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After Helen Thomas, the doyenne and most daring of White House correspondents, made her statement suggesting that Israeli Jews should go back to Europe, she apologized for her words and immediately resigned under pressure. If her remarks were anti-Semitic, then it behooves all those who deplored them to consider Israel’s racism, which they wittingly or unwittingly condone or overlook. This racism is directed against all Palestinians under its control, including Palestinian citizens of Israel who make up one- fifth of the country's total population and who for more than 60 years have represented the "Other Israel."
For much of modern history, Jews were victims of European anti-Semitism, from pogroms to the Holocaust. Yet, the early Zionists generally adopted toward the Palestinians the denigrating attitude that Europeans held toward the natives they colonized. With the rare exception of humanist thinkers like Martin Buber, Zionists considered Palestine “a land without a people for a people without a land.” They treated the land's indigenous inhabitants as a motley collection, not a coherent society worthy of political rights.
Israel has yet to recognize the Palestinians as a people entitled to self-determination. Worse, a majority of Israelis think little of Arabs, and commonly employ the epithet “dirty Arab.” Reflecting this attitude, Israeli public relations operatives in the West often use the word "Arab"--which has negative connotations in the Western mind--as opposed to “Palestinian” which evokes images of refugee camps, starving children and destroyed houses.
Israel’s Palestinians endure social and institutional discrimination in every aspect of life from housing, education, to employment. They are denied equal access to land in Israel--a practice which has been in place since the first wave of Zionist immigration, during which land was never passed from Jewish to Arab ownership, but only in the opposite direction. Israel's considers its territory to belong to Jews anywhere in the world, but not to its native inhabitants.
Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s current foreign minister, is spearheading a campaign to require Palestinian citizens of Israel to take a loyalty oath if they wish to run for the Knesset (Israeli parliament) or hold public office. Imagine the response if someone proposed that Native Americans take a loyalty oath to the US. Isn’t this policy also reminiscent of the double-loyalty that Jews used to be suspected of in Europe?
Palestinians make no secret of objecting to being loyal to a Jewish state. Why should they, when they are not Jews and the state was imposed on them in 1948, destroying their villages and towns, and creating hundreds of thousands of refugees. They would, however, accept loyalty to a state of all its citizens.
Azmi Bishara, a political philosopher, who was a member of the Knesset and head of an Arab political party in Israel has advocated this approach. His eloquence and forceful arguments have engaged the highest levels of Israel's intelligentsia. When the idea began to meet some success, the Israeli government fabricated absurd charges against him, including that he was spying for Hezbollah. As a result, he has chosen exile over incarceration.
Similar charges have been trumped up last month against two other Palestinian leaders, Amir Makhoul and Omar Said. Israel understands that associating its foes and critics with Hezbollah or Hamas is a winning tactic. The red cape of terrorism never fails to get the American bull charging, and silences any criticism of Israel.
In the aftermath of the widely condemned raid by Israeli commandos on the Freedom Flotilla last month, Israeli politicians targetted Hanin Al-Zoughbi, the first Palestinian woman elected to the Israeli parliament and a passenger aboard the aid flotilla, launching a campaign of defamation and attempting to strip her of parliamentary immunity. Many in Israel demand that her citizenship be revoked in retaliation for expressing her opinion. It is such Palestinian leaders that Lieberman--himself an immigrant from Ukraine--wants to force to take loyalty oaths.
Lieberman has been criticized by many in the US for his racist views, but he still holds his post as foreign minister in a cabinet largely comprised of like-minded colleagues, while US officials continue to meet with him. Meanwhile, Helen Thomas, an Arab-American, was forced to quit over a stray, inconsequential loud thought. It speaks to the double standard of the US media--whose Middle East coverage largely remains in a state of permanent McCarthyism--that very few journalists demanded Thomas remain in her post. By contrast, readers of The Washington Post, one of the most pro-Israeli US newspapers, have overwhelmingly supported Thomas’ right to free speech.
President Obama recently said Israel should remain a Jewish state with equal rights for the Palestinians and others. This is indeed a move forward. But the next question is: Why must Israel be a “Jewish state” and not a state of all its citizens, like the country over which Obama presides?
Sharif S. Elmusa is an associate professor of political science at the American University in Cairo.