Sunday, October 4, 2009

Balancing Jewish and Democratic

SEPTEMBER 27, 2009
Jerusalem, Israel

I woke up with a start at 4 PM. The owner of my hostel, Ryan, had walked into the dorm and was showing it off to two new tenants. A young and very attractive couple, who I would later discover were from Spain, were to occupy the beds next to mine.

Still exhausted from the night before, I took a long hot shower, and went on a walk. I had made it a little ways down Salah al-Din Street in East Jerusalem when I met my first friend. His name was Osama.

Osama, a teenage Palestinian boy who had grown up in Jerusalem, spoke a marginal amount of English and fluent Arabic. He could not read or write in Hebrew, nor did he have any desire to learn. “Learning Hebrew (would be) useless.” I asked him to elaborate. “I am Palestinian. There is no job.”

He went on to explain, in so many words, that it is difficult to get a job in Israel unless one holds citizenship. So why learn Hebrew? Even though Osama was born in Jerusalem, he is not recognized as an Israeli citizen because neither one of his parents are Israeli. This is a common problem in Arab East Jerusalem (where many Arabs are non-citizens), as lack of citizenship translates into lack of employment, which further translates into poverty.

Osama threw a fit when I tried to buy him coffee, as characteristic of most Arab men, and we sat down in a little cafĂ© in East Jerusalem, a few blocks away from Damascus Gate. “Where is your family from originally?” I inquired. “(We are) from (a) little town outside of Ramallah.” His uncle, I discovered, owns a used book store which has been used to support his entire extended family. Judging by Osama’s tattered clothing and scrawny physique, the money hadn’t gone very far.

“The Jews do not like Muslims. They starve us and kill our people.” I asked him to elaborate. “We try to defend our land and they kill us.”

I noticed his usage of “Jews" instead of "Israelis." It would have been the same in Egypt.
“Do you think the root of the conflict is a clash of religions? Or is it more about land?” He didn’t understand. I tried to simplify. “You think Israelis hate Muslims? Why?” He thought for a moment. “Israelis do not like Muslims because Israel wants to be a Jewish state.”

According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, the Muslim population in Israel has a growth rate of 3.8%, which is significantly higher than any other demographic. The growth rate for the Jewish population in Israel is a mere 1.6%. CBS studies have concluded that at the current growth rate, Muslims will make up almost 60% of the total population of Israel by 2040. Israel would no longer be a Jewish state.

This is perhaps the leading reason for why Israel is reluctant to grant the "right of return" to Palestinians- the Muslim population residing within Israeli borders actually poses the greatest threat to Israel’s continued existence as a Jewish state. Ninety-eight percent of Arab Israeli’s (Arabs represent approximately twenty percent of Israel's total population) are Muslim.

If Israel wants to remain a Jewish state, it must find a way to, 1) increase the growth rate for Jewish Israelis, or, 2) reduce the growth rate for Arab Israelis. Efforts to increase the number of Jews in Israel have been in effect since the creation of Israel in 1948. Campaigns to reach out to Jewish youth abroad as well as other "recruitment" efforts have been semi-effective, but have not had a dramatic impact on the growth rate in recent years.

The growth rate for Arab Israelis, however, has been stifled in various subtle ways over the past few years. The denial of citizenship to all children born in Israel to non-citizens (non-citizens residing in Israel are usually Arab Muslim, since all Jews are citizens of Israel under the “Law of Return”), as in Osama’s situation, is a good example of a policy that cleverly targets Arab Israelis. Other government policies aimed to motivate or force Arab Israelis to leave Israel have also been effective.

The “Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law,” passed on July 31, 2003, was a one year amendment to Israel's Citizenship Law denying citizenship and Israeli residence to Palestinians who reside in the West Bank or Gaza Strip and who marry Israelis. This means if you are an Israeli, and you marry a Palestinian, your spouse will not enjoy the benefits of Israeli citizenship. The law, publicly proclaimed as a method to preserve the “Jewish character” of the State of Israel, applies in theory to all Israelis. However, in practice, it usually only affected the Arab population since an Israeli Arab, statistically, is much more likely to marry a Palestinian than an Israeli Jew.

If this was an issue of state security, intended to prevent Israelis from bringing high risk liabilities into the country, other important factors such as the person’s moral character, family background, and education, would have been taken into consideration as potentially redeeming qualities. However, it seems that the only relevant factor stated in Israel’s Citizenship Law is nationality.

According to U.S. State Departments Report on Human Rights Practices (2004):

"Approximately 93 percent of land in the country was public domain, including that owned by the state and some 12.5 percent owned by the Jewish National Fund (JNF). All public land by law may only be leased, not sold. The JNF's statutes prohibit the sale or lease of land to non-Jews. In October, civil rights groups petitioned the High Court of Justice claiming that a bid announcement by the Israel Land Administration (ILA) involving JNF land was discriminatory in that it banned Arabs from bidding."

"Israeli-Arab advocacy organizations have challenged the Government's policy of demolishing illegal buildings in the Arab sector, and claimed that the Government was more restrictive in issuing building permits in Arab communities than in Jewish communities, thereby not accommodating natural growth."

"In June, the Supreme Court ruled that omitting Arab towns from specific government social and economic plans is discriminatory. This judgment builds on previous assessments of disadvantages suffered by Arab Israelis."

'Israeli-Arab organizations have challenged as discriminatory the 1996 "Master Plan for the Northern Areas of Israel," which listed as priority goals increasing the Galilee's Jewish population and blocking the territorial contiguity of Arab towns.'

"Israeli Arabs were not required to perform mandatory military service and, in practice, only a small percentage of Israeli Arabs served in the military. Those who did not serve in the army had less access than other citizens to social and economic benefits for which military service was a prerequisite or an advantage, such as housing, new-household subsidies, and employment, especially government or security-related industrial employment. The Ivri Committee on National Service has issued official recommendations to the Government that Israel Arabs not be compelled to perform national or "civic" service, but be afforded an opportunity to perform such service".

"According to a 2003 Haifa University study, a tendency existed to impose heavier prison terms to Arab citizens than to Jewish citizens. Human rights advocates claimed that Arab citizens were more likely to be convicted of murder and to have been denied bail."

"The Orr Commission of Inquiry's report [...] stated that the 'Government handling of the Arab sector has been primarily neglectful and discriminatory,' that the Government 'did not show sufficient sensitivity to the needs of the Arab population, and did not take enough action to allocate state resources in an equal manner.' As a result, 'serious distress prevailed in the Arab sector in various areas. Evidence of distress included poverty, unemployment, a shortage of land, serious problems in the education system, and substantially defective infrastructure.'"

The challenge: can Israel remain a Jewish state without controlling the population of its religious minorities?

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