturally oversimplifies the realities encountered by individuals seeking health services, and overlooks the profound institutional and societal oppression that has been exposed by Israel’s response to the coronavirus in Israel and the occupied lands of the West Bank and Gaza. 

Similar messages, even down to the implicit communication of dominance and the prejudicial representations of Arabs, have been much in evidence in Netanyahu’s recent speeches too – even his supposedly apologetic proclamations, in which he refers to Arabs using the possessive marker “our citizens, the Arabs, the precious ones” and highlights his focus on law and order.

Similar to Rinawie-Zoabi’s speech, on [July 25th, 2016] Netanyahu recalled a meeting with an “Arab Muslim young woman whose husband and son were murdered in one Arab city.” He describes how this woman “shivered, begging” and asked him as prime minister of Israel to enhance law and order where she lives. Strikingly enough he also chose the current health crisis as an excuse to visit Arab cities and a means to connect with Arabs since the dissolution of the Knesset and the resumption of yet more election preparations in his latest visit too. 

I have two former schoolmates serving in the Knesset, and a third may be on her way there too. We all grew up together facing the same generational trauma, racism, institutional oppression, exclusion, and marginalization. I also believe that we all are trying, in our own ways, to be agents of change, just like those currently fighting against oppression in the United States. I acknowledge our diversity of thought and action, but at the same time as we learn from the history of the struggle in other communities I also worry about the harm caused by some of our own. I am particularly fearful that we may be, in the name of law and order, in the name of working from within, with all good intentions to the community, helping to copy-and-paste a plan for the incarceration of Arab citizens directly from the playbook of white supremacy  – as skilfully documented by Dr. James Forman in his book “Locking Up Our Own.” 

What we really need is to chart a liberating path on the basis of genuine study of history and struggles against oppression and exclusion, solidarity, and recognition of our shared humanity, right to dignity and dismantling of systemic exclusionary ideas, practices and systems. A path based on justice and a genuine embracing of diverse frameworks of thought. One that reconciles the atrocities and history of the Zionist movement, instead of attempting to curvet the past without acknowledging current pain and trauma is what we need. One that is focused on building alliances and healing, on tackling power relationships inherited in the definition of a Jewish state head-on, and on acknowledging and understanding the lived past and present experiences of the Palestinians who are citizens in Israel is the path towards healing and reconciliation. This would be the only genuine path away from the current diminishment of Arabs to the status of pets, domesticated in the service of Zionist parties in the Knesset, and towards a shared vision and concrete plan of action to bring about an equal, inclusive society within the reach of all citizens of Israel.

Reem Khamis-Dakwar is Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Adelphi University, Long Island, New York; she is the president of AAUP Adelphi University chapter; she is an Arab citizen of Israel who was born and raised in Nazareth