Last weekend, while the US population sought solace from national anxieties in picnics and fireworks, a new symbol of growing trouble appeared in a small town near Jerusalem. It was just a small tent, an obscure peripheral object in a world imperiled by terrorism, counter-terrorism and the US occupation of Iraq. But that tent represented a line in the sand: a statement, contradicted by none, that the weeping sore in the Middle East remains the daily grind of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and that if peace is not found there, our best efforts will not create it anywhere. And in that tent was someone whose presence there signals that we must act quickly.
Of all the voices calling for justice in Israel-Palestine, Arab-Israeli Knesset member Azmi Bishara is among the most important. It is not merely that he is a uniquely skilled politician in the ethnic fray of Israeli politics and an eloquent speaker on the subject of inter-ethnic accord and justice in Israel. Or that, holding a doctorate in philosophy from Humbolt University in Berlin, he can expound on the history of Zionism and on Arab-Israeli politics with equal erudition and sensitivity. Or even that, embedded within Israel’s political system, he has perceived and denounced Ariel Sharon’s “unilateral withdrawal” from Gaza for the disaster it is-not a first step toward peace, but a major maneuver toward annexing the West Bank. Dr. Bishara stands out for coupling all these insights to an unflinching moral stand: that non-racial democracy is the only just solution to the ethnic conflict plaguing the land of his birth. Through all the years of vitriolic libel and slander that has attacked him, he has held to this commitment, offering a moral compass that has infuriated some but inspired thousands more to a higher-minded vision of Israel’s future and that has held audiences around the world in thrall.
Now this distinguished politician and scholar has stationed himself in a tent standing on the path of Israel’s infamous Wall, on a hunger strike.
Dr. Bishara’s effort might easily be misunderstood. An Israeli Arab born in Nazareth eight years after Israel was founded, he grew up in a country that consistently demoted his family and ethnic community as second-class citizens. For the first years of his life, Arabs in Israel could not leave their towns without security passes. Today, their communities remain crippled by land restrictions and underemployment, with a fraction of the public spending accorded to Jews, rendering Israel the most economically unequal of all the western democracies. When they protested Israeli army violence in the Intifada, they were beaten and shot down; they have fresh reasons to feel under assault, bitter and angry. Dr. Bishara is particularly clear-sighted about the racism that so oppresses his community and disparages his own principled stands as covert anti-Semitism – because he is an Arab.
Yet he also rejects, with equal eloquence, any Arab-ethnic counter-strategy that would impede the free and equal sharing of civil rights by all of Israel’s citizens. For example, he does not call, as many do, for a higher Arab birthrate to counter Israel’s Jewish majority: he denounces the very idea as reproducing racist logics. He does not call for Arab ethno-nationalism at all. He stands now with East-Jerusalem and West-Bank Palestinians in opposing the ruinous course of the Wall partly because it threatens their livelihood and social cohesion. But he has actually put his health on the line because his commitment to democratic equal rights extends to all the people of the territory.
And in that universal view, the colossal Wall now marching toward his tent represents not simply a “land grab,” as some believe. It is an essential element of a grand strategy to deprive and crush Palestinian society within a nonviable fragment of territory called a “state.” It will indeed partly serve to block the desperate Palestinian militancy certain to steep within that claustrophobic highland enclave (although only with endless Israeli surveillance). But it is chiefly intended to contain another “threat”: that, juxtaposed so closely with Jewish settlements, a million-plus Palestinians would otherwise inevitably filter into Jewish society and – horrors – mix with Jews. Slashing through Arab neighborhoods around Jerusalem, the Wall is certainly an economic and security barrier, but it is also simply a racial barrier – a way to keep non-Jews entirely off “Jewish” land.
That goal has less to do with security than people want to believe. In a recent shocking poll, 45.3 percent of Jewish Israelis believed Israeli Arabs should be denied the right to vote and 64 percent believed that the Israeli government should “encourage” them to leave the country. In other words, growing numbers of Jewish Israelis support a “Jewish state” defined by ethnic purity and even “cleansing.” Yet any society evincing such sentiments signals its own national moral ruin. As former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens wrote recently of this mood in Ha’aretz (July 6), “Have we lost hold of our senses? Have we thrown overboard the values that are at the foundation of the democratic State of Israel, in which we take such pride?”
Hunger strikes are an old and familiar weapon of the weak. It would be easy to glance over this small tent, raised in a Jerusalem suburb, as a fringe event. But the Wall and its mission of racial defense are not only savaging Palestinian society. They may soon trigger an ethnic clash of unimaginable danger. Nothing we do in Iraq will avail us anything unless US foreign policy switches quickly to deal very differently with that danger. Israel cannot go on like this, and neither can the rest of the world and time is getting terribly short, as Azmi Bishara is trying to tell us.
[Dr. Bishara’s analysis of Israel’s “separation” strategy can be found at http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/print/2004/697/op2.htm; details on his hunger strike are available at http://www.azmibishara.info/.]
VIRGINIA TILLEY is an Associate Professor of Political Science
at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org