A State for Jews

I grew up in North Carolina and was around for the transformation to an integrated society where in the laws of the state and nation became color-blind; and blacks were afforded equal protection under the law. My parent’s generation were generally decent honorable people who wished no one harm, neither black nor white, they believed in the humane treatment of everyone, but many also believed in the doctrine of separate but equal. This doctrine had been affirmed by the US Supreme Court in 1896 — Plessy v Ferguson – and the court contained such notables as Oliver Wendel Holmes. A subsequent decision, Brown vs the Board of Education, 1954, was essentially unimplemented until the mid to late 1960’s with the onset of the administration of Lyndon Johnson. This transformation was a difficult one for many, but certainly not all, my parent’s and grandparent’s generation.

It is hard for me, and I am sure for them as well, to imagine the return to a segregated society. So I think they might ask, since the people of North Carolina made a sometimes painful transformation, why are we providing almost incalculable support and sustenance to a state — Israel — which is a state “for Jews”, and exclusively for Jews, at the expense of the indigenous native Palestinians. I think the people of North Carolina would wonder at the apparent contradiction if they remembered the difficult times everyone went through and if they understood the legal configuration of Israeli law within the Jewish state.

Let us review some of the laws of Israel which define the legal contours of the state.

Though Israel was never able to agree on a constitution, the Israeli Knesset, however, passed a series of ‘Basic Laws, which functions, more or less, as a constitution, absent something corresponding to a bill of rights protecting the liberties of its citizens.

The First Basic Law states that Israel is a state for the Jewish people.

Identification cards must be carried at all times and define the carrier’s nationality which may be ‘Jewish’, ‘Arab’, Druse, etc., but not ‘Israeli’. An Israeli nationality is not recognized.

In a legal challenge to this classification system which was denied, the president of the High Court, Justice Shimon explained that recognizing an Israeli nationality would negate the very foundation upon which the State of Israel was formed.’

A Basic Law, passed in 1985, ensures the official exclusion from political participation of any party that does not assent to the primacy of Israel’s Jewish identity and raison d’etre.

Another Basic Law, The Law of Return, passed by the Knesset in 1950, states that ‘any Jew has a right to come to this county and shall be granted a visa upon his expressing a desire to settle in Israel. ‘Return’ is used in an unusual sense, as the person ‘returning’ may never have set foot in Israel at any time previously.

Thus any Jew in the world can become an Israel national merely by showing up with the intent to settle in Israel. This right is denied to a Palestinian though he may have been expelled from what may have been his ancestral home in the 1948 wave of expulsions from inside present day Israel.

Jews immigrating are provided with an ‘absorption grant’ which varies depending on one’s origin of immigration, but may be greater than $20,000 per family in the case of immigration from the former Soviet Union. All Jews immigrating to Israel immediately receive the right to vote in elections to the Knesset.

Israeli citizens who left the country for a time but who are defined as ‘those who can immigrate in accordance with the Law of Return’, i.e., Jews, are eligible to receive generous customs benefits, to receive either a grant or a loan, on easy terms, for the purchase of an apartment, as well as other benefits. Such benefits are not available to non-Jews, who are citizens of Israel but are not Israeli nationals.

Palestinian citizens of Israel, about a fifth of the population, 1.5 million, cannot benefit from any of the institutions reserved for Israeli nationals. These quasi-state institutions include The Jewish National Fund, The World Zionist Organization, Israeli Land Authority and The Jewish Agency.

The Israeli Land Authority controls a third of the water resources of the state while the Israeli Land Authority controls 92% of the land of Israel and operates according to regulations issued by the Jewish National Fund, an affiliate of the World Zionist Organization. These regulations deny the right to reside, to open a business, and often to work, to anyone non-Jewish. Jews, by contrast are not prohibited from working anywhere within the State of Israel. Jews who are settled on National land are ‘strictly prohibited’ from sub-renting even part of their land to Arabs, punishable by heavy fines. The land of Israel is administered for Jewish development and can never be transferred to others.

In 1958, the Israeli Knesset passed the Israeli Lands Law which prohibits the transfer of land ownership, whether by sale or in any other manner to those not eligible to benefit from the Law of Return, i.e. non-Jews.

The ‘Absentee law’, enacted in 1950, authorized the state to confiscate property from anyone absent from his home, either within the borders of Israel or outside, even for one day, between November 1947 and May 19, 1948. This law was retroactive and designates dates occurring before Israel was even declared a state and during a period when violence was heaviest and about half of the 750,000 Palestinian refugees were driven from their land.

According to the Arab Association for Human Rights, there are about 100 Palestinian villages in Israel that the government does not officially recognize. These villages, containing over 700,000 Palestinian Arabs Israeli citizens, are constantly threatened with destruction. They are not shown on any map and their residents are prevented from development of their property or constructing any new buildings. They are not provided with public schools, or drinking water, or health clinic. Sometimes whole villages are fenced off.

Moshe Shohat, the Israeli Minister of Bedouin Affairs, spoke of the “bloodthirsty Bedouins who commit polygamy, have 30 children, and continue to expand their illegal settlements taking over state land.” As for providing schools with indoor plumbing, he added, “In their culture, they take care of their needs outdoors … they don’t even know how to flush a toilet.”

These are some of the overarching laws within the pre-1967 borders of Israel. Nothing has been said of the 4.5 million Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation or those under occupation who watch as their land is confiscated. Nor have we mentioned the approximately 5 million Palestinians living in refugee camps in the several states surrounding Israel who were displaced from their homes in 1948 or are their descendants.

The United States supports Israel generously, supplying it with about $3 billion annually together with top drawer military hardware, along with veto-protection in the UN Security Council. The Civil Rights laws of the 1960’s were enacted as a result of a deep sense of basic fairness. The people of North Carolina who are supporting Israel with their tax dollars and socially induced loyalty should give the Arab-Israeli conflict some very hard thought.

William James Martin writes frequently on the Middle East. He can be reached at wjm20@caa.columbia.edu. Read other articles by William.