The Israeli Knesset on Thursday passed into law a bill designed to make a permanent underclass of Palestinian citizens. It threatens to set the country on a course to full-blown Jewish theocracy.
The so-called “Jewish nation-state” bill formalizes in Israeli law the superior rights and privileges that Jewish citizens of the state enjoy over its indigenous Palestinian minority, who comprise roughly 20% of the population. It demotes Arabic from one of two official languages to a mere “special” status, deepens racial segregation by directing the government to “encourage and promote” Jewish settlement, and declares that the right to self-determination in Israel is “exclusive” to the Jewish people, denying the history and ancient Palestinian roots in this land. It also prioritizes the Jewishness of the state over its democratic character, omitting any reference to “democracy” or “equality.”
The final reading of the nation-state bill took place just days after the Knesset rejected a bill that I, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and Knesset member, had introduced. My bill called for Israel to guarantee full equality for all of its citizens, regardless of religion or race. A similar bill introduced in June calling for Israel to be a country “for all its citizens" was banned from even being discussed. The fate of these three bills confirms what Palestinians have always known: In Israel, only Jews enjoy the full rights and privileges of citizenship.
The tension of being a Palestinian citizen of a country that defines itself as Jewish has shaped every aspect of my life, from early childhood to my career as a human rights activist and a member of Israel’s parliament today.
I was born in Umm al Fahem, which pre-dates the state of Israel and is one of the largest Palestinian towns in the country. Although it is bigger and older than the Jewish municipalities that surround it, the residents of Umm al Fahem are denied the same quality of public services that Jewish towns receive, including in healthcare and public transportation.
I first began to understand the unequal nature of Israeli society when I was 12 years old and started going to school in nearby Nazareth. Because we didn’t have a bus station, I had to hitch a ride to and from class each day and witness the stark contrast between the crumbling buildings, roads, and other underfunded public infrastructure in Umm al Fahem and those of the affluent Jewish towns I traveled through.
Every day, I would also pass by the village where members of my mother’s family lived before Israel’s establishment, Al Lajjun. They were uprooted and told they could not return. Israel’s destruction of Palestinian communities like my ancestral village continues today, in places like Umm al-Hiran, a town in southern Israel facing destruction so that it can be replaced with a city for Jews (to be called “Hiran”).
The nation-state bill further marginalizes my community and entrenches Israel’s regime of racial discrimination and deterioration into apartheid. It will lead to more racist, anti-democratic laws, adding to the more than 50 laws already on the books that disadvantage non-Jewish citizens.
In contrast, the bill I introduced called for the country to become a democracy that guarantees complete civil and national equality to all who live within its borders. It would have ensured that Israeli law is based on universal values that recognize both Arab and Jewish ethnic groups. The state would have been required to invest the wealth of this land for the benefit of all of its citizens, not just a privileged majority. There would be equal status for the Arabic language and culture, and inclusive national symbols, so Palestinian girls and boys would feel welcome in their own country, and no longer have to be represented by a country’s flag containing religious symbols that are not their own.
Like President Trump in the United States and right-wing demagogues elsewhere, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government wish to turn the clock back on humanity’s march toward a freer, more just and egalitarian world. Imagine if Trump and the Republican Party passed a constitutional amendment declaring the U.S. to be officially a Christian state, formally subordinating the country’s democracy to right-wing, fundamentalist Christian principles, and encouraging American cities and towns to exclude Jews, Muslims and indigenous Americans.
That is the situation that Palestinians in Israel face today. As we continue our struggle for equal citizenship and the just rights of Palestinians everywhere, we call on our brothers and sisters of conscience in the U.S. and around the world to support our shared vision for enlightened democracy and the well-being of all people, regardless of race or religion.