In a talk delivered to the Fifth Bilin International Conference for Palestinian Popular Resistance, held in the West Bank village of Bilin on April 21, Jonathan Cook described some of the aspects of Israeli apartheid — the systematic discrimination between Jews and non-Jews inside the state of Israel.
A few weeks ago I met Uzi Ornan, an 86-year-old professor from the Technion University in Haifa, who has one of the few ID cards in Israel stating a nationality of “Hebrew.” For most other Israelis, their cards and personal records state their nationality as “Jewish” or “Arab.” For immigrants whose Jewishness is accepted by the state but questioned by the rabbinical authorities, some 130 other classifications of nationality have been approved, mostly relating to a person’s religion or country of origin. The only nationality you will not find on the list is “Israeli.” That is precisely why Professor Ornan and two dozen others are fighting through the courts: they want to be registered as “Israelis.” It is a hugely important fight – and for that reason alone they are certain to lose. Why?
Far more is at stake than an ethnic or national label. Israel excludes a nationality of “Israeli” to ensure that, in fulfillment of its self-definition as a “Jewish state,” it is able to assign superior rights of citizenship to the collective “nation” of Jews around the globe than to the body of actual citizens in its territory, which includes many Palestinians. In practice it does this by creating two main classes of citizenship: a Jewish citizenship for “Jewish nationals” and an Arab citizenship for “Arab nationals.” Both nationalities were effectively invented by Israel and have no meaning outside Israel.
This differentiation in citizenship is recognized in Israeli law: the Law of Return, for Jews, makes immigration all but automatic for any Jew around the world who wishes it; and the Citizenship Law, for non-Jews, determines on any entirely separate basis the rights of the country’s Palestinian minority to citizenship. Even more importantly, the latter law abolishes the rights of the Palestinian citizens’ relatives, who were expelled by force in 1948, to return to their homes and land. There are, in other words, two legal systems of citizenship in Israel, differentiating between the rights of citizens based on whether they are Jews or Palestinians.
That, in itself, meets the definition of apartheid, as set out by the United Nations in 1973: “Any legislative measures or other measures calculated to prevent a racial group or groups from participation in the political, social, economic, and cultural life of the country and the deliberate creation of conditions preventing the full development of such a group or groups.” The clause includes the following rights: “the right to leave and to return to their country, the right to a nationality, the right to freedom of movement and residence, the right to freedom of opinion and expression.”
Such separation of citizenship is absolutely essential to the maintenance of Israel as a Jewish state. Were all citizens to be defined uniformly as Israelis, were there to be only one law regarding citizenship, then very dramatic consequences would follow. The most significant would be that the Law of Return would either cease to apply to Jews or apply equally to Palestinian citizens, allowing them to bring their exiled relatives to Israel – the much-feared Right of Return. In either a longer or shorter period, Israel’s Jewish majority would be eroded and Israel would become a binational state, probably with a Palestinian majority.