In the absence of Self determination / 2013

by Ofra Yeshua-Lyth 

Ani Israeli[1]’s court action is a first step towards a secular democratic state in the whole of the land and for restoring the right of self determination to all the inhabitants of Palestine and its refugees

 Uzzi Ornan, celebrating his 90-th birthday this month, is one of Israel’s most consistent human rights activists. An acclaimed linguist (his most recent book In the Beginning Was the Languag[2] has just been published by The Academy of the Hebrew Language), this veteran IRGUN member who in his teens served four years in a British incarceration camp in Eritrea has led numerous battles against ethnic and forced religious supremacy in this country. 

Ornan’s 14-year legal campaign for the recognition of an Israeli Nationality for all the citizens of the state, and for the end of the practice that brands Israeli citizens according to their religion and/or ethnic origins, touches on the most basic issues of the Israeli regime. In fact it confronts the fundamental failure of the Zionist state. It is no coincidence that the State Attorney, responding to the initial Ani Israeli “(I am Israeli”) appeal, coined the key phrase: “This verdict sought by the applicants… does not reflect, is contradictory and even undermines the basic foundations of the state of Israel”.

Truth should be recognized. The Israeli anomaly is indeed entrenched precisely in this confused and erroneous definition of nationality which the “Jewish State” had applied since its very inception: a fortified settlers’ entity, self-segregated from the absolute majority of the native people, estranged from its geographical environment; self-condemned for an eternity of hostilities, mutual bloodshed, continuous human rights infringements and ever-growing panic and fear.

Two major elements sentenced Israel to a reality of continuous, abusive, religious apartheid. The first element is the legislation that classified the citizens of the land according to their religious denominations. Against this legislation Uzzi Ornan presently appeals to recognize his citizenship on grounds of “eligibility based on residency” rather than on “eligibility to the Law of Return”, which is exclusively for Jews and their kin). The second element – inseparable from the first – is the fact that behind the well-laundered terms “Citizens eligible by Residency” and “”citizens eligible by the Law of Return” there is nothing but the understandings and power structures of Israel’s Orthodox Rabbinical Establishment, executing the decrees of an ancient, zealous religion. The fifty-five Israeli laws that discriminate against the “citizens eligible by residency” are fifty-five laws which discriminate all non-Jewish Israelis, most of them native Arab Palestinians who have indeed been “residing” in this land for generations, to the displeasure of the majority of the immigrants “eligible by the Law of Return” and their descendents[3].

The discrepancy between the Israeli legal system and the pretence that Israel is a “democracy” is the country’s best-known open secret. Every Israeli schoolchild will tell you that the state has no constitution and that the country is unable to produce one. Such a document, under the current regime, would only amount to official confirmation that Israeli so-called democracy is subject to ethnic religious laws and decrees. These laws identify non-Jewish citizens as second-class citizens in the best case scenario, and as a “demographic risk” according to a widespread consensus. From time to time new solutions for this “demographic risk” are conjured up and seriously discussed. They range from ideas to entice, remunerate or force mass emigration through special “citizenship regulation”, newly dreamed-up “nationality rules” all the way to redrawing maps and borders, for example plans to transfer the “Triangle” and part of the Galilee regions, heavily populated by Arabs, into the territory of the would-be, fully unrealistic “Palestinian State” – the  state designed to be second-class and forever a “security risk”, just the same as Israeli citizens “eligible according to residency”.

It is therefore deplorable to discover amongst the most ardent defenders of the defective Israeli regime so many who should have been the first to campaign against it: brilliant jurists, writers, novelists, academics, intellectuals and even human rights activists offer a solid wall against any attempt to undermine the Jewish national consensus. These are prominent and often truly well-meaning men and women that openly and bravely condemn the “occupation” and “religious coercion”; the “exclusion of women” and the “bad attitudes towards minorities and foreigners”; the “settlements” and the “excess of militarism”. However once one tries to point out that all these are the natural products of “a Jewish state” whose vision centers on our forefathers’ unique religious culture as opposed to the well-being of its subjects, an immediate transformation occurs. Our liberal left-wing Zionists line up for a furious defense, and join the national right wing’s vociferous protests against the “undermining of Israeli legitimacy” and the outrageous challenge to Israel’s “right to self determination”, it’s very “right to exist”.

This supposedly unassailable argument of the pro-Zionist chorus sounds apparently fully justified. Should not the Jews – the so famously long-suffering Jews – be entitled to this most basic human right, the right of self determination?

But this exactly is the catch. Contrary to the taken-for-granted assumption, self determination is NOT recognized by the Israeli state. Israeli nationals are deprived of this most basic privilege. Jewish nationality is accorded by the Ministry of the Interior, depending on rabbinical authorization. These institutions are much occupied with the definition of “who is NOT Jewish”, which has been a political bone of contention in this state from its very beginnings. One might be lucky enough to be recognized as an Israeli citizen according to the tough immigration criteria; upon registering his or her citizenship he or she will be asked to fill in their nationality (and religion). Declaration of most nationalities – British, Philippine, Assyrian or “unknown” will be registered with no special interest. To register oneself or one’s newborn baby as “Jewish”, namely to join the privileged Israeli nationality (“eligible according to the Law of Return…) a higher authority must be consulted over the “eligibility” of the applicant and his or her children. Wer Jude ist beshtimme Ich!– a Nazi war criminal once declared. Nobody is too bothered by the fact that this is how the Israeli legal system operates.

Determining that one is “not Jewish” has nothing to do with self determination. It is crude religious-political coercion and an infringement of rights in the many cases of individuals refused “Judaism”. It also marks Judaism as a bureaucratic tool to deny equal status to minorities. In other words, Israel does not recognize the self-determination of its citizens. On the contrary, the state deprives and dispossesses this basic right. To make things even clearer: Israel refuses even to allow its citizens to define themselves as Israeli nationals. As the long standing legal action by Uzzi Ornan and Co. makes so clear, the state – supported by a too-cooperative juristic system – powerfully rejects the idea that any Israeli may be considered an “Israeli National”. No such definition is allowed amongst the 135 possible options on the “nationality list” recognized by the Ministry of the Interior.

This bureaucratic expropriation has far-reaching implications. Non-Jews are unable to be married to authorized Jews; they may not purchase “national lands” (about 93% of the land in the state) or reside in those lands; they might have Israeli citizenship but have no right to bring non-Israeli spouses (or other family members) into the country; they may not reclaim property they did not personally inhabit between September 1948 and 1950;

They may join the army, though. However if unfortunately they are killed on duty the Chief of Staff will avoid their grave when the time will come to pay respects to the fallen. Israeli newspaper readers are often choked and appalled to read about the bereaved mother of such a soldier, about to be deported as she no longer has a relative with an official linkage to Judaism (the linkage may be three generations removed, a quaint similarity to the Nürnberg Race Laws of the 1930’s). Politicians and others, it has to be admitted, are compulsively busy looking for “solutions” for at least part of the non-Jewish population. The media willingly supports campaigns to “ease conversions”, “reform religious services” and other euphemistic mechanisms that would allow the entry of a few hundred thousand more “Goys”, preferably with white skins and eastern European accents, into the community of citizens who qualify for material privileges as well as obligatory military conscription.

Indeed conscription, better advertized in Israel as “serving the community” or “sharing the burden”, has become in itself the major tool available to the state in order to maintain the enormous discrimination mechanism dedicated to preserve the privileges of “Jews according to the Jewish Halacha” and their next of kin. It so happens that privileges have their price, gladly and proudly paid by those who have been trained and brained-washed for it from early childhood. Masses of young men and women are willingly pumped into the mighty war machine erected by this state. They donate the best years of their lives with no proper remuneration, and with a total commitment to sacrifice their lives during the obligatory service. Starting with the battles of the 1948 war and through numerous violent initiatives, the undisputed goal of Israeli militarism is the preservation and maintenance of special privileges for the ethnic-religious Jewish group, its constant expansion at the expense of the indigenous population and the hindrance of any attempt by non-Jews to restore usurped rights – property rights, civil rights and basic human rights.


Realizing that the Israeli regime does not deserve support and should be replaced by a secular and democratic system of government which respects the rights of all the inhabitants of historical Palestine is not new, but it is presently gaining momentum in this country and abroad. The logic behind this idea is exactly the same logic that guides the Ani Israeli court action, which is intended to destabilize the Jewish regime of privileges in the state and offer a chance of life together based on equality of all its citizens.

A series of meetings and initiatives in different parts of the world including Israel brought a number of Palestinian and Israeli organizations and individuals to a meeting in Munich in early July 2012. This was a first attempt to create a coalition with a joint vision. In spite of deep differences in backgrounds and ideologies, the group managed within two days of discussions to unite around a joint manifest. As in many similar meetings, it soon became clear that differences of opinions between Palestinians as well as between Israeli participants could be deeper than the gaps characterizing the “national” groups.

The “Munich Declaration” calls for the establishing of One Democratic State” in the whole territory of historical Palestine “as one country that belongs to all its citizens including all those who currently live there and all those who were expelled over the past century and their descendants”. Next to the commitment not to expel any of the Jewish inhabitants, the commitment in the declaration to all the Palestinian refugees is the only viable vision that can unite Palestinians and Jews, although most of the latter will have to go a long way to internalize such a vision.

Still, the description of the state envisaged by the signatories of the Munich declaration is very similar to the mode of the liberal modern state supported by the parties to the Ani Israeli appeal. It should be a “democracy in which all of its adult citizens shall enjoy equal rights to vote, stand for office and contribute to the country’s governance. No State law, institution, practices or activities may discriminate among its citizens on the basis of race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status”.

The principles of the Munich Declaration have since then been adopted by a number of Palestinian and Israeli groups. At the time this article is being written the most active of these groups is the ODS Jaffa Group that started in the fall of 2012. In its basic manifest the Jaffa Group declared that “The program for One Democratic State is not a utopia but a practical plan to solve the pressing problems of this country’s inhabitants”. The group adopted the One Democratic State solution as a “just and sustainable solution for the suffering of the Palestinian People. It includes and guarantees the return of the refugees and puts an end to occupation, apartheid and all forms of national oppression and racial discrimination. It guarantees an end to a decades-long conflict and achieves the integration of the Jewish inhabitants in the country through partnership rather than conflict”.

Parts of the Jaffa ODS Group vision are actually similar to expressed commitments in the Israeli Declaration of Independence that have never actually been respected, and are quoted in all the legal documents submitted in the Ani Israeli appeal. Indeed this long forgotten 1948 declaration supposedly guarantees a state that “will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex; will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture; will safeguard the sanctity and inviolability of the shrines and Holy Places of all religions; and will dedicate itself to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations”.

The ODS Jaffa declaration similarly commits to One Democratic State that “guarantees security and peace for all and prevents discrimination, oppression and exclusion. It will promote social justice and develop the economy and society for the benefit and welfare of all inhabitants”.

The simple, reasonable idea of basic equality corresponds to all the Human Rights declarations that the state of Israel pretends to uphold, responds to the urgent need to peacefully solve the continuous conflict between Jews and Palestinians and contradicts the horror-logic which conditions Israelis, children and adults, to believe that in this particular part of the world “the sword should forever devour”. Nothing, except the fanatic insistence of a self-declared “chosen” community justifies the continuation of the hundred and twenty long violent conflict.

The campaign led by Uzzi Ornan over the right of decent people to demand that their community should respect all its members and inhabitants on an equal basis is a first and necessary step towards a normalization of life in this country. Acceptance by the courts of the Ani Israeli appeal and applying the right of self determination to all Israeli citizens is in fact the elimination of the racial bureaucratic mechanism which enables the existence of the fifty-five discriminatory laws against non-Jews in Israel. These laws include the scandalous definition of “National Lands” as belonging to Jews only; the “Absentee Property Law” facilitating mere criminal usurpation of real estate assets and the “Citizenship Regulations” so appropriate for an Apartheid state. From this point on, the road for a secular, democratic state for all the inhabitants of the land and all its refugees will be much shorter.

[1] Literally “I am Israeli” – a legal action group seeking equal nationality status to all Israeli citizens, Jews and non-Jews alike (presently Hebrew only

[2] See above comment

[3] For the list of discriminatory laws see Adalah website

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