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The visionary Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery, who passed away on August 20, once wrote, “If we continue to look down, toward our feet, we will die of anguish. That’s why I always look up.” In fact, Avnery knew that it was also necessary to look down at his muddy feet, to recognize and condemn the violence that the Israeli government pursued in his name. The last piece Avnery published, just two weeks before he died, was an expression of deep anguish in response to the Nation State Law. But his point—and this is a lesson that I learn from Odeh Bisharat as well—was that condemnation presents only half of an ethical response to injustice.
Bisharat articulates all the ways the Nation State Law is dangerously wrong. It is a formal affirmation of deep-seated discrimination, an invitation to hate crimes, an affront to the social and professional spheres in which greater levels of equality had been achieved, a violation of Israel’s own legal framework, an insult to displaced Palestinian families who deserve compensation, and an excuse to reject Palestinian peace agreements. But, in an act of courage and discipline that must not be overlooked, Bisharat does not stop there. He shows that there is a path to resisting this racist law and all the practices it represents, one important element of which is a Jewish-Arab political coalition within Israel. The joint protest in Tel Aviv on August 11 was indeed unprecedented, not only because of the number of participants, but because of the openness that both communities showed one another in its planning and execution. The fact that some participants waved Palestinian flags, while others waved Israeli flags—a cause for panic according to the right-wing media—only underscores the breadth of political and personal identities that were present.
This unity march was not an isolated event. Like the populist racism that allowed the Nation State Law to be passed (bolstered by manipulation and backdoor deals in the highest ranks of power), this new Arab-Jewish solidarity within Israel was also not born overnight. Politicians such as Ayman Odeh and Dov Khenin of the Hadash Party and Mossi Raz of Meretz have joined grassroots organizations such as Standing Together in promoting this approach through their day-to-day politics. They have been modeling the message that opposition to the occupation must be accompanied by a deep cultural change within Green Line Israel as well.
The results of this political labor have been appearing in small but promising pockets of the Israeli social fabric in recent years. For example, this spring, I witnessed a group of students at Tel Aviv University, Jewish and Palestinian-Arab, who interrupted the campus’s moral slumber with repeated demonstrations in support of the university’s sanitation workers, who are also from both ethnic communities. Their primary demand is that sanitation workers be employed directly through the university, rather than through exploitative third-party contracts. A similar endeavor proved successful at Haifa University earlier last year.
Watching the sanitation workers and young students pass the megaphone among one another, switching between Hebrew and Arabic, I felt that they were able to negotiate a type of unity for which there is not yet a formal political home. At this moment in history, when so many different slogans and programs have failed or divided us, perhaps practices of equality should lead and theory should follow. Importantly, these students and workers focused on a common cause that was about both racial and economic justice. Combining these issues demonstrates how we can advocate for the well-being of both Jewish and Palestinian-Arab citizens of Israel simultaneously and thus reverses the zero-sum mentality that is deeply entrenched in Israeli politics. Such initiatives can, over time, build a critical mass of active citizens with experiences in political cooperation across ethnic lines. In Trump’s America, signs of a “blue wave” insurgency also began with local organizing. Though the far-right Israeli government is currently legislating in the opposite direction, local and grassroots struggles can help build a counterculture of equality.
Ultimately, of course, this coalition needs to spread from grassroots and local politics to the national, electoral level in order to be effective. This is possible, though not easy. Currently, as Bisharat mentions, the mainstream opposition lead by MK Tzipi Livni has avoided partnership with leading Arab politicians from the Joint List. In their resistance to the Nation State Law, Livni and her ilk have focused on showing solidarity with the Druze community, an Arab minority group who, unlike all other Arab groups in Israel, typically agree to serve in the Israeli army. In fact, the Druze community joined center-left Jewish Israelis in staging a separate protest against the National State Law, which took place a week before the event Bisharat describes and also drew tens of thousands. Conditioning Jewish-Arab partnership on army service is not only bad politics, as it limits the possibilities of coalition-building substantially, but also very bad policy, as it separates the issue of equality within Israel from the military control over Palestinians in the occupied territories. Even if the mainstream Jewish liberal-left would prefer to oppose the far-right on its own, independent terms, they need to be convinced that that is not a viable political strategy.
One does not need not see full, harmonious agreement on every issue in order to advocate for Jewish-Arab coalition building. One only needs to do basic arithmetic. In the 2015 elections the Joint Arab List—a diverse coalition of Arab-majority parties—received thirteen mandates, making it the third largest party in parliament. The furthest left-wing Jewish-majority party, Meretz, received five seats. If one were to integrate the most left-wing factions of Labor Party and Ha-Tnua, which currently share twenty-four seats, a coalition between these Jewish and Palestinian-Arab groups in Israel could become a powerful political force. Resistance to the Nation State Law, which united precisely this political spread, should provide a roadmap for this aspired coalition. According to a survey conducted by the Israeli Center for Democracy, 60 percent of all Jewish citizens said that “equality” should have been explicitly guaranteed in any law like the Nation State Law. With both international and domestic pressure, this large sector can and should be convinced of the virtues of such coalition work. Alternatively, if each of these groups continues to work on its own, the alliance between the far-right settler party The Jewish Home, Netanyahu’s Likud, and the orthodox religious parties will continue to win, even if they do not represent a majority of voters or share the same political priorities.
Bisharat seems to position full Jewish-Arab equality in Israel as part of a just two-state solution, one in which each state guarantees the civil rights of all of its citizens. I share that vision. However, it is worth noting that ground-level solidarity between Jews and Arabs in this region is a necessary element of any just solution. Thus, even those who now support the creation of a single bi-national state, or a confederation of states with open borders, should also support similar coalition-building efforts. Virtually any resolution from above can devolve into violence and further discrimination without a significantly higher level of good faith between Jews and Arabs in all of Israel/Palestine, which takes time to build. This is not a symmetrical process: Jewish citizens of Israel should initiate this coalition-building by showing that they—we—are willing to go beyond opposition to the Nation State Law in rejecting privilege.
From a Jewish perspective, I am sympathetic with those who value and seek to protect Jewish collective life in Israel. To do that, we should actively pursue reforms that help Jewish-Israeli culture to thrive without impinging on the rights of others or, even better, reforms that simultaneously benefit Palestinian-Arab communities to the same extent. For example, if people are committed to protecting and enriching the Hebrew language, a key identity component for many Jewish Israelis, they should advocate for urgent improvements in primary education for all schools—Hebrew, Arabic, and bilingual ones alike. An honest evaluation of contemporary Israel would show that declining literacy skills—the result of drastically underfunded schools as well as profit-oriented, STEM-first approaches—currently threaten the longevity of the Hebrew language, while the Arabic language, of course, does not. Within Jewish educational spheres, more should be taught about diaspora Jewish traditions, such as those created in Yiddish, Ladino, and Judeo-Arabic. Doing so would offer new paths to positive cultural identification, while also teaching a lesson in pluralism. Likewise, freedom of religion within Jewish practice, supporting life ceremonies in which women and LGBTQ participants are welcome as equals, would strengthen the Jewish religion far more than pushing Islam or Christianity out of public spaces. Needless to say, ending the occupation of Palestinian territories would make vast new economic and human resources available, which could then sustain the many variations of Jewish, Arab, and immigrant cultures that are present in Israel.
Thus, as Bisharat points out, legal and social equality between Jews and Arabs in Israel would protect Jewish social being—the positive, irreducible elements of peoplehood—while discrimination against non-Jews endangers it. True equality and justice, ranging from economic to cultural spheres, does not require a rejection of particularity, Jewish or Palestinian-Arab. It only requires a bit of political imagination. Tens of thousands of Israeli citizens have conveyed their will for equality by demonstrating together in the streets. Now is the time to follow their lead with concrete political programs.
Hannah Pollin-Galay is Senior Lecturer of Yiddish and Holocaust Studies in the Department of Literature at Tel Aviv University and author of Ecologies of Witnessing: Language, Place and Holocaust Testimony (Yale University Press, 2018). She previously worked as a youth educator at Leyvik House, the Union for Yiddish Writers and Journalists in Israel.
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