The Israeli right’s fury is driven by fear of Palestinian citizens
When the Knesset passed the Jewish Nation-State Law on July 19, 2018, there was an outpouring of concern for the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, who make up a fifth of the state’s population with 1.8 million people. The prevailing narrative was that the new Basic Law — which will serve as a constitutional anchor for Israel’s legal system — would “officially turn non-Jews into second-class citizens.” Large segments of the community bought into the narrative, too. Druze citizens, who are conscripted into the Israeli army, decried the government’s “betrayal” of their loyalty to the state. The Arab leadership in Israel, including the Joint List, High Follow-Up Committee, and civil society organizations, publicly campaigned for the law’s revocation.
The Jewish Nation-State Law is the crown jewel of the Israeli right’s decade-long power streak. Having transfused Revisionist Zionism into the Israeli mainstream, and finding like-minded global allies to support its mission, the right-wing establishment no longer feels the need to uphold the Zionist left’s democratic pretenses toward its “minority” citizens: Jewish supremacism is now the unequivocal and unapologetic law of the land. This is hardly the beginning of legalized racism in Israel — Palestinian citizens have known military rule, land expropriations, unfair budgeting, and many more discriminatory policies since 1948 — but the dangers it foreshadows are no less severe.
The past decade for Palestinian citizens has been dominated by the Israeli right’s unbridled assaults on their civil rights. Yet these attacks are not just a reflection of the right’s strength; if anything, they expose its biggest weakness. While the right’s ambitions are largely driven by its obsessive desire to build a “Greater Israel” from the river to the sea, it is also deeply defined, quite ironically, by its inconsolable fear of the Palestinians who share Israeli citizenship and live within the state’s 1948 borders.
This fear, which afflicts the Zionist left as much as the right, has consumed Israeli politics and lawmaking in recent years. During the 1990s, Palestinian citizens of Israel underwent a political, social, and cultural revival to assert their voice in the context of the Oslo Accords. While many were swept by the hopeful atmosphere of the time, they were also concerned that a two-state arrangement — which was being negotiated between a Jewish-Israeli government and a Palestinian leadership focused on the West Bank and Gaza — could marginalize, if not jeopardize, their own existence.
Using Israeli and international institutions to their advantage, Palestinian citizens began making small but significant strides in demanding their rights as a “national minority.” Even after the traumatic events of October 2000 — when police killed 13 Palestinians in Israel and wounded hundreds more in protests during the Second Intifada — the community in 2006 put forward a “future vision,” including a draft constitution, to imagine a shared state (alongside a Palestinian state) based on equality and self-determination for both peoples.
Israelis were terrified. “Equality,” as far as they were concerned, meant the demise of the Jewish state and a reckoning with their colonial past. And so, when the Netanyahu-led government came to power in 2009, Palestinian citizens were immediately put in the crosshairs. A slew of legislation was subsequently enacted to reverse many of the Palestinian community’s advancements, ensuring that their subjugation was permanently pinned down in law and not just in policy.
The scale of the government’s campaign was unprecedented. When more Arab families tried to buy homes outside of their overcrowded towns, admissions committees were empowered to reject them on the grounds that the families did not fit with the villages’ “social and cultural fabric.” When students organized vigils to commemorate the Nakba on campuses, universities were threatened with funding cuts if they allowed the events to take place. When Palestinian activists called for boycotts of institutions involved in the occupation, Israelis were invited to sue them in court. The list keeps growing.