Palestinian-Israeli celebrity Mira Awad recently wrote a post on her facebook account about the patronizing experience of receiving a “Jewish” sticker on her passport at Ben-Gurion airport. Ami Kaufman helpfully translated Awad’s post into English:
So, I was checked at the airport, they asked the questions, put the stickers on, and I proceeded to the X-Ray machine. Suddenly, the young security man comes to me: “Mira? Mira Awad?”
Security man: “Can I see your passport? There’s a mistake with the sticker.”
I almost told him: “No, you’re not mistaken, I see you put the right one on — the sticker for Arabs”, but I didn’t say that (security people have their humor extracted during their preparatory course). I gave him my passport, he opens it, takes off the sticker in the passport and on the suitcase and puts on a new one, different, the same color but smaller.
Now the dilemma. On the one hand it’s obvious the young man has just made my life easier by putting on the sticker for Jews. On the other hand, it’s one of the things that it’s hard to say thanks for. I mean, thank you for not considering me a terrorist any more? Thanks that someone whispered to you, “it’s Mira Awad,” so the “Awad” isn’t scary anymore? Thanks for upgrading me to a Class A citizen? I turned into one of “ours,” or actually one of “yours.” A small sticker that carries with it such huge humiliation, and today even enfolds stupidity. Because since they cancelled the stickers with different colors, which we protested, they made new stickers with less recognizable differences to the inexperienced eye, and here they are embarrassing themselves with unaware patronizing like, “Let’s award you with the status of a privileged person!” — so you don’t say that we aren’t humane. By the way, it happen[e]d to me also last week, when a senior security man who wanted to “show off” (maybe you’ll say he wanted to joke around, but we’ve already concluded that he doesn’t know how to joke around, see earlier “extraction of humor”) and asked one of his employees to get me one of the “regular” stickers and then winked at me as he continued to speak him: “Can’t you see it’s Mira Awad?”
So, the conclusion is, if you’re Israeli and your name is Awad – you better be famous! If not, forget about the duty free! Yalla, I’m out of here. For now.
Critics of the Israeli government often refer to it as an “apartheid” state. This is understandably met with harsh reproach by the “pro-Israel” crowd. Anytime one uses the word “apartheid,” images of the cruel, racist apartheid South Africa regime immediately follow. Clearly, nobody wants to be compared to the unjust regime that Nelson Mandela spent much of his life fighting to dismantle.
But when you are dealing with a state that applies different legal standards to groups of people under its jurisdiction based on their ethnicity, it is difficult to know what else to call it. +972 Magazine has an excellent series called Visualizing Occupation, in which they showcase exactly how Israel’s legal system treats Palestinian and Israeli citizens differently for the same behavior. Avner Gvaryahu, an Israeli citizen and former IDF soldier, described his experience in frank terms:
We created a situation [in the Palestinian Territories] that, de facto, there is never a possibility for equality. You’re talking about … together with East Jerusalem … half a million Jewish settlers that are under Israeli civilian law. And two and a half million Palestinians that are under army law, under martial law … they’ll never be equal. If you have two people who meet in the heart of Hebron, both at the same exact moment, pick up a rock and throw it at each other, and one is Palestinian and one is Israeli, the Israeli will be tried under civilian law. The Palestinian will be tried as a Terrorist, for doing the exact same thing.
Judith Butler (who is Jewish), noted back in February:
Presently, there are at least twenty laws that privilege Jews over Arabs within the Israeli legal system. The 1950 Law of Return grants automatic citizenship rights to Jews from anywhere in the world upon request, while denying that same right to Palestinians who were forcibly dispossessed of their homes in 1948 or subsequently as the result of illegal settlements and redrawn borders. Human Rights Watch has compiled an extensive study of Israel’s policy of “separate, not equal” schools for Palestinian children. … Palestinians are barred from military service, and yet access to housing and education still largely depends on military status. Families are divided by the separation wall between the West Bank and Israel, with few forms of legal recourse to rights of visitation and reunification. The Knesset debates the “transfer” of the Palestinian population to the West Bank, and the new loyalty oath requires that anyone who wishes to become a citizen pledge allegiance to Israel as Jewish and democratic, thus eliding once again the non-Jewish population and binding the full population to a specific and controversial, if not contradictory, version of democracy.
This unequal treatment before the law is one of the problems with establishing a state where the welfare of one group of citizens is placed above all others in a nation state. Hagai El-Ad, writing for Haaretz back in January, described this as “the shadow of the occupation:”
The shadow of the occupation looms heavily on the coming “national, direct, equal, and proportional” elections in Israel. How free and open are elections in a count[r]y in which, now for more than two-thirds of its history, millions of the people under its control do not even have a vote? And in the present elections, those who do get to vote will likely elect a parliament that will further expand that very same anti-democratic shadow, in both old and new ways – on both sides of the Green Line.”
Joseph Levine (who is also Jewish) opined in March that it was impossible for Israel to be a truly democratic state so long as it defines itself as a “Jewish” state. In doing so, it relegates all Jewish Israeli citizens to privileged status, and all non-Jewish Israeli citizens are relegated to badges of inferiority:
If the institutions of a state favor one ethnic group among its citizenry … then only the members of that group will feel themselves fully a part of the life of the state. True equality, therefore, is only realizable in a state that is based on civic peoplehood. As formulated by both Jewish- and Palestinian-Israeli activists on this issue, a truly democratic state that fully respects the self-determination rights of everyone under its sovereignty must be a “state of all its citizens.”
This fundamental point exposes the fallacy behind the common analogy, drawn by defenders of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, between Israel’s right to be Jewish and France’s right to be French. The appropriate analogy would instead be between France’s right to be French (in the civic sense) and Israel’s right to be Israeli.
This is precisely the phenomenon that Mira Awad experienced at Ben-Gurion airport. Airport officials thought they were doing her a favor by giving her a “Jewish” sticker. Instead, they were implicitly telling Awad that her native ethnicity was inferior—that, in effect, she would be better off if she were Jewish.
Opposition to this sort of inequality of condition has a rich history in the Jewish diaspora. Here is Butler again, responding to some of her critics last August:
I am a scholar who gained an introduction to philosophy through Jewish thought, and I understand myself as defending and continuing a Jewish ethical tradition that includes figures such as Martin Buber and Hannah Arendt. I received a Jewish education in Cleveland, Ohio at The Temple under the tutelage of Rabbi Daniel Silver where I developed strong ethical views on the basis of Jewish philosophical thought. I learned, and came to accept, that we are called upon by others, and by ourselves, to respond to suffering and to call for its alleviation. But to do this, we have to hear the call, find the resources by which to respond, and sometimes suffer the consequences for speaking out as we do. I was taught at every step in my Jewish education that it is not acceptable to stay silent in the face of injustice. Such an injunction is a difficult one, since it does not tell us exactly when and how to speak, or how to speak in a way that does not produce a new injustice, or how to speak in a way that will be heard and registered in the right way. My actual position is not heard by these detractors, and … [i]t is untrue, absurd, and painful for anyone to argue that those who formulate a criticism of the State of Israel is anti-Semitic or, if Jewish, self-hating.
This tradition can be found in American politics as well. Al Franken relates the following story on Pages 262–263 of Lies and the Lying Liars who tell them: a Fair and Balanced look at the Right:
When President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he is said to have turned to an aide and remarked, “We have just lost the South for a generation.” The Republican Party became the home to Southern bigots and still is today.
While the Democratic Party lost the South that year, they did gain my dad. A lifelong Republican who voted for Herbert Hoover and every GOP presidential candidate through Nixon, Dad switched parties in 1964 because the Republican nominee, Barry Goldwater, had voted against the Civil Rights Act. Dad, a card-carrying member of the NAACP, always told us that Jews couldn’t be against civil rights. He never voted Republican again.
This Jewish ethical tradition of multi-sectional tolerance and of protecting and preserving civil rights of one’s neighbor is a tradition that one hopes will once again rise to the fore and inform the policy of the Israeli government in the occupied territories and elsewhere. The January 2013 elections have pulled the Knesset back towards the center, but Netanyahu still managed to put together a coalition government. Meanwhile, settlements continue be built, Palestinian villages continue to be demolished, and much legal discrimination continues unabated.
These actions aren’t compatible with a state guided by democratic values. One of the grand promises made by virtually every democratic society is equality before the law for all citizens. And until Mira Awad can walk into Ben-Gurion Airport without worrying about whether she has a Jewish sticker on her passport, the Israeli government will have difficulty living up to that promise.
Update: an earlier version of this post misstated the results of Israel’s January 2013 elections for Israel’s Kadima party. Post has been updated to reflect this (Thanks to Ari Kohen for keeping me honest).