Israel Threatens to Outlaw Palestinian Memory

JERUSALEM – Israel is set to approve a radical new bill that threatens to legalize discrimination against its sizable Arab minority for the first time.

The bill, approved this week by the ministerial committee for legislation, would make it illegal to relate to the creation of the state of Israel on May 15, 1948, as a day of mourning, thereby banning Arab Israeli citizens from marking what Palestinians call the Nakba – their "Great Catastrophe."

Although the bill has some way yet to become law, it is already arousing considerable consternation among liberal Israeli Jews and the entire Arab community, 20 percent of Israel’s population.

Along with Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and around the world, some Arab Israelis mark the yearly Nakba anniversary with mourning and commemoration events. Jewish Israelis celebrate their Independence Day at the same time of year, although according to the Hebrew calendar.

Under the proposed legislation, people caught commemorating the Nakba could be jailed for up to three years.

The bill was proposed by a member of Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home), an ultra-nationalist – some call it racist – party, which came third in the recent general election under the campaign slogan, "No Loyalty, No Citizenship."

This proposed new law is seen as the first translation of that slogan into a tangible loyalty test that would demand of Arab citizens that they swear allegiance to Israel as a "Jewish, Zionist, and democratic" state if they want to be accepted as citizens.

It is also viewed as the first tangible translation of a populist mood that is inclined to disallow freedom of expression for Arab Israelis and liberal Jews who line up with them.

Sikuy, the Association for the Advancement of Civil Society in Israel, says the bill is in stark contrast to the values on which Israel was established. It would "be destructive to efforts to bring about reconciliation between Jews and Arabs," the NGO said.

Well-known Jewish novelist Sami Michael, president of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), described the bill as "a sign of a democracy losing its bearings. Marking the Nakba in no way threatens the safety of the state of Israel. It is a legitimate and fundamental human right of any person, group, or people to express grief in the face of a disaster they experienced."

A petition denouncing the proposed legislation has been signed by some 2,000 intellectuals. One of the signatories, Hebrew University historian Prof. Steven E. Aschheim told IPS: "It’s absurd, it’s madness, to legislate against any group’s historical memory. This is to deprive part of the population of a basic right."

Another academic who declined to be identified, said, "To outlaw expression of grief is tantamount to outlawing an historical event. It’s akin to legislating against Native Americans or indigenous Australians remembering their historical pain."

Apart from Jewish and Arab civil society activists, opposition to the bill comes mainly from Arab Israeli political parties who were themselves nearly outlawed just before the February elections.

Mainstream Jewish Israelis do not seem to be particularly aghast, however. In a phone-in program on Israel Radio, one woman caller reiterated the mainstream Jewish national narrative as explanation for this new searing demand on Arab Israeli citizens: "In 1947, there was a Partition Plan for Mandatory Palestine; we Jews accepted it, the Arabs didn’t; they launched a war; they lost that war and our state came into existence. Those that stayed have to accept that."

During the so-called peace process years of the 1990s between Israelis and Palestinians this narrative was questioned, even by prominent Jewish Israeli historians. But it returned in full force with the Palestinian Intifada uprising, and still more fervently when most Arab Israelis had strong criticism for Israel’s alleged human rights abuses during its recent war against Hamas in Gaza.

One Arab legislator, Jamal Zalhalqa of the Balad Party, said "there is no international precedent for legislation against sorrow and mourning." He described the proposed law as "an Israeli invention that reveals moral bankruptcy."

What disturbs many Arab Israelis is the detrimental effect it could have on efforts to promote greater understanding and improved coexistence between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority. "We have always believed that we could cherish our own Palestinian historical narrative and express our historical pain without suspicion that it impinges on our loyalty toward our state," says Ghazal Abu-Raya, an Arab activist for coexistence in Galilee. "Now they are pushing us to choose. That violates a basic universal right – the right to identity."

An identical bill was brought before the Knesset in the last three parliamentary terms but was never passed. Although many hurdles have yet to be cleared, the make-up of Israel’s current right-wing government gives the bill much more chance of passing this time. It is slated to be debated in the full government on Sunday and if approved (as it is expected to be), it will be sent on to the Knesset.

In its 1948 Declaration of Independence, viewed consensually as the basis for a provisional constitution that Israel has yet to adopt, the future state of Israel committed itself "to ensure complete equality of social and political rights for all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture."

Israel has long prided itself that it was in tune with the dictum of early U.S. political philosophers who argued that "a democracy is best tested by its attitude toward the minorities in its midst." By this test, in practice, Israel has a rather mixed record in relation to its Arab minority. The new law, if passed, would seriously undermine its claim to be able to be both Jewish and democratic.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.