The reactions from Israeli journalists and politicians to Azmi Bishara’s Knesset resignation provides a sort of Rorschach test for Israeli attitudes toward democracy. The first lesson you must learn about the attitudes of the majority of the 75-80% of Israelis who are Jews is that both the State and its democracy exists primarily for them and only secondarily for anyone else (that is, the Arab minority which comprises 20-25% of the population). And since the State has accorded citizenship to its Arab minority while according them second (or third) class status, one cannot really call Israel a democracy. Israeli political scientists like Yoav Peled have adopted the term ethnocracy to describe Israel’s peculiar political system. That is, a system that awards superior rights to a majority ethnic group while according vastly diminished status to the ethnic minority.
For most Israeli Jews, Arabs are a royal pain in the ass. The center of the political spectrum tolerates them while the right longs for the day when they can be transferred out of Israel. Most Israelis would vastly prefer a homogeneous state composed only of Jews. A former progressive like Benny Morris is characteristic of this attitude in wishing that Ben Gurion had actually forcibly expelled a much larger proportion of Israel’s 1948 population than he did. Even some on the left adopt a profound mistrust of the Arab minority.
What all of the above neglect to understand is that an Israel shorn of its minority would no longer be a democracy since it would’ve forcibly extirpated a part of its polity. And a State which doesn’t expel this minority but continues to refuse to accord it full equality still cannot call itself a true democracy. A fragmented or not-quite democracy perhaps but not a democracy full stop.
Let’s take a look at a JTA article about Bishara’s resignation and an interview with Yossi Alpher, viewed by some as a center-left analyst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The latter is published at no less progressive a source than the Americans for Peace Now website:
Israeli tolerance for Bishara’s views has been remarkable.
This is quite a remarkable statement considering that the Knesset has twice stripped Bishara of his parliamentary immunity in order to compel him to face criminal investigations, NONE of which resulted in a court case being filed. Remarkable too in light of the fact that the government attempted to prevent his party from running in one election for its refusal to accept the primacy of the Jewish state.
Two elections ago, the High Court of Justice reversed Electoral Commission determinations that Balad’s political platform violated the constitutional demand that all parties recognize Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, thereby allowing him to run. His frequent visits to Syria and Lebanon, including during war-time–where he met publicly with Bashar Asad and Hassan Nasrallah, praised their policies and condemned those of Israel–were also tolerated by the security community, to the extent that some Israeli Arabs concluded that Bishara must be a collaborator.
Notice that a supposedly progressive analyst has the temerity to slip in this imputed charge of “collaboration” without any proof whatsoever of the charges. And to say that Bishara was “tolerated” by a security establishment which has investigated him multiple times seems far-fetched to say the least.
In fact, all this took place in the name of Israeli pluralism and based on the assumption that it was better to have internal critics of Israel’s existence, however extreme, out in the open than to drive them underground. But there can be no mistake that Bishara has become clearly identified by the Jewish public as an enemy of the state. His association with the most reactionary and oppressive of Arab leaders in Syria and Lebanon and his readiness to level outlandish accusations against Israel–e.g., “in the entire history of mankind there have never been acts of plunder like those carried out by Israel”–clearly belie his rhetoric about democracy and equal rights.
Here Alpher has run off the rails. Bishara has identified himself with the two closest Arab neighbors to Israel’s northern Arab communities: Syria and Lebanon. But who is to say that Hezbollah and Syrian leaders are “the most reactionary and oppressive Arab leaders?” Worse than the Saudi dynasty or Egypt’s Mubarak or Iran’s mullahs or Iraq’s Hussein? This is an entirely specious argument. Bishara’s alliance with Hezbollah and Syrian is mostly geographic. And who would Alpher have him make an alliance with who would have him? Doubtless, Jordan’s King Abdullah would not be interested since he values good relations with Israel and wants to wash his hands of continuing intra-Arab strife. So who’s left for Bishara to turn to for support outside Israel?
One useful aspect of Alpher’s interview is that he further confirms information I published here from the Palestinian news agency Maan about the specific nature of the charges against Bishara:
A former associate at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah, where he taught for several years before going into politics, told me that Bishara had received large sums of money from Syria and Hezbollah for use by his political party and had apparently kept them for himself: this could explain both the criminal and the security components in suspicions against him.
But I would strongly caution that this is terribly vaguely and inauthoritatively sourced. And even if it is true that Bishara accepted funds from Syria, it is quite another thing to prove in a court of law that he acted corruptly in retaining funds for personal use. That’s the Shin Bet’s job and they’ve by no means proven their case. In fact, in keeping it secret they’ve done precisely the opposite: allowed people to believe that the secrecy conceals a weak case.
Bishara’s legacy in Israeli politics is a negative one: greater polarization between Arabs and Jews and closer ideological proximity between Israel’s Arab community and the most extreme elements in the Palestinian national movement.
Now, that would depend entirely on whose viewpoint you represented. Do you think that Israel’s Arab minority agrees? It is preposterous to blame Azmi Bishara for the polarization between Arabs and Jews in Israeli society. What about the 2000 massacre of defenseless protesting Nazareth Arabs by Israeli Border Police who were never even charged for their criminal behavior? Alpher doesn’t even come close to acknowledging that the radicalization represented by Bishara might stem just as much from Israeli intransigence in the face of Israeli Arab demands for their rights and Palestinian demands for theirs. Yossi Alpher may not be a flaming leftist but he’s no fool as an analyst of Mideast politics. That’s why the blinders he wears in this exchange are very instructive regarding the utter lack of awareness even intelligent Israeli Jews have of the democratic contradictions represented by the Arab minority in their midst.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency has a mixed record of Jewish journalism. On domestic issues it publishes solid, reliable reporting. But when it comes to Israel, often it might as well have come from the AIPAC press office. That’s a wee exaggeration perhaps for effect, but not much. Let’s take Dan Baron’s article on Bishara. I tried earnestly to get JTA to write a story about Bishara’s secret Shin Bet investigation speaking with their DC correspondent for some time. Unfortunately, Baron’s article is JTA’s feeble coverage of the story. I’d call the following journalism by sloganeering:
Israeli Arab lawmaker Azmi Bishara has abruptly ended a parliamentary career built on denouncing the Jewish state from enemy capitals and then dodging charges of sedition at home.
That is the extent of Bishara’s career? Not the penetrating slogan: “A state for all its citizens,” which has resonated far beyond the Israeli Arab minority as a reasonable democratic demand.
For many mainstream Israelis, it was goodbye and good riddance.
You’ll notice the lazy man’s ‘many’ used by many to propound a questionable argument. Who are the “many?” What would’ve been far more accurate would be to say that “goodbye and good riddance” was the response of Israel’s far right politicians, one of whom even called for the Shin Bet to kidnap Bishara and return him to Israel for trial on charges of treason! How’s that for democracy??
Bishara stood out for his especially provocative antics.
To how many Jewish politicians would Baron attribute the dismissive label “antics?” And I’d like to remind you that southern Whites labeled Martin Luther King’s Montgomery bus boycott or Malcolm X’s speechifying in precisely the same terms. You dismiss what you fear and do not understand. But you do so at your peril because dismissing it will not make the issue or person go away.
Bishara overcame repeated attempts to have him tried for fraternizing with Israel’s enemies, invoking his parliamentary immunity from prosecution.
This is misleading if not downright inaccurate. Bishara’s immunity was stripped twice by the Knesset thus enabling the legal system to charge and try him. But it never did. Why not? Because they could not build a case. Why blame Bishara for shielding himself from prosecution when the state and its organs have done everything in their power to dismantle his political power?
Some moderate Israeli Arabs also sought to distance themselves from Bishara, so astounded by his temerity as to suggest it was all an elaborate cover for a role as an Israeli spy or covert diplomat.
Isn’t it interesting that we see the “Israeli spy” charge once again. But who gains from circulating such an unfounded charge? The Israeli right and Shin Bet of course. So we have to ask whose bidding are Alpher and Baron doing even if unintentionally? The forces who seek to diminish Bishara and Israeli Arab nationalism. I believe it is shameful journalism to disseminate a charge without having any credible source to back it up.
Baron leaves the most interesting and useful portion of his article for the very end of course. You wouldn’t want to include material favorable to Bishara in any other portion of the article now, would you?
Yaron London, saw in Bishara a sort of latter-day version of the Diaspora’s old political mavericks — the revolutionaries and utopianists.
“I once said to Azmi Bishara that he is more Jewish than I,” London said. “The heart of a Jew, even one who lives among Jews in their state, is the heart of a minority figure, but a Christian Arab who is a citizen of the Jewish state is an island within an island, a minority within a minority.”
“Bishara, a brilliant and arrogant intellectual, bossy and stormy, charming and easily offended, has no time to waste. He realized that the Jews would not accept his vision unless they were greatly weakened — and therefore they must be weakened.”
This is one of the truest and most incisive characterizations I have read in all my research on Bishara over the past two weeks. It is a statement that should be taken to heart by Israelis especially Bishara’s enemies in the Shin Bet and government. Think of all the political insurgents who were hated in their day only to return to glory leading their country or at the least playing a significant role in its political future.
I do not make a judgment on Bishara’s political views one way or the other except to say that they must be grappled with. And to those who falsely believe they have seen the end of Azmi Bishara, I say to you: “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” Think of DeGaulle in exile, Washington sulking in the snow at Valley Forge, Martin Luther King in the Birmingham jail, Mandela on Robben Island. The list goes on. Their causes eventually triumphed.
Finally, let’s explore the responses of the Israeli right to Bishara’s resignation. Predictably, they are overjoyed. I wrote that Yuval Steinitz wants the Shin Bet to forcibly return Bishara to Israel to face proper justice. What we should learn from all these responses is that the right cares not a whit for democracy. All that matters for them is that Israel is a Jewish State. Israel could be a Jewish version of Putin’s Russia, the People’s Republic of China or Mugabe’s Zimbabwe for all they care. When they talk of rights they are talking of Jewish rights. No other rights matter. Is this the model of a Jewish state which we wish to embrace? Many would say no. But if you take the logic of the Baron’s and Alpher’s to their end point they take you perilously close to the Israeli right. For our two journalists, the only acceptable Israeli minority is one that is quiescent, that accepts its subordinate role, that doesn’t grasp too insistently or aggressively for its rights. But is this a reasonable expectation? No, of course not. And once we accept that Israeli Arabs will no longer be quiescent isn’t the logical end point a Lieberman-Kahane like forced transfer, thus ridding Israel of its “fifth column” and creating a homogeneous Jewish state?
I hope and believe this will not happen. But the only thing to prevent it will be for well-meaning Israelis to realize that the Israeli Arab minority and its rights cannot be dismissed or swept under the rug.