On July 18, the U.S. House voted 412-9 in favor of a resolution rebuking the characterization of Israel as a “racist or apartheid state.” It was a reaction to Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) telling a progressive conference that Israel is a “racist state,” which she later clarified as referring to the Israeli government and not “the idea of Israel as a nation.”
Although several leading human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Israeli rights groups, have put forth substantiated reports on how Israel’s rule over Palestinians meets the legal definition of apartheid, most members of Congress refused to consider the evidence before the vote.
It was left to Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), the sole Palestinian American member of Congress, to explain on the House floor how Israel’s occupation is guilty of systemic racism. Arguably, Japayal erred in confining her subsequent criticism of the current Israeli government; in reality, the structure of Israeli governance is embodied with discrimination against Palestinian citizens.
The Jews’s State
Israelis like to contend that Israel is Jewish akin to how Finland is Finnish. This analogy is false. Israel defines itself as the nation-state of the Jewish people and not all Israelis. While someone can be a Finnish Jew or a Finnish Muslim, in a state defined as the nation-state of Jews, non-Jews are permanently left out of the notion of nationhood as one cannot be a Jewish Muslim or a Jewish Christian.
In fact, there is no official Israeli nationality. Israeli citizens are categorized by their religion: Jewish, Muslim, Christian, etc. Over a fifth of Israeli citizens are non-Jews, but they are treated as second-class citizens.
In 2014, when a handful of Israeli Jews attempted to change their state-issued identification cards to read “Israeli” rather than “Jewish,” the high court rejected their appeal and ruled that the plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate the existence of an Israeli people.
In 2018, when an Arab Knesset member introduced a motion to make Israel a state of all its citizens, his proposal was rejected out of hand and denied even the opportunity for debate as it was deemed a threat to Israel’s self-definition.
Israel’s aversion to being a state for all its citizens is mainstream and unbending, rejected by nearly every Jewish-led political party. In 2018, when an Arab Knesset member introduced a motion to make Israel a state of all its citizens, his proposal was rejected out of hand and denied even the opportunity for debate as it was deemed a threat to Israel’s self-definition.
Contrary to Rep. Ritchie Torress’s (D-N.Y.) claim that Israel merely has “complicated race relations … much like the American story,” American democracy nominally accords equal rights to all its citizens and recognizes a universal American nationality. Israel rejects this recipe.
The Nation-State Law
Israel does not have a constitution, but it does maintain a set of Basic Laws that function akin to a constitution. In 2022, Israel’s Knesset passed a new Basic Law entitled “Nation State of the Jewish People,” which proclaimed that the “realization of the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is exclusive to the Jewish People.” (The legislation also downgraded the status of Arabic from an official language.)
The law also decreed, “The State shall strive to secure the welfare of members of the Jewish People and of its citizens, who are in straits and captivity, due to their Jewishness or due to their citizenship.” (Emphasis added.) The Basic Law codified at the constitutional level the second-class status of Arab citizens.
In 2011, the Knesset passed a law that codified housing discrimination against Arabs. As reported by Human Rights Watch,
Israeli law permits towns in the Negev and Galilee (which comprise two-thirds of the land in Israel) with up to 400 households to maintain admissions committees that can reject applicants from living there for being “not suitable for the social life of the community” or for incompatibility with the “social-cultural fabric.” This authority effectively permits the exclusion of Palestinians from small Jewish towns…
In 2014, the high court upheld the law after it was challenged by Adalah, a minority rights organization in Israel, which stated, “The court’s decision effectively legalizes the principle of segregation in housing between Arab and Jewish citizens, and permits the practice of racism against Arab citizens in about 434 communities, or 43% of all towns in Israel.”
In the early 2000s, Israel passed legislation to restrict the ability of Palestinian citizens to confer residency status on spouses from the occupied West Bank or Gaza. Jewish Israelis can marry whomever since Israeli settlers in the West Bank have citizenship, so the law was clearly aimed at the Arab population to withhold citizenship from potential new Palestinian residents. The law was a natural step for a nation obsessed over the “demographic threat” challenging Jewish majority status.
When Arab plaintiffs challenged the law, the government argued it was needed for security reasons. Lawyers for the plaintiffs pointed out that the number of Palestinians who acquired citizenship via marriage and went on to engage in violent attacks was negligible. Moreover, Israel was already handing out work permits to tens of thousands of Palestinians in the territories. Why would the background checks for daily laborers be any different for spouses?
The Israeli high court ruled in the government’s favor and in its verdict stated that “Human rights are not a prescription for national suicide.” Last year, when the Knesset renewed the marriage law, Israel’s then-Interior Minister tweeted, “A Jewish and democratic state: 1. The state of all its citizens: 0.”
And So On...
Israel has a “separate and unequal” education system where schools are mainly segregated and Arab pupils receive fewer funds than Jewish students.
Israel has systematically confiscated the lands of Palestinian citizens who now own less than 3% of the land inside Israel despite making up 21% of the population.
Israel has established 900 Jewish towns or localities since 1948 but zero Palestinian towns.
Palestinian citizens face enormous hurdles toward expanding their communities’ landownership, and 93% of the land of Israel is reserved exclusively for the Jewish people. Arabs can only lease or own the remaining 7%. Recently, an IDF official told a Knesset committee that 95% of Palestinian housing permits in the West Bank are rejected for political reasons versus an approval rate of 70% for Jewish settlements.
Israel’s Law of Return permits only Jews to “return” and become Israeli citizens. Palestinian refugees and their descendants are barred from returning.
Israel’s greatest act of racism is the Nakba: the 1948 expulsion of roughly 750,000 Palestinians from their homes simply because they were not Jews. Even Palestinian villagers that offered to surrender to Zionist militias were expelled. Israel’s problem, then and now, with Palestinians is that they dare to exist on their land. Israel defines itself in exclusivist terms and those outside of the tribe are forever unwelcome. No matter how docile Palestinians may be, they remain a problem for Israel, to be displaced or subjugated.
It would be interesting to hear the 412 members of Congress actually address this evidence and demonstrate how it somehow isn’t proof of racism and apartheid.
Khelil Bouarrouj is a Washington, D.C.-based writer and civil rights advocate. His work can be found in the Washington Blade, Palestine Square, The New Arab, and other publications.