A State of all its Citizens: an interview with Jamal Zahalka


Jamal Zahalka is a member of the Israeli Knesset as part of the Balad Party list that includes Wasil Taha and Azmi Bishara. He was in Toronto delivering the keynote address at Israeli Apartheid Week at the University of Toronto on February 16, 2007. His talk, “Debunking the Myth of Israeli Democracy”, discussed discrimination against Palestinians living inside Israel. I interviewed him the following day in Toronto.


Jamal Zahalka is a member of the Israeli Knesset as part of the Balad Party list that includes Wasil Taha and Azmi Bishara. He was in Toronto delivering the keynote address at Israeli Apartheid Week at the University of Toronto on February 16, 2007. His talk, “Debunking the Myth of Israeli Democracy”, discussed discrimination against Palestinians living inside Israel. I interviewed him the following day in Toronto.

JP: Can we start with a little bit about your political history, trajectory, and a general sense of your constituency, the people who elected you.

JZ: I am a member of the Israeli Knesset on behalf of Balad-Tajammu party, which has 3 members in the Knesset. The Arab lists (three parties) together have 10 deputies in the Knesset, out of 120 deputies in the Knesset. The elections are national, not regional. Everyone can vote for every list. Our voters are Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel. Palestinian citizens are 13% of the voters, but are 18% of the population, because it’s a younger population, many of whom are not yet of voting age. The Balad party was established in 1995. It was represented in the Knesset by MK Azmi Bishara, and later myself and Wasil Taha. Balad is national democratic party defined by two political positions. One is the demand that Israel be a state of all its citizens, as opposed to Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish state, and two is cultural autonomy for Palestinians inside Israel.

JP: Can you elaborate on these demands?

JZ: Israel should be a state of all its citizens, not a state that belongs to one part of its population. Israel defines itself as a Jewish state. So, it’s not our state. It’s not just a question of definition or nature. It’s a question of substance, structure, aims, goals, policies, laws. Israel is not only a Jewish state. It is the state of many people who are not its citizens, because Israel claims to be the state of all Jews all over the world, including people who are living happily, with full citizenship and rights, in other countries.

JP: You have said not only is Israel a state for people who aren’t its citizens, but it also has an impact on every Palestinian in every part of the world.

JZ: Israel was built on the destruction of Palestinian people in 1948. It is responsible for the refugees. Since 1967 Israel has been occupying all of Palestine. The Israeli regime governs the majority of Palestinians directly and by its policies, refusing the right of return, also defines the destiny of all Palestinian refugees. You cannot speak of the state of Israel as separate from occupation. Many times when you speak about Israel’s policies in Gaza and the West Bank, you hear the reply – this is not Israel, this is occupation, it’s temporary. But this “temporary” has lasted 40 years. Israel only existed for 19 years before this occupation – from 1948-1967.

JP: You have said that Israel’s self-definition as both Jewish and democratic led directly to the transfer of the Palestinian population.

JZ: We can summarize our problem in one sentence: Palestinians were the victims of the obsession to establish a Jewish state over those who were a majority in their own country. This could not be implemented without transfer or apartheid. Israel managed to do both.

In principle in 1948 the Zionist movement could have let Palestinians stay in their homeland, in their villages and towns, and establish a Jewish state excluding the majority from political decisions, separating them from citizenship. That would have been apartheid. But the Zionist movement wanted not only a Jewish state but a democratic state, and so to have both they needed to produce a Jewish majority. Because they did not succeed in producing the Jewish majority by immigration, transfer was the necessary result of the effort to build a Jewish and democratic state.

The Jewish intellectual Hannah Arendt wrote, after the Zionist conference in the early 1940s, that Zionists were proposing to Palestinians either that they leave their country or to agree to second-degree citizenship. This was the way to build a Jewish state. The demographic obsession is one of the main obsessions of Zionism and the Israeli elite. This has recently become demographic phobia. This is the main reason Israel withdrew unilaterally from Gaza – to get rid of Palestinians. All the Israeli political parties agree that in any solution, Israel should take as much land from the West Bank and Jerusalem area and that this land should include as few Arabs as possible. This is the rule that shapes Israel’s attitude towards the Palestinians: demography and geography. Geography is good, Arabs are bad. We want the good, and exclude the bad.

Many in the Israeli establishment and academy have a deep concern about the demography of Palestinian citizens of Israel because they are citizens, they are not going to leave. And in any solution they are still going to be there, within Israel’s borders. Bibi Netanyahu, who is going to be the next Israeli Prime Minister, he was the Israeli Prime Minister, he’s not a marginal figure, discussed this in 2003, trying to summarize the position of the Israeli establishment towards the demographic question of Palestinians in Israel. Netanyahu said (Interviewer’s note: see this discussion of Netanyahu’s statements http://www.jewishvoiceforpeace.org/publish/article_441.shtml) “if Israel’s Arabs become well integrated and reach 35-45 percent of the population, there will no longer be a Jewish state,” and that even if they reach a lesser proportion, “this will also undermine the [state’s] democratic fabric.”

The Israeli establishment look at us as a quantitative and a qualitative danger. In recent years, words like “demographic bomb”, “demographic threat”, “demographic danger”, are used all the time. I think that when it comes to existential questions the Israeli leadership are in a problem. How to deal with Palestinians in Israel. It is very difficult to square the circle. You cannot be both an ethnic state and a democratic state. So in the Israeli academy there are those who can’t live with this contradiction. People like Sammy Smooha at the University of Haifa. After analyzing Israeli democracy – a fair analysis – he came to the conclusion that Israel is an “ethnic democracy”. Others (Oren Yiftachel) came to a conclusion that it’s actually an “ethnocracy”.

Now when our party came, we were made famous for being the political party who says: there’s a solution to this contradiction. The state should be the state of all its citizens, in equality. That’s modern democracy, based on the equal human being, not the hierarchical human being. This is so important that no one in Israeli politics can ignore it. It explores the real nature of the Israeli state. Not just equality between Jews and Arabs, but the very nature of the state. Israel is not a secular state – it has not even reached the point of separation of religion and state. You can’t separate religion and state so long as the state is defined as a Jewish state. To come to the point of separation of religion and state, the state should be the state of all its citizens.

In our model, we don’t ignore cultural autonomy and cultural rights. We think that in Israel, Palestinian citizens should have the autonomy to express their culture. This follows international law, the Convention of the Rights of Minorities. One of the rights of minorities is the right to express their culture and cultural autonomy in education and in general. Of course we also recognize the right of Jewish people for self-determination and culture, for everything, but in the frame of the state. Not that the state expresses that – there’s a difference here. The Israeli structure is that the state is a Jewish state and there are minorities. We think the state should be empty – and there are Jews, and there are Arabs, and there can be others. Like, in principle, India. India is a secular state – I think they understood in the beginning, Gandhi, Nehru and others.

JP: It’s been a fight, especially in recent years…

JZ: You are Indian? So I can explain a bit to you. It is an interesting comparison. The Indian Right wants India to be a Hindu state. India is not a Hindu state. India was built as a secular state, secular in its minimum definition: The state is neutral between religions, between groups. It doesn’t belong to one of the religions. Recently, by the way, right-wing Hindu activists have come to Israel to learn two things. How to defeat Muslims, and how to convert the state to a Hindu state like Israel is a Jewish state. So Israel is giving structural inspiration to extremists in India and other places.

JP: Is there democracy for Jews in Israel?

JZ: Yes. If Israel is a Jewish and democratic state, it is democratic for Jews and Jewish for Arabs. But it also demands a lack of empathy towards Palestinians from its Jewish citizens. Israel is a state in which everything is justified and explained in terms of security. Preventing students from entering university by checkpoints or separation. 400 checkpoints in the West Bank. Bombing schools, killing children. To protect security. Security can justify everything. At the same time that the Israeli leadership is not doing anything to stop confrontation and start some sort of dialogue or negotiation that would actually change this reality.

JP: Is there any opposition to this approach by Israel from within the Israeli government or parliament?

JZ: There is soft opposition in parliament, and radical groups, and small groups outside parliament. But unfortunately, politically there is actually a strong Israeli consensus. That consensus is built on: no to withdrawal to 1967 borders, no to the right of return for Palestinian refugees, no to dismantling the settlements, no to a real independent Palestinian state. If a Palestinian state is built, it should be controlled by Israel under very hard restrictions. In any agreement, Palestinians should recognize Israel as a Jewish state. That’s the Israeli consensus of all mainstream parties. The Arab world proposed something that couldn’t have been dreamed of 10-20 years ago at the Beirut summit in 2002. Peace with the whole Arab world. But Israel is refusing, they don’t even want to negotiate. Syria’s president Assad proposes to renew negotiations every two weeks. Israel is refusing. The Israeli leadership now in general have adapted the approach of conflict management, not conflict resolution. And it is conflict management using mainly force.

JP: Can you discuss some of the recent laws that discriminate against Palestinians?

JZ: In recent years many laws that narrow and reduce the rights of Palestinians inside Israel have been passed. There is an attack on the right of citizenship for Arab citizens. One of the most brutal and racist laws was the citizenship law of 2003. This prevents Arab Israeli citizens from living with their spouses or children from the West Bank and Gaza. They don’t even pretend this law applies to Jewish citizens, because no Jewish Israeli from Tel Aviv marries a Palestinian from Ramallah.

JP: But it doesn’t apply to settlers in the West Bank.

JZ: Of course not. They say the West Bank and Gaza but it doesn’t apply to settlements because settlers are citizens. Actually settlers are super-citizens, they have more rights than ordinary Israelis.

This law is inhuman. This law is not an immigration law. These are people who have been living together. You have to understand that people living inside Israel and people living under Israeli occupation have social and human relations, they are neighbours. They get married, create families. Israel comes and says this marriage is illegal, it could change Israel’s demographics. We are talking about small numbers of marriages, but the law is to enforce the principle that Palestinians cannot live together. And the law is retroactive. It works against even existing marriages. It has separated wives from husbands, children from parents, produced human tragedies. And many people are living without papers, hiding. The police come and deport someone, even if they’ve been married for ten years. The deported spouse would have been given temporary permission to stay, permission that was not renewed, making them illegal.

We went to the Israeli court. The court said that humanitarian cases should be taken into account. So the Israeli government created, with the law, a Humanitarian Affairs Committee to deal with humanitarian cases. But in the second article of the law it said that being married, having children, is not a humanitarian case.

One of my constituents came to see me to complain about this law that was breaking up his marriage. His wife would be deported and separated from him. “My wife is pregnant,” he told me. “Don’t say that! Don’t talk about pregnancy! Having children is not a humanitarian case. Pregnancy is not mentioned in the law but if you say she is pregnant they will either wait for her to have the baby, or they will add to the law that pregnancy is not a humanitarian case.” He said, “but I love my wife!” I said, “don’t mention love! They see love between Palestinians as a demographic conspiracy against Israel!”

They claim is that it’s an immigration law, affecting people who want to enter Israel. It is not. It affects our rights, the rights of Palestinians inside Israel, it tells us who we can and cannot marry. Jews in Israel have no problem like this. They can live with their spouses according to the Law of Return.

I could count many racist laws against Palestinian citizens of Israel. Another law that has passed the first reading, supported by the government, is a law to revoke citizenship. This is against international law – you cannot revoke citizenship of someone who doesn’t have another citizenship. You can’t leave someone without citizenship. But this law says that people who visit “enemy countries” like Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, or others, or those who express misloyalty to the state of Israel, their citizenship could be revoked. Of course this is extreme and I asked them in the Knesset, why don’t you revoke citizenship of Yigal Amir, the man who killed Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister? Surely this is a bigger crime than a Palestinian visiting his family in Syria?

What is “misloyalty”? It is giving the authorities a blank cheque. What makes it dangerous is that in times of emergency, everything could be done. Israel can produce emergencies, and has in the past. In normal times they couldn’t revoke citizenship, but if there’s hysteria, they could. In October 2000, there were unarmed demonstrations of Palestinians in Israel and 13 of our people were killed by police. The police never even claimed there was a danger. No Israeli policeman was brought to justice. This is because there was an intifada and there were demonstrations, and that gave them license to kill.

The incitement against the Arab leadership during the Lebanon war in the summer of 2006 was unbelievable. The Israeli politicians and public were in such a mood that any punishment would have been accepted without problems. This law, in the hands of the Israeli authorities, is very dangerous.

JP: Contrast the situation for Palestinians in Israel with those under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.

JZ: The situation in the Occupied Territories is worse than apartheid, and people in the world should know that. The suffering is unbelievable. The restriction of movement, the destruction of economy, the starvation, the segmentation, fragmentation of the society – Gaza from the West Bank, Jerusalem, the north of the West Bank from the south. The apartheid wall divides Palestinians from themselves. It doesn’t just separate Israelis from Palestinians, but Palestinians from Palestinians. The world should do something to stop this.

The situation of Palestinians inside Israel is deteriorating all the time towards apartheid in the legal system. Two examples I’ve mentioned are the citizenship law and the revoking of citizenship law. If this continues, it will be apartheid inside Israel itself. The international community should do something because internal forces in Israel are not ripe for peace, end of occupation, for adapting democratic and universal standards inside Israel. The international community does intervene on minority rights – questions of minorities are international questions now.

Canada was the first state to put a siege on the Palestinian Authority. I would expect that Canada be the first to renew aid. In the beginning they didn’t wait to cut aid. The most urgent thing is to end the siege and renew aid to the Palestinian Authority because Palestinian people, working people are suffering, they haven’t had salaries in almost one year. That is the first thing I said to Ministers I met in Ottawa. The second thing I said is that in the Middle East there’s no political initiative and it’s time to try to push the Arab Peace Initiative. Maybe this is the time because the whole Arab side has agreed to it, and many in the international community think that it is a good initiative. Even in Israel there are some in all parties who think Israel should reply positively to it. Even Ministers. But the official position of Israel is against it.

JP: How would you reply to those who say – aren’t you providing legitimacy to the system, giving them the argument that Israel is in fact a democracy, because look we have Arab parliamentarians?

JZ: When we are struggling for our rights and against discrimination, to protect our land and identity, we aim to enlarge and to emphasize our rights. If we gain something, that’s good. For as long as we have the right to vote and run in elections, we will use it. We won’t abandon rights. That’s not good strategy. We don’t want to be out of the system, we want more rights, not less rights. That’s the point. The question is how you use the right to vote and the right to be elected, what you do with it. I think our presence in the Knesset is very important. There is a big difference between being prevented from going and saying we won’t go, for ourselves. For as long as we can go, we will.

I don’t want to be seen as oversimplifying the reality. I told you we should look at the Israeli regime as governing not just Israel but also the Occupied Territories. And there there is an extra or heavy apartheid system. That doesn’t mean that in Israel itself you don’t have any democratic liberties or rights. I would say these rights and liberties are in danger, under attack, being narrowed, but you can still express your opinion, you can vote and be elected, and these things, so long as it’s not a danger, shaking the system, they will enable it. But from time to time they try to attack it.

In 2003, the Israeli attorney general and the Israeli committee for elections, decided to deny Balad, my party, from running in Parliament, and only the high court made a decision 7-4 to enable us to run in the Knesset. In the decision it was said we were walking on the red line. The main accusation? We want the transformation of Israel from a Jewish state to a state of all citizens – that’s the democratic challenge. And even the attorney general’s representative said to the court: “This is a very dangerous party. They are asking for 100% equality”, and that means canceling the privileges of Jews in the state of Jews. It means canceling the privileges of the Jewish agencies in land, housing, planning, the law of return, things that are fundamental in Israel. So I think we are in a struggle: we are trying to put not just the national challenge, but the democratic challenge, and that makes them very nervous.

This vision of a state of all citizens, makes the Israeli government very nervous. Will they prevent us from running? Maybe. But even this would be a problem. I think the high court’s decision made a political calculation. It was a political decision. They don’t want a situation in which an Arab party can go to the world and say we are prevented from running because we are asking for democracy. This would harm Israel more than having us in Parliament.

Justin Podur is a writer and editor based in Toronto.

Justin Podur

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.