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The Nature of the State of Israel


From the Introduction to Israel - An Apartheid State,
by Uri Davis, Zed Books, London and New Jersey, 1987

(This sub-chapter is entitled in the original: Israel and Palestinian Return)

 

Israel was established as a Jewish state. It was not intended as a state for all of its citizens, Jews and non-Jews alike. Rather, it was primarily envisaged as a state for Jews, that is, a state of which every Jewish individual throughout the world would be a potential citizen. Thus, when the state was unilaterally established on 15 May 1948, it became imperative for its legislative body, the Knesset, to define in law those persons who would qualify as actual or potential citizens, and those who would be excluded - that is, non-Jews in general, and Palestinian Arabs in particular. This was done without undue delay. In 1950 the Israeli Knesset passed two laws: the Law of Return, defining the boundaries of inclusion ('every Jew has the right to immigrate into the country') and the Absentee Property Law, defining the boundaries of exclusion ('absentee'). Under these laws, every Jew throughout the world is legally entitled to become a citizen of the state of Israel upon immigration into the country, while some two million people, the 1948 Palestinian Arabs and their descendants, who were exiled as a consequence of the 1948-9 and the 1967 wars, are denied the rights of citizenship. Nevertheless, their right of return is universally recognized in international law and in repeated UN resolutions (beginning with Resolution 194 (III), 11 December 1948). They clearly exist. Yet, they are defined in Israeli law as 'non-existent', and as 'absentees', and they are excluded by law from actual or potential citizenship in the Jewish state.

The Law of Return (1950) is the cornerstone of the Israeli Nationality Law (1952). The details of the Law of Return (1950), the Absentee Property Law (1950), the Israeli Nationality Law (1952), and the legal mechanisms of exclusion that are codified in this body of legislation will be discussed in detail [in the following chapters]. It is important to note here, however, that the Israeli Knesset, having elevated the attribute of 'being Jewish' to the status of a legally determining principle of exclusion from, or inclusion in, the constituency of actual or potential citizens of the state of Israel, has brought into sharp focus the crisis of modern secular Jewish identity which the Zionist movement claimed to have solved. Under this body of legislation, as amended over the past three and half decades, it is not only the Palestinian non-Jew - first and foremost the Palestinian Arab 'absentee' - who is excluded from his or her right to undisputed citizenship. Large categories of Jews are similarly excluded: Jewish bastards, Jewish persons born to non-Jewish mothers, Jewish persons born to Jewish mothers who converted to another religion, and non-Jews converted to Judaism by conservative or reform rabbis (only the Jewish orthodox conversion procedure is effectively recognized in Israel. The question of 'who is a Jew' has bedevilled Israeli political practice and legislation since the passage of the Law or Return in 1950. As Akiva Orr noted:

First, Zionism did not believe in the existence of God; the movement was secular, not religious...Zionism insisted that suffering in exile was a result of a minority status, not of sin. Zionism preached that the Jews must act on their own behalf to create their state in Zion, rather than wait till God did it for them. Finally, Zionism argued that when Jewish independence was resurrected the Jews would become 'a nation like all other nations' or 'normalized' as some put it (Orr, The unJewish State, p.6)

And yet, by every conventional criterion, the state of Israel is a theocracy. Civil marriage is not permitted under Israeli law, and marriage can be legally consecrated only by Rabbinical, Church or Shari'a courts. The same applies to divorce. Under Israeli law (Jurisdiction of Rabbinical Courts (Marriage and Divorce), 1953), religious courts are state courts and the religious judiciary (Rabbinical, Church and Shari'a) are paid by the state.

Political practice and legislation have been similarly bedevilled by the question of 'who is an Israeli' in the state of Israel. Clearly, the term 'Israeli' and 'Jew' are not coterminous. Seven hundred thousand of the over four million citizens of the state of Israel (some 17 percent) are non-Jewish. They are Palestinian Arabs, the descendants of the remnants of the Palestinian people who have remained in Palestine under Israeli rule (some 150,000 in 1948-9). Much of this volume will be devoted to the analysis and explication of the political and legal mechanisms in terms of which the state of Israel confers a priori exclusive and privileged access to national resources and services on its Jewish citizens, to the exclusion of its non-Jewish, mainly Palestinian Arab, citizens.

In this context, however, it is necessary to remember that Israeli legislation is not directed against those non-Jews who are legally incorporated, albeit in terms of extreme discrimination, into the Israeli body politic as citizens of the Jewish state. Rather, the most damaging manifestation of Israeli legislation is directed against those non-Jews who are legally excluded as 'absentees' from the body of Israeli polity: two million Palestinian Arab displaced persons, conventionally referred to as 'refugees'.

Thus, each Israeli Jew has a shadow: the Palestinian Arab refugee of 1948. Israeli Jewish homes are built on the ruins of their homes. Israeli Jews cultivate their land.

The Palestinian Arab refugee of 1948 is today a soldier in the Palestine Liberation Army: a fida'i. All human beings will rebel, must rebel, in such circumstances, to reconstitute their full human existence, to reclaim their rights, if necessary by armed struggle, inside every part of the homeland from which they have been excluded. And in this struggle the Palestinian Arab deserves our full moral and material support.







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