‘The logic of Israeli citizenship and nationality, down the rabbit hold again’ – Alice Rothchild in Palestine and Israel, 19/06/2013

Alice Rothchild is a physician, activist and writer based in Boston. She is the author of Broken Promises, Broken Dreams (Pluto, 2007; 2010) and serves on the regional steering committee for American Jews for a Just Peace. The following blog post is the sixth of several documenting her current work in Palestine as part of the American Jews for a Just Peace – Health and Human Rights Project.

19/06/2013

The Al Mutran Guesthouse  in Nazareth is a charming old Arabic home transformed into an simple but elegant guesthouse with open patios, pink geraniums and embroidered wall hangings.  Journalist and author Jonathan Cook arrives filled with energy and a wealth of knowledge about history and politics. Originally from the UK and now an Israeli citizen, he is married to a spunky Palestinian woman with Israeli citizenship, who interjects, “No, I am ’48 Palestinian.”  He explains that he works as a journalist so his children who are Israeli Arabs will not have to live as second class citizens.

Jonathan notes that discrimination inside in Israel is not informal; it’s systematic and institutionalized with practical implications that are obvious today. Nazareth is a unique Palestinian city, the only one inside of Israel that is not “mixed.” As we have learned, Haifa, Akko and Lydd are Jewish cities with Palestinian ghettos.  They also have Palestinian citizens who are primarily not native to the city, i.e., many in Lydd are Bedouins brought in to build Tel Aviv after the ’48 expulsion.

In 1948, Nazareth was the only Palestinian city with the potential to become the Palestinian capital inside of Israel and thus it represented a huge threat. After the war, approximately 200 Palestinian villages remained, but Nazareth was the only city standing.  The villages survived sometimes because they were Christian (and Israeli leaders were concerned about their international reputations), and some had work relationships with the local kibbutzim and moshavs.

The 1965 Planning and building law identified 124 Palestinian communities, leaving 80 unrecognized villages where all housing was declared illegal, and there were no services, electricity or roads.  These harsh conditions were the reality for 10% of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. Jonathan notes that Nazareth is different, and enjoys privileges that the state has been unable to eradicate, largely due to the important Christian churches. There are three hospitals founded by religious orders so there are qualified medical personnel and a supportive middle class. There are a dozen high quality private schools also founded by religious orders, so Arabic children can be well educated and then they become the doctors and the lawyers that maintain the middle class. The segregated public Arab schools in Israel are so underfunded that the average Jewish student receives 4 to 12 times more funding.  The state controls the curriculum which is so narrowly Zionist that there is no chance for a foundation in Palestinian identity, culture, history, international literature, or ancient Islamic poets. The children in Nazareth are spared that intellectual and emotional death.

Jonathan discusses a host of other laws that mirror the Israeli behavior that later occurred in the Occupied Territories after ’67.  In Nazareth, Israeli citizens lived under a military government for 18 years, they needed permits to travel and there was a network of collaborators that provided the eyes and ears of the Shin Bet. Once a person became a collaborator, (often out of fear), then the family and children became involved as well. With the Fallow lands law, if land is not attended for three years, the state seizes the land, thus Palestinians were also incentivized to become collaborators to protect their lands.  In the public schools, both teachers and students were informers, producing “a reign of terror” in the classroom.

Jonathan had a friend teaching English in a nearby village, one pupil asked, “What is the PLO?” This was a dangerous question so she answered in a neutral manner. The next morning, she received a call from the Shin Bet who knew everything and she lost her job.  This also can happen if someone goes to a demonstration or a march.  This degradation of pride and respect erodes any sense of pride in the education system.  Your head teacher may be the biggest collaborator in the school. Since the majority of Christian and Muslim children attend the dozen private schools in Nazareth, they are spared this humiliation and leave with a solid education.

For me, the most eye opening part of Jonathan’s comments revolve around the issues of citizenship; this gets a little crazy, so bear with me.  The Law of Return states than any Jew from Brooklyn to Mumbai can become an Israeli citizen because he is Jewish. Jonathan became a naturalized citizen because he wanted protection from expulsion or deportation and he did not want to wait for the threatened loyalty oath requirement. His wife, Sally, is an Israeli citizen because she is a Palestinian whose family stayed within the ’48 borders and in 1952 the citizenship law declared such people citizens. When they got married, it took Jonathan eight years and a host of legal threats to obtain citizenship.

AR011Now take a deep breath.  In Israel, there is a difference between citizenship and nationality, everybody here is a citizen but there are 137 nationalities per the interior ministry.  The courts refuse to recognize an  Israeli nationality, but there is a Jewish nationality. So why is this?  If there was an Israeli nationality then this would be a state of its citizens who are all recognized equally and Jewish exceptionalism would disappear.  By maintaining the different nationalities along with citizenship, Jews can continue to have rights that are not granted to other citizens.  To add to the craziness, Israeli nationality is listed on Israeli passports, but that is only for the benefit of the border guards.  The blue Israeli ID card is also secretly coded: there is no mention of Israel: if you are Jewish your birth date is written using the Hebrew calendar, if you follow Jesus or Mohammed, the date is in the Gregorian calendar.  If you are confused, then read this again very slowly.

So who exactly is really a Jew? Under the Law of return, a person is recognized as a Jew if one grandparent is Jewish.  Perversely, this is the same criterion the Nazis used. Jewishness as defined by religion, requires the presence of a Jewish mother.  With this contradiction, many “Jews” arrived claiming to be Jewish, but then were not recognized by the rabbis who control Israeli Personal Law. This came to an explosive crisis in the 1990s when one million Russians arrived on Israeli shores, but think about it.  The husband is Jewish a la the Jewish mother definition, but his Christian wife and four children are not.  Suddenly the state is faced with one new Jew (yippee) and four non-Jews (not yippee). This has caused major social problems and it is currently estimated that more than 350,000 “Jews” from the Soviet Union are actually not really Jewish.  Confused yet?

Jonathan reminds us that this is really different than, let’s say, Britain which is a Christian state (God save the Queen!) but also a state of citizens with equal rights under the law.  In Israel, there is no symbolism to the Jewish in Jewish state. In the 1990s, post-Oslo, the mantra for this dilemma was all about separation and the logical outcome was the building of the wall and a tightening permitting system that made it increasingly difficult to marry across the Green Line. Palestinians have struggled to obtain citizenship when marrying partners in Israel, but have faced a judicial maze, endless delays, and changing laws that have ultimately functionally outlawed marriage between lovely Israeli Juliets and their West Bank Romeos on the grounds of “security” (a reason second only to God) and to stop the right of return, “through the back door.” This has to be understood through the mindset of the ever present threat to the “Jewishness” of the Jewish State and the perception that Palestinians are not just fellow human beings trying to follow their hearts and minds, but actually conniving Trojan horses, ready to set off the demographic time bomb. So remember that “Jewish” is a nationality to make sure that state resources stay in the hands of the Jewish population and the system is designed in mind boggling detail to keep it that way. In Israel, according to Jonathan, in 1992 the Law of dignity and freedom was passed, but there is no law of equality. Anyone have problems with this out there in the modern democratic world?

Extremely loud jets repeatedly streak across the sky and we wonder if we have missed some important news item. Jonathan explains they are spying on Lebanon and Hezbollah, most likely trying to decide when to make their next moves.

It is intriguing that Nazareth should be a major tourist city (remember the Angel Gabriel and the immaculate conception?) with graceful churches and a charming Old City. But this was thwarted through the mechanics of Israeli tourism, (read Jewish tourism). The authorities created tourism zones and nearby Tiberias was given a Zone A with big tax breaks for building fancy hotels which were then not built in Nazareth where the real tourist attractions are actually located. This also means that the profits from even Christian tourism go mainly to the Jewish tourism industry so people stop at the local kibbutz, swing through the Basilica of the Annunciation and then spend their tourist shekels in Tiberias.

This only changed in the 1990s when the Pope decided to visit when Nazareth was spiffed up, but not without resentments and conflicts between Christians and Muslims manipulated by the Israeli government, the Pope, George Bush and Ariel Sharon. Then the Intifada broke out and the hopeful Renaissance Hotel was converted into a prison.  This was also a useful temporary prison for the foreign workers imported during the Intifada to replace the banned Palestinians.  These folks married Israelis, and when they got deported, they needed a temporary place to stay as well.   Only recently has there been a rejuvenation of tourism in the Old City, for visitors and the growing middle class, but it continues to be fraught with legal barriers. The old souk is mostly filled with cheap products from China and Taiwan and it is still recovering from being shut down for three years for renovation.  The temporary market was set up in adjacent Nazareth Illit and is now a permanent and competitive fixture for that town.

Walking briskly alongside Jonathan’s wiry frame, we learn more about the 57 laws overtly discriminating against Palestinians.  There was a recent report on higher education that found 14 obstacles designed to prevent Palestinians from reaching higher education. He talks about the current state of political parties and comments that there is basically a Revisionist, Jabotinsky, Netanyahu type politics that acts more colonial and plans to beat the Palestinians into submission and then give them minimum rights. He feels that the Labor party and its allies are actually more racist since they openly admit Palestinians will never settle for this life of discrimination, they want equality, so they must be separated and walled in. This brings us to the next phase of our day with Jonathan, a fascinating tour of Nazareth Illit, translated as “upper” i.e. up the hill, and “morally superior,” translated as Jewish only.

Broken Promises, Broken Dreams – Second Edition

Stories of Jewish and Palestinian Trauma and Resilience Alice Rothchild New edition of this unique and honest account of the conflict seen through the eyes of a doctor, with personal accounts that bring the trauma to life. £17.99 only £16.00 on the Pluto site

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