‘How can a Palestinian feel a sense of equality in a Judaizing state?’

Amal Jamal (Qantara)

Tom Mehager

+972 Magazine  /   July 12, 2020

In a wide-ranging interview, Professor Amal Jamal talks about the exclusion of Palestinian citizens from Israel’s COVID-19 response, Netanyahu’s consolidation of power, and the possibility of a different Israeli identity.

In a year that has seen a public health crisis, economic devastation, and the possibility of annexing parts of the West Bank, I never expected to come out of my conversation with Jamal feeling optimistic. Jamal, who teaches at Tel Aviv University’s Political Science department and the heads of the Walter Libach Institute for Jewish-Arab [Palestinian] Coexistence, is known for his writing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with a particular focus on Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Over the last months, Israel’s “emergency unity government,” headed by Likud and Blue and White, has continued to try and annex parts of the West Bankexcluded Palestinian citizens of Israel and their representatives from the political sphere, and taken draconian measures under the guise of fighting COVID-19.

As a political scientist, Jamal recognizes and warns against the political conditions that have allowed Netanyahu to push through these policies. At the same time, he does not gloss over different forms of resistance we have seen by Palestinian citizens over the past few months, and the kind of political cleavages that could potentially lead to real change.

Our conversation began by discussing the fact that Netanyahu continues to win support from much of the public, despite the severe economic that has swept the country since the coronavirus crisis began in March.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

How do you explain the support for Netanyahu? There is such a broad segment of the population that is being ignored when it comes to the economic consequences of the pandemic, yet it responds with indifference. 

“Netanyahu knows how to play on the deepest fears of Israel’s citizens. His discourse focuses on scaremongering — a kind of language that is well-known and comes from a conservative discourse that tends toward fascism. One in which feelings become the primary language of communication [with citizens].”

“It is a kind of scaremongering that creates a set of priorities and leads to an atmosphere in which there is public forgiveness for corruption. Netanyahu manages to maintain fear and an undermining of reality itself, and thus maintains his [political] credit. He tells the public: I am the right person to deal with this crisis — and the majority of the public is with him. Netanyahu is able to manage a political system by using emergency rhetoric.”

The move from scaremongering to declaring a “state of emergency” in March was almost a natural one, says Jamal. As a political scientist, he looks at the ways in which the emergency regulations, including the mass digital surveillance of Israeli citizens by the Shin Bet, erode the country’s constitutional norms, thus creating a political culture that centralizes power in the hands of the executive branch. “The use of emergency regulations at the expense of constitutional procedures is a clear example of the erasure of our constitutional political culture,” Jamal says. “It has allowed the shutdown of entire systems, including the legal system, which is meant to oversee and promote the importance of the law. The attorney general said that it was unconstitutional to allow the emergency regulations to continue once the Knesset is in session.”

“This isn’t simply the freezing of the courts,” he continues, “but rather an orchestrated attack to muzzle the legal system and prevent it from intervening on constitutional issues, while at the same time limiting the Knesset’s ability to act. The politics of fear, particularly in the era of COVID-19, is intended to make a simple Hobbesian deal: Netanyahu will make sure [Israeli citizens] live, and in return they in turn will forgo their freedoms and grant him the authority to make decisions.”

These steps have repercussions both vis-à-vis the relationship of the state with the Arab Palestinian minority, as well as the future of the occupied territories and the attempt to annex them. 

“The empowerment of conservative and centralizing forces embodied in Netanyahu’s behaviour actually promote unilateral political steps. This means using arbitrary governmental power to push forth certain moves without taking into consideration human, civil, and minority rights. It is a strategic worldview that completely ignores the rights of nearly 45 percent of those who live between the river and the sea, whether or not they are citizens. On a macro level, we need to view this as a coercive process vis-à-vis disempowered Palestinians by the Israeli hegemony — militarily, economically, politically.”

“From the perspective of policymakers, Palestinian resistance to forced solutions that go against their interests and desires reinforces the logic of Netanyahu’s policies. Every form of Palestinian resistance serves Netanyahu’s agenda. In this way, he kills two birds with one stone: he gets to carry out his conservative political worldview while convincing much of the Israeli public to adopt a worldview that distinguishes between friends and foes — between us and them.”

And what about resistance from Jews and Palestinians?

“The need to protect life leads to the deployment of a discourse of fear, which itself is meant to justify certain political steps. Those who stray from the Jewish national collective are seen as traitors. Palestinian citizens cannot be viewed as traitors because they were never part of the collective. They are, however, potential enemies. If in the past the High Court of Justice had a liberal bent and tried to achieve equal citizenship for Arabs, the right-wing’s visceral response has sought to stop it in its tracks. The right’s reaction led to a number of laws that hoped to undermine the citizenship of Israel’s Arab [Palestinian] population — the Nakba Law, the BDS law, the amendment to the Citizenship Law, and of course the Jewish Nation-State Law — which for the most part deal with Jewish supremacy, but also marking the boundaries of what is acceptable for Palestinian politics. The Arab political elite has gotten used to playing within the acceptable limits, but the moment that leadership is viewed as going beyond the limits of acceptability, they are presented as enemies or illegitimate citizens.”

Jamal cites the treatment of Palestinian citizens during the coronavirus crisis — in which Arab communities were abandoned by the government — as a prime example of how the state views them. “There is no egalitarian form of citizenship that includes the Arab public [in Israel], but rather a national-tribal discourse. For example, the degree to which [the state] cared for ultra-Orthodox Jews during the crisis stems from the most basic identity-based component: they are Jews. The state cares less about anyone who isn’t Jewish. Arab [Palestinian] society sent its best daughters and sons to be part of the fight against the virus — in hospitals, pharmacies, and HMOs — from the point of view of civic duty and a shared fate [with Jewish Israelis], but the state’s perspective is not exactly the same.

“Another example is the Druze community, of which I myself am a part. It is a community that has demonstrated loyalty to the state based on the assumption that the Israeli government’s structure offers equal potential to all citizens. That is why the Jewish Nation-State Law poses a very deep and difficult problem for the Druze community, and thus to all Arab citizens: if in the past you were seen as a symbol that affirmed that non-Jews have a home in Israel via army service and loyalty, today we no longer need you. Israel does not need this façade; today it has military, economic, and technological prowess.”

‘A European ethos with a sense of supremacy’

“Despite the continuing deterioration in the status of Palestinian citizens of Israel, the last three elections showed a high voter turnout among the Arab public (64.8 percent), bringing the Joint List to a record 15 members of Knesset. Jamal argues that despite the establishment’s dichotomous discourse of friend and foe, the Palestinian public is not a passive one.”

“The Arab public has increasingly similar characteristics to that of the secular Jewish public, in terms of education, birth rate, women’s employment. To borrow the jargon of the establishment, we are witnessing a trend of integration. But it is also a trend of political action that implies a desire to use existing tools not only to ensure quality of life and be deemed ‘good citizens’ — but rather to procure rights. The support for the Joint List is an expression of this process.”

“The Arab public recognizes Jewish national identity, but in a way that does not undermine our rights. We are talking about equality based on equal rights, access to resources, human dignity, personal security, and more. The basic tendencies of the Arab public are to accept a liberal civic language that leans on civil rights. This will obviously clash with the messianic-nationalistic language that is becoming more prevalent among the Jewish public.”

You’re describing a trend of unbridled nationalism and messianism. In the past, the White House would have criticized such a tendency. Not because it is a fair mediator, but perhaps in an attempt to rein in those forces. Now we are witnessing how the Trump administration is enabling Netanyahu’s behaviour.

“The populist tendency in Israel is part of a global trend. It is an expression of the separation between economic globalization — which many still want — and cultural globalization. The basic claim is that one can promote economic interests without dismantling borders of cultural separation, which give various national groups the right to maintain their internal ethnic hegemony. When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Americans were never a balancing factor: just consider economic aid to Israel, which is disproportionate when compared to every other country in the world, especially the Palestinians. Trumpism falls squarely with [Israel’s] political interests.”

“Netanyahu and Trump use a common language based on the grievances of a lower-middle class that feels discriminated against and has had its country stolen from it, coupled with extremist, messianic forces. The messianic forces behind Trump in the U.S. form a very strong political lobby for Netanyahu’s policies.”

“According to the Evangelical Christian view, the return of the Messiah involves the ingathering of Jews in the Land of Israel. Netanyahu is exploiting this to promote ideas about annexation. These populist forces use existing technology and platforms to foster an atmosphere of fear, and this atmosphere rests on a friend-or-foe mentality and the necessity of emergency measures. For this to work, the Muslim world must be viewed with suspicion. If the Obama-era was based on encouraging the possibility of a moderate form Islam that reaches a compromise with the U.S. and Israel, the Trump era is defined by Muslims who are either submissive or enemies — either ISIS or Mohammed bin Salman.”

“Netanyahu is trying to mobilize American Jewry using the same language — either you join our theological and nationalist discourse, or you will make yourself illegitimate.”

Those institutions that are supposed to act as a countervailing force for the processes you described — the High Court of Justice, civil society, the media, cultural institutions — have historically excluded the Mizrahi lower classes, a fact that has pushed them into the arms of the right. Is there a way to fix this?

“Alongside a deep commitment to Jewish nationalism, which is rooted in a colonial relationship to the Palestinians, Israeli liberalism was and remains a Western European ethos with a deep sense of supremacy and self-righteousness, and therefore the Mizrahi public has not found a home in it. Mizrahi protests have repeatedly been deemed illegitimate. The Zionist establishment views Middle Eastern identity as unworthy. In this sense, there is room for fundamental change to create an alternative, more open ethos.”

“There is no doubt that the right knew how to leverage this situation for electoral support. But the trap of an identity politics discourse is one that offers Mizrahim privileges only on the basis of their identity rather than on an arrangement based on civic equality. It is a sector of the population that is eligible for assistance only on the basis of its exclusion from the general population — not because it is an integral part of society. This is identity politics and loyalty — not pluralism. It is an essentialist understanding of identity that allows one to discern between loyalists and traitors, patriots and leftists, friends and foes. It is a form of politics that leaves [Mizrahim] in the position of beggars.”

“This falls in line with the neoliberal logic of a free market. There is no welfare state that cares for the public writ large; instead we see arrangements between the patron who takes care of the [mostly Mizrahi] development towns, for example, and does good by its residents, and in return demands their loyalty. The right’s attitude to the Mizrahi public is an instrumental one.” 

Under the current political circumstances, what are the chances that the center-left camp can pose a real challenge to the right?

“This has never been realistic in the practical sense of the word. A center-left coalition was a convenient propaganda tool for Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi to improve their position vis-à-vis the right. The threat of establishing a government with the Joint List was an empty one, and when the chips were down — that option disappeared. The threat was seen by the heads of Blue and White as an option to force Likud to sign a good [coalition] deal, even if it meant dismantling the center-left bloc.”

“The new Israeli center is not only pragmatic, it is opportunistic. It is no less nationalistic [than the right] and comes from the heart of the economic and security establishment.”

Why should the Joint List play a political game that has no real horizon?

“The considerations of the Arab political elite are totally different. It is highly doubtful whether the Joint List believed there would be a center-left coalition. But theirs is a goal of legitimizing the Arab voice in the Israeli political system and to create a situation in which the center-left understands that not only is it legitimate to work with the Joint List, but that without it there is no chance of challenging the right, and that Palestinian citizens are willing to enter into this alliance.”

“The Joint List wants to prove its legitimacy [to the Israeli establishment] and the Arab elite is pragmatic when it comes to this. It wants to realize its political potential, which is possible only through allying itself with the so-called center-left. That is why the Joint List was willing to pay a high price, including by recommending a former IDF general for prime minister.”

“The Joint List promised to represent the Arab population. Yes, we are not in the Syrian or Egyptian parliament, but in the Israeli one. In Israel the security establishment falls squarely in the center of the political map, and as long as [the Joint List] is seen as illegitimate, we will not be able to realize our potential. In this way the stamp of legitimacy from the military men creates a balancing act between wanting to have an influence and paying a price [for working with former generals]. They all come from the security establishment; they all promote colonialism and settlement [policies]; and they are all from the army.”

It sounds like you believe there is potential for civic equality in Israel.

“It depends on what you are referring to. Let’s redefine Israeliness so that it includes Jews and Palestinians in a state based on equality, shared spaces, and universal principles. One can imagine an Israeli identity with universal characteristics, one that stands in stark contrast to the dominant ethnic and ideological tendencies of Israel today. The problem with the current definition of the [Israeli] state is the desire to identify it with a limited, messianic conception of Judaism characterized by colonial expansion. How can an Arab-Palestinian feel a sense of partnership and equality in a Judaizing state?”

Tom Mehager is a writer and a blogger, a fellow at Harvard University’s Divinity School, and a facilitator of the ‘Nakba, Ashkenazim, and Mizrahim’ workshop with Zochrot