(Pluto Press, London/University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2006 - ISBN 0-7453-2555-6)
In spring 2001, the Or Commission began an inquiry into the deaths of thirteen unarmed Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli security forces during the riots that followed Ariel Sharon’s provocative walk on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount the previous September. Twelve of these victims were citizens of Israel, the thirteenth a Gazan. Within weeks the hearings descended into acrimony as relatives of the deceased responded bitterly and sometimes violently to the mendacity of the police, and the procedural obstacles placed upon their lawyers’ attempts to expose the truth.
Eventually Justice Theodor Or “demanded that a glass partition be built between the public gallery, where the Palestinian families sat, and the rest of the courtroom…. On the TV news and in newspaper photographs, however, it looked as if all the participants to the inquiry were sitting in the same room. The inquiry appeared to be treating all the parties equally when in reality its Arab participants were outsiders, excluded and largely ignored.”
This “very Israeli solution” provides Nazareth-based British journalist Jonathan Cook with a readymade image for the plight of Palestinian Israelis (curiously, he consistently uses the unpopular term “Israeli Arabs”) in purportedly democratic Israel. The glass wall, he maintains, is “an even greater obstacle to a Middle East peace than its walls of concrete and steel,” an often overlooked manifestation of the “iron wall” that Vladimir Jabotinsky decreed in 1923 was essential to the maintenance of an ethnic Jewish state in Palestine.
Like Susan Nathan’s magisterial The Other Side of Israel, Blood and Religion focuses attention on those Palestinians whose dilemma is often left out of account by solidarity groups: the descendants of Palestinian Arabs who managed to remain in “sovereign” Israel during the ethnic cleansing of 1948. While Nathan describes in harrowing detail the daily discrimination exercised by the Jewish state against its Arab citizens, Cook meticulously analyses the political basis for and probable future consequences of this discrimination.
Israel’s claim to be “Jewish and democratic” is conditional on the domination of the state by a hefty Jewish majority, with its Arab citizenry constituting a maximum of 20 percent since the days of Yitzhak Rabin (Israel’s founding father David Ben Gurion had set the limit at 15 percent). However, given the discrepancy in birth-rates between Jews and Arabs, there has been a lingering fear since the foundation of the state that growing numbers of Arabs would become so influential as to overthrow such anti-democratic legislation as the 1950 Law of Return, or to force a re-definition of Israel as “a state of all its citizens” - a notion that elsewhere is regarded as a sine qua non of democracy.
Israel’s defenders have tied themselves up in knots explaining how an “ethnic democracy” can still “operate within the parameters of democratic behaviour,” the tragedy being that so many outsiders have played along with such conceptual contortions. Only in the late 1990s did certain dissident Israeli intellectuals query this model. Political geographer Oren Yiftachel defined Israel as an “ethnocracy,” being “neither authoritarian nor democratic… Ethnocracies, despite exhibiting several democratic features, lack a democratic structure.” More recently political scientist Yoav Peled, for whom “The logic of the Oslo process was a demographic logic,” a logic “to which the PLO was a party,” has argued that (as Cook paraphrases him) “Israel could no longer be characterised as a democracy, even in the most formal sense.”
This assessment was confirmed by a poll organised in 2003 by the Israel Democracy Institute which found that only 77 percent of Israeli Jews believed that democracy “was a desirable form of government, giving Israelis the lowest ranking in a comparative survey of public attitudes in 35 democratic states.” It concluded that “Israel is mainly a formal democracy that has not yet acquired the characteristics of a substantive democracy.” Clearly the continued use of the trope “the only democracy in the Middle East” needs radical revision.
Of course the ideal Zionist state is racially pure, 100 percent Jewish, and Cook demonstrates how successive generations of Israeli politicians and soldiers - the former tending to be enlisted from the ranks of the latter - have sought to bring about this regressive aim. Since in principle there would be no minority in such a state to be discriminated against, it could indeed claim to be fully democratic and egalitarian. While the lingering temptation of outright ethnic cleansing has hitherto been resisted - there may be limits to what the “international community” will tolerate from Israel, though these limits seem to be dwindling as the “clash of civilizations” model gains renewed currency - Moshe Dayan’s celebrated assertion that Palestinians “will live like dogs and whoever wishes may leave” has become the basis of Israeli government policy towards its Arab citizens.
Cook devotes about a third of his book to recounting Israel’s short and horrible history as a sustained struggle against “the demographic demon” (Giora Eiland). For the seasoned Israel/Palestine hand, revisiting this material for the umpteenth time may prove a gruelling experience. However, persistence is worthwhile as the demographic perspective provides a thread linking many policies, practices and utterances that had seemed just so many unlinked manifestations of unmotivated cruelty and racism. Via the construction of the apartheid wall (or separation barrier, depending on your ideology), Cook’s account culminates in the Gaza “disengagement” whereby the loss of some 1.3 million Arabs “would buy the Jewish state a little time as it sought a way to deal with its urgent demographic problems.” Meanwhile the heinous Nationality Law, by preventing West Bank Palestinians from joining their spouses in Israel, reinterprets marriage as “a demographic assault” or “a stealth implementation of the ‘right of return’ ” (Jerusalem Post).
Finally, the much-vaunted “two state solution” acquires its true colours. When Yossi Beilin, one of the architects of the Geneva Initiative so beloved of western governments (and Noam Chomsky), asserts that “a Palestinian state is the life-belt of the Jewish state,” we must understand that the interests of the Palestinian people are the last thing on his mind. Whether discriminatory policies drive Palestinian Israelis into the putative “Palestinian state” or whether the Little Triangle, a sliver of land bordering the West Bank and home to 25 percent of Palestinian Israelis, is “exchanged” with its entire population for illegal Jewish West Bank settlements, the motivation behind such “scaling back of Israel’s territorial ambitions” is the creation of a pure Jewish ethnocracy beside an impoverished Palestinian entity devoid of territorial contiguity, meaningful sovereignty, or security from Israeli assault.
In a sober, unemphatic style, Jonathan Cook has produced a scarifying and thoroughly documented indictment of systematic injustice. It should be required reading in the Middle East departments of western governments, not one of which is taking a stand against Israel’s flagrant abuse of the concept of democracy. Perhaps, one fears, they see an example to be emulated.
Dr. Raymond Deane is a composer, and a founding member of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign. He contributed this article to The Electronic Intifada.