Challenging Israel to become democratic

With the release of a highly anticipated document, the "Future vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel", the Palestinian community within Israel has taken its first steps toward full empowerment. The document, which lays out a broad, if not comprehensive, map of relations between the state of Israel and its Palestinian Arab citizens is unique in that it has broad backing within the population and is meant to provide an urgently needed impulse in the discourse currently taking place in this country. Almost 60 years after the state of Israel was created on the ruins of Palestine and its people, the descendents of those who somehow remained on their land have moved toward actively changing their status from "tolerated" and overlooked outsiders to becoming an integral part of Israeli society on equal terms.

In order to understand the yearnings articulated in the document, it is important to recognize the mostly silent suffering that Israel’s Palestinians have endured since 1948. Upon the creation of the state, the indigenous population found itself stripped of its rights and land, even the right to protest what was being done to it. Subject to military rule from 1948 until 1966, Palestinians within Israel were forced to sit by helplessly as every aspect of their lives changed. They had become an enemy in their own land.

This oppression took a heavy toll on those who witnessed the expulsions from and destruction of over 500 Palestinian villages between 1948 and 1950. As the Israeli state was being built, Jewish immigrants were absorbed on the same land, and sometimes in the very same houses, where neighbors and friends had once lived. And, as any minority in the world, Palestinians learned to keep their heads down and hold on to some semblance of dignity in the face of their tormentors.

But this mentality of "not rocking the boat" seeped into every action and behavior and the instinct for survival pushed aside the need for dignity and feelings of humiliation. As a child, I witnessed this servile behavior even in my father whenever we traveled though Ben Gurion Airport. I, like the majority of Palestinians in Israel, inherited the humiliation from the elder generation and learned to be apologetic toward Israeli Jews and to keep quiet when confronted with racist or biased officials of the state.

Slowly, and in fits and starts, this attitude has changed over the last 20 years. Palestinians have begun taking their rightful place within Israeli society: in universities, as professors or students; in political parties; in the media; in the cultural arena. By interacting with our Palestinian brethren in the occupied Palestinian territories and by feeling proud of their struggle for freedom from Israeli occupation, we also became reacquainted with ourselves. This in turn helped give us the confidence to assert our national identity.

The "Future vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel" is a direct result of that growing confidence. It highlights the maturity of the Palestinian community, which is taking a serious initiative to wrestle control over its future back into its own hands. Palestinian citizens of Israel are an integral part of the state and are not about to go anywhere. The document seeks to create debate and discussion and to put the institutions of state on notice that Palestinians are no longer going to accept being second-class citizens in their own country. It expresses the aspirations of a people vis-a-vis a state that gave them citizenship but did not give them equality.

There is a long way to go. The Zionist narrative of Israel as the national homeland for the Jewish people in and of itself negates the narrative of the Palestinian people. The state of Israel, as the product of Zionism, not only ignores the plight of non-Jewish inhabitants, but staunchly refuses to even recognize that a grave injustice was committed against the Palestinians in Israel, the Jewish community’s fellow citizens. This document is an opportunity to open doors that have been sealed shut until now.

The initial reaction from the Israeli Jewish establishment has been less than heartening. Soon after the document’s release, a chorus of voices rose to defend the status quo. The influential Council for Peace and Security chairman, Maj. Gen. Dani Rothschild said that, "It is inconceivable to subvert the right of the state to define itself as Jewish and democratic, of our connection to Jews of the world, of demographic hegemony, of territoriality and national symbols. These are the basic elements of the Jewish nature of the state."

Haaretz columnist Zeev Schiff went even further, invoking the Holocaust when he claimed Palestinians in the occupied territories want their future state to be "Judenrein" and that the Supreme Follow-up Committee of the Arabs in Israel, which authored the document, chose its timing deliberately because Israel was "weak and being attacked".

Missing in this fear mongering is any recognition of the Palestinian story. The Jewish establishment had better get used to the fact that the Palestinian citizens of Israel, who constitute around 20 percent of the population, are no longer going to accept being shunted aside. Israeli Jews need to recognize that only when our narrative is taught to Jewish children just as the Jewish narrative is taught in Arab schools, will Israel be on its way to becoming a true democracy. Displaying Palestinian symbols does not negate Jewish symbols; quite the opposite: it sends a strong and true message of mutual respect.

A state based on religious affiliation is archaic in today’s world. When a state affords democratic rights to only some of its citizens it is not democratic. It is my hope that Jewish Israel will see this document not as a threat, but as an opportunity to rectify the wrongs of the past in order to move toward the future. "The only democracy in the Middle East" sounds much better than "the only democracy for Jews in the Middle East." The ball is now in their court.