The NAKBA: the Holocaust of the Palestinians
Israeli Racism and Israel's Jim Crow Laws Exposed
Phyllis Bennis interviewed by Max Elbaum
Phyllis Bennis, a longtime Middle East analyst and activist, is head of the Middle East Project at the Institute for
Policy Studies in Washington,
D.C. She is the author of
From Stones to Statehood: The Palestinian
Uprising, a book about the Palestinian intifada of the late 1980s, and
Calling the Shots: How Washington
Dominates Today's U.N. In this interview, Bennis analyzes the racist
character of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza as well as its treatment of Palestinians who live
ColorLines: What do you see as the root cause of the
current Palestinian uprising?
Phyllis Bennis: What's going on right now can be summed
up in one word: occupation. Contrary to the U.S.
media's portrayal, the Israeli occupation of Palestine
is at the root of what the media at best identify only as a "disproportionate"
use of violence by the Israelis on the West Bank and
Gaza. Certainly the Israeli troops' use of helicopter
gunships, of machine guns mounted on tanks, and so on is profoundly
disproportionate when used against a Palestinian civilian population armed only
with stones and some old Kalashnikov rifles. But the real issue is the Israeli
military occupation of Palestine—not only that it is inherently
violent and a violation of international law and contrary to United Nations
resolutions. Even if Israel
used only proportionate violence, it would still be absolutely illegal, because
the occupation of Palestinian land is illegal.
CL: And why is there an occupation?
PB: From its origins in the 19th century, Zionism
centered on the idea of creating a specifically Jewish state in which Jews would
be protected and privileged over non-Jews. Zionist occupation of Palestine was at first
meager, amounting to about 10 percent of the population by 1900. By 1947, Jews
were still only about 30 percent of the population of Mandate Palestine and
owned only six percent of the land, but the UN Partition Resolution that year
still assigned 55 percent of the land to a new Jewish state. However, by means
of the 1947-48 war, Israel
took over even greater expanses of land and forcibly expelled about 750,000
Palestinians. This travesty was the basis for the official founding of the
Israeli state in 1948.
CL: In this latest intifada, there have been numerous
protests by Arabs living within the pre-1967 borders of Israel. What are their numbers and
their conditions of life?
PB: Inside what is called the "Green Line"—the
unofficial borders of Israel
before the 1967 war—there are still about one million Palestinians, just under
20 percent of the total Israeli population. Most Palestinians are Muslim, some
are Christian. From 1948 to 1966, the Palestinians within Israel lived
under explicit military rule. They were considered a military threat to the
Israeli state, and they were ruled under a completely different set of laws than
the Jewish population. After 1966, military rule was lifted, but it was replaced
by a set of Jim Crow-like laws designed to discriminate against Arabs in
Israel. According to Adalah, an Arab rights
organization, today there are at least 20 laws that specifically provide unequal
rights and obligations based on what the Israelis call nationality, which in Israel is defined on the basis of
religion. Israelis must carry a card which identifies them as either a Jew, a
Muslim, or a Christian. All non-Jews are second class citizens. The Israeli
Supreme Court has dismissed virtually all cases which dealt with equal rights
for Arab citizens.
CL: Can you be more specific about how this
discrimination works and what it means?
PB: All Israeli citizens, including Palestinians, have
the right to vote in elections for members of the Knesset (parliament) and for
the prime minister. But not all rights are citizenship rights. Other rights are
defined as nationality rights, and are reserved for Jews only. If you are a Jew,
you have exclusive use of land, privileged access to private and public
employment, special educational loans, home mortgages, preferences for admission
to universities, and many other things. Many other special privileges are
reserved for those who have served in the Israeli military. And military service
is compulsory for all Jews (male and female), except for the ultra-Orthodox who
get the same privileges as other Jews, but excludes Palestinians, who do not.
Over 80 percent of the land within Israel that was
once owned by Palestinians has been confiscated. All told, 93 percent of Israel's land
can only be leased or owned by Jews or Jewish agencies. Moreover, despite Israel's booming
economy, Palestinian unemployment is skyrocketing—Adalah says it is about 40
percent. In 1996 twice as many Arab citizens (28.3 percent) as Jewish citizens
(14.4 percent) lived below the poverty line. Less than five percent of
government employees are Arab. And eighty percent of all student drop-outs are
Arab. There are also vast disparities between Arab towns and Jewish towns in
government spending on schools, medical systems, roads and electricity, clean
water, and social services. Unlike any other country in the world, Israel does not
define itself as a state of its residents, or even a state of its citizens, but
as a state of all the Jews in the world. Jews from anywhere in the world, like
me, can travel to Israel,
declare citizenship, and be granted all the privileges of being Jewish that are
denied to Palestinians who have lived in the area for hundreds of years.
CL: Are Palestinians within Israel participating in the current
PB: The recent resistance has seen a whole new level of
involvement in demonstrations by Palestinians inside the Green Line. They are
protesting the discrimination they face in Israel
as well as the occupation itself and Israeli brutality against Palestinians on
the West Bank and Gaza.
Such protests are not completely without historical precedent; in 1976 there
were a series of demonstrations on what became known as Land Day which protested
continuing Israeli seizures of Palestinian land. Six Palestinian demonstrators,
citizens of Israel,
were killed by Israeli forces. But this time there is a vast increase in the
participation of Palestinians inside the Green Line. Their demonstrations have
been met with the same brutal military tactics used against Palestinians in the
West Bank. So, far 13 Israeli Palestinians have
These tactics are in sharp contrast to the methods used
by Israeli authorities in response to demonstrations by Israeli Jews.
In 1982, for example, when there was an upsurge of
Jewish protests against the Israeli war in Lebanon, one Israeli Jewish
protester was killed and there was such an enormous outcry that people remember
his name to this day—Emil Grunzweig.
But when a Palestinian is killed by Israeli military
occupation forces, that is not considered news. We might hear a body count, but
we never hear their names, who their parents or children are, what they did for
On the West Bank and Gaza, as well as inside the Green Line, police
randomly fired live ammunition into crowds of unarmed Arab demonstrators that
were throwing stones. The racist double standard is everywhere. A mob of Israeli
Jews even attacked the house of an Arab member of the Knesset, Azmi Bishara. But
the police would not act against the rioters.
Unfortunately, the years of occupation have created, or
have allowed to flourish, an incredibly racist vantage point among the majority
of Israeli Jews. The majority of Israeli Jews are willing to accept the killing
of Palestinians and collective punishment of the Palestinian population as
justified state policy.
CL: Can you tell us more about Palestinian politics
PB: Not surprisingly, Palestinians inside Israel have
historically felt themselves excluded and disempowered by the Israeli
government. The Communist Party of Israel was long a predominantly Arab party
and received the vast majority of Palestinian votes. The CP remains strong, but
a few Palestinian Knesset members have recently allied themselves to the Labor
Party and more and more Palestinians have joined newer nationalist blocs. Azmi
Bishara, who leads the Tajamoah (National Democratic) Party, became the first
Arab citizen to run for prime minister last year. He and others actually call
for the "de-Zionization" of Israel—for
the transformation of Israel
from a theocratic state privileging the Jewish majority to a democratic, secular
state of all its citizens.
CL: You are painting a picture of an Israeli government,
with the support of a substantial part of its Jewish population, which aims
toward permanent subordination of Palestinian Arabs within its borders, along
with domination over something that might be called a Palestinian state but what
would really amount to a dependent Bantustan.
Essentially the same vision that motivated apartheid South Africa.
PB: Yes. And there are even more complexities. Within Israel there are
really four levels of citizenship, the first three being various levels of
Jewish participation in Israeli society, which are thoroughly racialized. At the
top of the pyramid are the Ashkenazi, the white European Jews. At the level of
power the huge contingent of recent Russian immigrants—now about 20 percent of
Israeli Jews—are being assimilated into the European-Ashkenazi sector, though
they are retaining a very distinct cultural identity. The next level down, which
is now probably the largest component of the Jewish population, is the Mizrachi
or Sephardic Jews, who are from the Arab countries. At the bottom of the Jewish
pyramid are the Ethiopian Jews, who are black. You can go into the poorest parts
of Jewish West Jerusalem and find that it's predominantly Ethiopian. This social
and economic stratification took shape throughout the last 50 years as different
groups of Jews from different part of the world came, for very different
reasons, to Israel. So while the divisions
reflected national origins, they play out in a profoundly racialized way.
The Yemeni Jews in particular faced extraordinary
discrimination. They were transported more or less involuntarily from Yemen to Israel. On arrival they were held in
primitive camps, and many Yemeni babies were stolen from their mothers and given
for adoption to Ashkenazi families. In the early 1990s a high-profile campaign
began to try to reunite some of those shattered families. Beneath all these
layers of Jews come the Palestinian citizens. A rigid hierarchy, highly
racialized both within and between religious or national groups, orchestrates
Israeli social life. Much of it is legally enforced. The most significant
difference between this scenario and other similar ones is in the world's
perception of the Israeli reality. For the overwhelming majority of the world's
population, South Africa
was always considered a pariah state. But Israel is not in that position. Israel is given
a pass, if you will, on the question of racism. Because Jews were victims of the
Nazi Holocaust, there's a way in which Israeli Jews are assumed to be either
incapable of such terrible racialized policies, or that it's somehow
understandable because of what Jews went through. But the new intifada has
refocused attention on the nature and extent of Israeli racism, among other
things. You have new reports from Amnesty International looking at the Israeli
treatment of its own Palestinian citizens—minors, children, being arrested,
beaten and held for days.
treats Palestinians, inside or outside the Green Line, as being less human than
Jews. This is rooted in the very definition and Basic Law of the Israeli state.
And the new intifada may give us a chance to challenge that apartheid character.
Max Elbaum is the former editor of
CrossRoads magazine and author of
Revolution in the Air: From Malcolm and Martin to Lenin, Mao & Che,
a book about the new communist movement of the 1960s and 1970s in the United
States, forthcoming from Verso. This article was taken from the Palestine
Chronicle, 2 August 2001. Copyright,
ColorLines Magazine, 2000. For fair use only.