Limor Livnat and the Palestinian “problem”

Uri Yaakobi on the way to jail for refusing to serve in the Israeli army. (Photo: www.shministim.org)

Recently, a law was passed in one of the Israeli Knesset’s many committees saying that settlers who will be evacuated following a future retreat from the Gaza Strip will be given compensation. There was a minimal majority of one committee member for this law, which is an essential part of prime minister’s Ariel Sharon’s plan of “Gaza Disengagement”, and in order for it to be passed the balance was tipped to the side of the government from outside the coalition by Member of Knesset Mohammad Barake.

Barake, a MK from “Hadash” party (the former communist party) is, as his name might indicate, an Israeli Arab. Limor Livnat, the Israeli minister of education, who had also voted in favor of the law, was one of the most noticeable politicians in a group of right wing Knesset members and others who had each expressed outrage that an Arab (who had, like any other Member of the Knesset, been elected democratically) was the one to determine the future of Israel in such an important question.

Because of Livnat’s high position in the government there was a mini uproar in the Israeli media about the fact that the minister of education, the person who is in charge of what children will be taught in schools, had said something so bluntly racist. In actuality, no one was surprised. No one has any illusions that Ariel Sharon and the rest of the ministers besides — maybe — politicians from the Labor Party, think any differently from Livnat, in spite of them remaining more or less silent about the subject.

In any normal “western” democracy such a thing would have become an immediate scandal. I can only imagine that if Germany’s education minister would say something even remotely close to Livnat’s statement about a Jewish parliament member, the only question would be whether that minister would find him or herself out of a job more quickly than it would take the foreign minister of Israel to file an official protest.

Statements of this kind have become more and more common in recent years in “the only democracy in the Middle East”, and the scary thing is that they are being made not only by fanatical extremists, but also by politicians and officials. What Livnat said was enough to get to the headlines, but not nearly enough for anything to be done about it. The very fact that Livnat was not thrown out of the government demonstrates how typical such statements are and demonstrates this government’s consent to this kind of racism.

It seems to me that some amount of hypocrisy is very important for a healthy democracy. Racists and extreme right wingers will always exist in any society but, when it comes to being public, they will always be very careful not to express outright racism, even if that is what they truly believe in.

It has to be totally clear that “racist” is one of the worst labels a man can be given. Austria’s Jorg Haider is one of the most extreme European right wingers to get into mainstream politics in recent times, but he must always be very careful with what he says. No matter what he really thinks, he cannot publicly say anything against “the Jews” or “the Turks” or “the Blacks”.

When an English minister made a racist joke against Chinese immigrants in an official dinner his political career was over. In Israel, this has not been the case for a long time now, and the word “racism” carries very little punch. As a matter of fact, using the term to describe mainstream Jewish politicians is a sure way of being labeled as an extreme and unpatriotic left wing radical. While Livnat’s statement was glared at, the term “racism” was rarely heard in connection with it. In Israel, the term “racism” is reserved almost entirely for anti-Semitism outside of Israel.

Limor Livnat therefore doesn’t seem to really accept the fact that like Israeli Jews, Arabs who have full Israeli citizenship have a right to take part in influencing Israel’s future. Yet, her expressions seem almost petty in comparison to a headline only a few weeks earlier, and not for the first time.

A government official had proudly proclaimed that a plan to reduce childbirth amongst the Arab population by reducing government payments to families with many children has ‘succeeded’ (see “A more effective birth control”, Yitzhak Kadman, Ha’aretz, 1 February 2005), another manifestation of the Israeli government’s ongoing struggle with “the Demographic Problem”. The very term has been used many times over and over to describe the one fact that seems to make everyone in Israel tremble with fear: the Palestinian population’s growth rate is higher than the Jewish one. As a result, in a few decades there will be more Arabs than Jews between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean sea. Discussing millions of humans as “problem” statistics is something that belongs in the darkest years of the twentieth century.

Again, the only comparison that comes to my mind is that if some German politician would refer to Jewish German citizens as a “Demographic Problem”. Naturally, he would immediately be accused of being an anti-Semite. Fortunately, no one in Israel is planning any death camps anytime soon, but this mindset has been the driving force of almost all of the Israeli policies towards Palestinians with Israeli citizenship and Palestinians without.

Recently I’ve been hearing many voices of cautious optimism about the talks between Sharon and the new chairman of the Palestinian Authority. I would like to remind and inform everyone who believes in just peace as a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, without even mentioning past events such as the Sabra and Shatila massacres, that Mr. Sharon is the head of one of the most right wing governments to have ever been held power in Israel, a government that sees the Palestinian population as a problem, a threat, and a curse, in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and in Israel itself.

This government does not have any genuine political or ideological interest in peace because it does not seem able to accept the very basic rights and freedoms of Palestinians, even when they are Israeli citizens, and even when their representative in the Knesset is voting together with that same government. It may well be that there is some level of cease-fire at present, but how can such a government make true peace?

Uri Yaakobi has been sentenced eight times to military prison for a total time of about four and half months for refusing to become a soldier in the Israeli army for reasons of conscience. Yaakobi is now in the middle of his first year as a student studying physics in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.