October 28, 2007
If you want to understand the magnitude of the Palestinian tragedy and the depths of their dilemma take a look at the recent decree issued by the Israeli Ministry of Education which in essence asks Jewish and Arab schoolchildren to sign the Israeli declaration of independence as part of the celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the state of Israel.
In a statement distributed to the schools the ministry's Society and Youth Administration set the following objectives for the jubilee: "To commemorate the passage of 60 years since the establishing of the state of Israel in the Arab and Jewish educational system; to strengthen the sense of belonging to, pride in and love for the 60-year-old state among all who attend educational institutes; to help all Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Druze and other youth to form a clear vision of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state; to inspire a sense of responsibility and social commitment among the young and to encourage them to become active participants in the affairs of society."
A quick glance at this text is sufficient to realise that there are no Palestinian Arabs in Israel; they are to be Israelis first, and "Muslims, Christians, Druze and others" second. The Arab student, according to this inspirational educational aim, is to love Israel, be Israeli and feel proud -- no more, no less. How commendable such a memorandum would be if distributed (with the appropriate nationality change) to fledgling citizens in Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere. In Israel, though, it would be hard to come up with a more grotesque document.
There is a very persistent mode of colonialism at work here. It was not enough for this colonialist drive to seize a people's land, kick out the inhabitants, bring others to take their place and destroy the fabric of an entire society, and then justify this on the grounds of a divine promise while, in the same breath and with the same degree of sincerity, regarding itself as a secular national liberation movement. No, it insists that its victim must admire it and recognise not only its existence but its historical legitimacy. It is determined to imprint itself beneath its victims' skin through the ritual signing of a declaration of independence that simultaneously celebrates their own defeat.
The Zionist colonialist enterprise is unique in its perpetual obsession with identity, its insistence on playing the role of victim, and the unyielding persistence with which it seeks to legitimise itself by inspiring the admiration of its victims, as if it has done them a great favour by liberating them from their national territory and identity and taking these "burdens" on its own shoulders. In return for such magnanimous sacrifices it expects its victims to display their gratitude by standing with it in its struggles and to share its distress at having been forced to inflict such disasters on others. At any display of ingratitude by those victims -- when, for instance, they try to reassemble their torn national self -- it wags its liberal-minded finger at them and reproaches them for reverting to nationalist demagoguery, chauvinism and other such outmoded fashions in this age of globalisation.
Only Israel has the right to be chauvinistically nationalist, monopolising for itself the privilege of suffering the tribulations that arise from this: its victims, meanwhile, must express their appreciation or, at the very least, learn to live with it.
The manifestations of chauvinism and of the infatuation with nationalist symbols are ubiquitous: in national anthems, patriotic marches, quasi- military scouting societies, flags on every schoolhouse and licence plate, in the laws that are promulgated with seasonal regularity on how to treat Zionist flags and symbols. Surely this indicates a national chauvinism and degree of fanaticism rare in today's world? Having school children, even Jewish school children, sign the national independence declaration takes nationalism to the level of religious rite, with the schoolchildren, pen in hand, mystically embodying the venerable founding fathers of the nation. If the Arabs did anything remotely similar Israel would not be able to contain its sarcasm.
Israel officially rests on an ultranationalist ideology which is continually reproduced across all shades of the political spectrum. But it surpassed itself with this Ministry of Education decree asking Arab students to sign its declaration of independence. Colonialist thought and action have dressed themselves up in the garb of equality and political correctness. There shouldn't be any discrimination between one schoolchild and the next, it appears to be saying, whereas in fact it is the height of racial discrimination: the Jewish pupil is being asked to affirm his ethnic self (or critically couched: to negate his individuality and assimilate the identity of the national project); the Arab pupil is being asked to negate his ethnicity and distort his identity through identification with the colonialist project that exiled his people and denied their existence.
The current minister of education and culture, to whom credit is due for this enlightened brainstorm, represents the liberal wing in the Zionist establishment. The Zionist left, as historically represented by the Zionist Labour Movement and its offshoots, was the practical founder of the Israeli state project: it took up arms and fought the Arabs, forged relations with Britain and then the US, demolished the Palestinian national project and built its own on the ruins. It is the author of such notions as Arab-Israeli co-existence based on Arab- Jewish fraternity, or a shared hatred between Israel and the Arab poor for Arab reactionaries and the Arab upper classes (the contemporary representatives of which Israel is wooing to conclude peace treaties and alliances against the Arab poor and against Arab nationalist, pan-Arab and Islamist "extremism"). This Zionist left was originally opposed to the liberals that allied themselves with the Zionist right. However, the Zionist left has now shifted to ally itself with the liberals in Israeli society, and from these ranks surfaced the warped idea that Arab schoolchildren should sign the Zionist national independence document.
I will not, of course, attribute to the Zionist state all conceivable evil, let alone the power of diabolical magic, as some less familiar with the nature of its project might do. Nor will I confuse my analysis of the Ministry of Education's decree with the justifications cited by its authors. Zionist liberals obviously have a different take than mine on the decree. They regard the declaration of independence, which in one paragraph calls for the equality of all citizens irrespective of religion, race or sex, as a relatively progressive document, certainly when compared to the prevailing racist political culture that has infected schools and young people. As such, signing this document becomes an act of enlightenment, reviving the "universal values" upon which Israel was founded. At the same time, the liberals who proposed the idea will not be open to attack for being "soft" or being "traitors", because all they have to do to prove their loyalty and patriotism is to point to the most important Zionist text.
Whatever value this justification has extends only as far as the battle to determine the nature of the prevailing culture among a Jewish Israeli public. It does not wash in Arab-Israeli society. To the Arabs discrimination is not a phenomenon of recent progeny that has taken a sudden dangerous turn with the spread of a racist culture among Jewish school kids. It existed well before the occupation of 1967, regardless of the sanctities mouthed in Israel's declaration of independence. Israeli liberals believe that by appealing for a withdrawal from Arab territory occupied in 1967 they are calling for Israel to return to its original nature, as if prior to 1967 Israel was a model of democracy, human rights and equality. They think that by opposing the occupation they are affirming an earlier, better citizenship. But the fact is that citizenship never had anything to do with equality for Arabs.
At the same time that the independence of the Zionist state was proclaimed on the land of Palestine the Haganah was preparing to take over the whole of Palestine and expel all its Arab inhabitants. Then, after the official establishment of the state and the provision of the declaration of independence calling for equality of all citizens went into effect, the Arabs were put under martial law and laws were passed to confiscate their land. They were systematically discriminated against in every walk of life.
Permit me to assume the role of devil's advocate for a moment:
Up till now, Azmi, you've only talked about Zionist practices, whereas the document under discussion is fine. Just because practice strayed from the text, why throw out the baby with the bath water?
Firstly, the Israeli declaration of independence is not an abstract theory. It was meant to go into effect upon proclamation and to shape the process of nation-building on the basis of its constituent provisions, notably the definition of Zionism as a national movement to establish a state on the basis of an exclusive self-acclaimed historical and religious right based on Biblical scriptures and the "uninterrupted" continuity of the Jewish presence in Palestine.
But what about that paragraph on "equality"?
The document was also intended to camouflage the nature of the Zionist colonialist enterprise, and it performed it function. The commitment to the principle of equality was one of the prerequisites for Israel's acceptance into the UN. The declaration of independence is not a theory that went awry in application. It was the official proclamation of an ideological vision that was, in fact, being applied in practice. This was not just a vision for a colonialist project to be erected on the ruins of Palestinian society but for a state in which national affiliation is defined by a religious affiliation. Clearly, in this context a nationalist rite of transubstantiation that involves putting a pen to that piece of paper means one thing when performed by a Jewish pupil and an entirely different thing when performed by an Arab one. In the first case, it is an affirmation of the pupil's unified national and religious identity, in the second it is a psychological, moral and cultural mutilation.
Just to refresh the memory, let's take a look at some of the paragraphs in the document that the Arab-Israeli student is expected to sign:
" The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.
"After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom.
"Impelled by this historic and traditional attachment, Jews strove in every successive generation to re-establish themselves in their ancient homeland. In recent decades they returned in their masses. Pioneers, immigrants and defenders, they made deserts bloom, revived the Hebrew language, built villages and towns, and created a thriving community controlling its own economy and culture, loving peace but knowing how to defend itself, bringing the blessings of progress to all the country's inhabitants, and aspiring towards independent nationhood.
"In the year 5657 (1897), at the summons of the spiritual father of the Jewish State, Theodore Herzl, the First Zionist Congress convened and proclaimed the right of the Jewish people to national rebirth in its own country.
"This right was recognised in the Balfour Declaration of the 2nd November, 1917..."
Arab students in Israel are now being asked to countersign this negation of their own existence. Moreover, when they reach the celebrated paragraph about equality, they find that it is taken from the vision of the prophets of Israel and appears almost as an afterthought to the Jewish right of return: "The state of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations."
* A Palestinian thinker and a former member of the Israeli Knesset.