The first substantive western media coverage of the Azmi Bishara affair has been published in The Nation by Israeli academic, Neve Gordon. While she doesn’t go into the level of detail that I have about the rumored charges against Bishara, she provides an excellent summary of the brewing “war” between the Israeli security establishment and the rising tide of Israeli Arab nationalism:
…Political activists and members of the Palestinian intellectual elite within Israel…have drafted four documents that articulate how they conceive the state’s future. The underlying assumption of all of these documents is that as long as Israel is defined as a Jewish state, its laws will always fall short of basic democratic principles and, more particularly, the right of all its citizens to full equality.
The authors of the document called “The Democratic Constitution” maintain that the Arab citizens of Israel should be considered a “homeland minority” with national rights. The idea is to transform Israel into a bilingual and multicultural democracy for all its citizens, rather than a Jewish democracy, which they argue is an oxymoron. Such transformation would inevitably mean changing the laws of citizenship and immigration so that citizenship would no longer be granted automatically to any Jew wishing to immigrate but rather to anyone born within Israel’s territory or whose parent or spouse is a citizen, or to people persecuted due to their political beliefs.
Gordon presents the Bishara charges in the context of that anti-Arab “war” and brings home just how deadly it could become. She quotes statements from Shin Bet director Yuval Diskin which I hadn’t heard before and may make your hair stand on end:
Not long after the documents’ publication…Ma’ariv, reported a meeting between the head of the security agency, Yuval Diskin, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. During the meeting Diskin warned Olmert that the radicalization of Israel’s Arab citizens constitutes a “strategic threat to the state’s existence.” Diskin added that “the proliferation of the visionary documents published by the different Arab elites in Israel is particularly worrisome, [since] the documents are united by their conception of Israel as a state for all its citizens and not a Jewish state.” The head of the security services concluded that “the separatist and subversive patterns represented by the elites might engender a new direction and mobilize the masses.”
Balad sent a letter protesting Diskin’s assertions, arguing that legitimate political activity whose aim is to change the state’s character should not be considered subversive or dangerous. According to Ha’aretz, the Israeli Security Agency replied that it “would foil the activity of anyone seeking to harm Israel’s Jewish or democratic character, even if that activity was carried out by legal means.”
Diskin’s words are telling. He admits not only that anyone who strives to alter the Jewish character of the state is considered an enemy and will be treated as such but that the secret service has no respect for democratic practices and procedures. It is precisely within the context of the four historic documents that one should understand the recent accusations against Bishara. More than anything else, Bishara constitutes a symbolic threat, since he personifies the recent demand of the Palestinian elite to transform Israel from a Jewish democracy to a democracy for all its citizens.
Similarly, it is precisely within the context of this assault on “democratic practices” that one must understand the Shin Bet’s gag order. While gag orders are common enough in Israeli jurisprudence, they are rarely if ever as draconian as this one. There can only be one purpose to this–to allow the Shin Bet to prepare for this battle in the war under cover of darkness and secrecy.
Even if one is a Zionist as I am, Bishara and his movement pose powerful questions that must be addressed by Jews as well as Arabs whether they wish to or not. But the Shin Bet’s campaign is the absolute worst way to address these issues. There is no way in heaven to stamp out Arab nationalism by force or persecution. This will only lead to further radicalization and resistance much like what Israel has seen in the Occupied Territories.
I’m not sure I accept the premise that Israeli Jews and Arabs cannot achieve full equality in a way that would satisfy both sides, but require compromises. Jews and Arabs often pose this argument as either/or. Either Israel is an exclusivist Jewish state with a dominant Jewish majority and subservient Arab minority; or Israel is a binational democratic state rid of any hint of what Yoav Peled calls ethnocracy. I think it is asking too much of Israel Jews to expect them to rid their state of all vestiges of its Jewish identity. Just as I think it is preposterous to expect Israeli Arabs to accept living under the thumb of the majority. I’ve read proposals that call for Israeli Arabs to have special autonomous rights within Israel. There may be ways of ridding Israel of some of its worst theocratic excesses to diminish the impact of religion within Israeli society. I don’t have clear answers to these questions right now. But the current social structure simply doesn’t work. To pretend that the answer is to declare war on uppity Arabs like Bishara is to bury ones head in the sand.
The next time you hear a pro-Israel apologist trumpet Israel as “the only democracy in the Middle East” just remember what you read here. Israel is not a full-fledged democracy. It is evolving slowing in that direction. But progress is fitful and there is much backsliding represented by cases like this one.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.