Votes Are Not Enough–Hillel Cohen’s “Good Arabs”

Haim Watzman

All too often, Israel’s supporters kill their cause with clichés. One of the most common and problematic of these clichés is the claim that Israel’s Arab citizens have always enjoyed full and equal rights because—and here’s the clincher—they vote for and sit in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset.

As Hillel Cohen shows in Good Arabs: The Israeli Security Agencies and the Israeli Arabs, 1948-1967, my translation of which is to be published shortly, suffrage and representation do not in and of themselves guarantee a minority the rights that a democracy is supposed to grant to all its citizens.

In Good Arabs, Cohen continues the study he began in his previous book, Army of Shadows (see my earlier post Good Arabs, Bad Arabs) about the complex relationship between the Zionist movement and the local Arabs in Palestine. As in that earlier work, Cohen eschews the slogans long shouted by Palestinians and Israelis, rightists and leftists. He shows how both Israeli officials and leaders of those Palestinian Arabs who became inhabitants and citizens of the Jewish state adopted a variety of strategies in reaction to real and perceived threats and opportunities.

Israel wished to present itself to the world as a democracy that respected the rights of its minorities. This was in part motivated by the democratic values to which its leaders sincerely subscribed, but also in part to Israel’s need, as a country dependent on the friendship and aid of the U.S. and Western Europe, to present itself as sharing the values espoused by those nations. So it was clear to the Israeli leadership that the Arabs would be able to vote, and pictures of Arab men in traditional headdresses sitting in Israel’s parliament were important for the young country’s public relations.

That did not mean, however, that the Israeli establishment was going to leave the choice of how to vote to the Arabs themselves. As Cohen shows, the Israeli military government—under which nearly all the country’s Arab citizens lived from 1948 until 1966—used its powers to issue or deny travel and work permits and to provide budgets for local projects to wheedle, induce, and compel Arabs to vote as the country’s establishment wished. The government, led by the Labor-Zionist Mapai party, wanted the Arabs to vote for satellite Arab parties it had founded and which were under its control. (It did not want them to vote for Mapai itself because it wanted to ensure the election of Arab community leaders who supported its policies.) And it wanted to prevent them from voting for the Communists, the major independent political force in the Arab community.

Cohen quotes a secret memorandum written by the Jewish police chief of Nazareth, the country’s largest Arab city: “The GSS [the secret state security service, also known as the Shin Bet or Shabak] officials, military government representatives and I presented an oral report on what is being done in the field and the party’s activities in Nazareth and the region, in anticipation of the elections to the third Knesset.…The committees were to study the situation in the villages, give an indication to the Arabs to vote for the Arab slates and not directly for Mapai.… [T]he governor announced that the committees will be given powers to issue permits to go out of the territories [i.e. to the Jewish towns, outside the military-governed areas], and will likewise offer recommendations on granting gun permits as circumstances may dictate. These powers will be in effect until 28 July 1955 [two days after the election].”

The Israeli establishment’s fear of the Communists were not unfounded. That party was explicitly allied with the Soviet block, and pursued an Arab nationalist agenda in a Jewish state that had recently fought against local nationalist Arabs for independence, and which remained under threat from Arab nationalist regimes around it.

Israel is hardly the only democracy to manipulate the votes of minority ethnic groups. Some of the tactics Cohen mentions sound much like those used by big-city political machines in the U.S. during the first half of the twentieth century. And like those machines, the Israeli system provided a form of ethnic representation that managed to achieve some benefits for the community. However, the military government was able to impose far more severe restrictions and punishments on Arabs who did not cooperate than machine politicians could.

Fundamentally, however, Israel’s Arabs were not equal citizens. In any democracy, suffrage and representation are necessary but hardly sufficient conditions for equal rights. In the absence of complementary freedoms of speech, movement, employment, and political organization, they can be merely symbols with little real content. Contrary to the cliché, Israel’s Arab citizens have not historically enjoyed equal political rights.

69 thoughts on “Votes Are Not Enough–Hillel Cohen’s “Good Arabs””

  1. Susan :Remember these were the mental giants who killed all the pigs in Cairo recently because they thought that pigs spread swine flu. Now garbage is consuming the city and desease is spreading because the roving and sometimes controlled pigs ate the city’s garbage.They probably attribute breast cancer to too many women going out in public unaccompanied by a male member of their family: thus BDS is religious retribution.

    The upper class in Eygpt still has some Greek antecedents in their physical appearance ;to bad they didn’t inherit their intellectual proclivities.

    Suzy:Now we took Native American real property by force or “manifest destiny” so Israel should annex Gaza ,declare it to be a reservation and let the locals set up tax exempt resorts and casinos on the Sea and let them use all the profits on the people :something silly like Universal Healthcare etc.and give most careless doctors immunity from malpractice. Also give the reservation a nice sounding name like Utopia where revisionist Arab scholars ( scholars lower case) can ply their non-peer reviewed episiles.

  2. Suzanne // Oct 19, 2009 at 10:18 pm

    “The May 15th 1948 Letter to the President ( Truman) you quote was Israel’s notification that it accepted partition, boundaries approved by the GA and proclaimed itself to be an independent state.”

    An independent Sovereign state. Read the Declaration CLOSELY. Sovereign states are bound by borders, they must be to give recognition of what they’re Declaring Soverignty over.

    “In any case I think UNGA Res 273 in more relevant in that this is where the UN accepts Israel as a member after it’s War of Independence. This was a war Israel did not want to fight but had to fight for truly existential reasons. And I believe this was recognized by the UN, ie.that Israel was in an hostile environment and that the partition borders were in fact inadequate for security.”

    Irrelevant. It is illegal to acquire territory by war… Israel was admitted to the UN on the understanding that it would, as a Sovereign state, adhere to the Laws of War, which are mandatory for all entities, requiring that territory not be gained by war. i.e., what is gained for strategic purposes if withdrawn from after war. Read the Peace agreements between Lebanon/Israel, Egypt/Israel, Jordan/ Israel. The exception is as an occupying power. Under which the Geneva Conventions come into play.

    “Res 273 does “take note” of the partition recommendation though (UNGA Res 181) and, after that the 1948 war and the changes, including refugees and captured land in UNGA Res 194. The last two are advisory, not enforceable.”

    Sovereignty IS binding. Res 194 reminds the parties of binding law and binding resolutions

    “So the admission of Israel to the UN, the community of nations, does not seem contingent upon returning this land captured in the 48 War of Independence.”

    They are bound by the Laws of War, the UN Charter and the Declaration of Sovereignty.

    “I believe the UN therefore sanctioned this change in borders”

    Put it up…. Should be easy….yes?

    “Nowhere have I ever read that the UN required Israel to return to the parition lines. I think that you are way out in left field dancing with those who want to get rid of Israel altogether.”

    Uh huh. I do not accuse you. Please do not accuse me.

    “You have a long way to go with your evidence of this letter to Truman, as proof of Israel’s accepted boundaries in 1949 and today.”

    It is irrefutable evidence of Israel’s borders. Israel has never legally annexed ANY territory.

    ———————
    “I don’t know what you mean by “legal annexation Israel considers that it “legally” annexed the Golan by vote of the Knesset. ”

    It is illegal to unilaterally annex territory.

    “The international community does not accept this.”

    The UNSC deemed it illegal UNSC Resolution 252 (1968) of 21 May 1968 UNSC Resolution 267 (1969) of 3 July 1969 UNSC Resolution 271 (1969) of 15 September 1969, UNSC Resolution 298 (1971) of 25 September 1971, UNSC Resolution 465 (1980) of 1 March 1980, UNSC Resolution 476 (1980) of 30 June 1980
    ——————–
    “Nothing wrong with moving on… we should”

    With flat tyres? No thanks.

    ——-
    “I reject the use of Madoff just to say we are all thieves like him. ”

    Good. I didn’t say anything of the kind.

    “Regarding Arafat- do you think all this money- millions, billions was given to Arafat by the international community for the Palestian people and to build their state was then okay for him to take and invest, gamble away, secretly?”

    IMF audit says he didn’t. I gave you the link.

    “Arafat’s Investments Included Dotcoms, New York Bowling Alley
    Dec. 22 (Bloomberg) — In 35 years as Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat raised billions of dollars. He spent the fortune to wield power, to pay militants who attacked Israel and to invest in the U.S. and the Middle East.”

    Any of it actually illegal?

    “He didn’t give the public a view of the investments until the donor community protested about corruption.”

    In order to prove it wasn’t perhaps.

    “Also google IMF and Arafat and I find that the IMF estimates that Arafat funneled $900 million to his own bank account between 1995 and 2000. Less than half of that is ALLEGED……”

    Alleged being the operative word. The IMF report was the final audit. They say otherwise.

  3. Raghav // Oct 20, 2009 at 7:51 am

    ” Israel has the Law of Return, just as Germany and Greece offer expedited immigration to members of what they consider to be their respective diasporas”

    None who allow the ‘return’ or even immigration of non diasporians, based on religious conversion.

  4. Suzanne // Oct 20, 2009 at 2:14 am

    “They really did make the desert bloom.”

    So did Australia and a few others, in the same time span. So what? They had to in order to support the immigrant population.

    “I came to add one more point to my post with all the typographic errors just above- to Talknic.

    That pre-war letter to Truman also can prove that the nascent Israel was very willing to live within the boundaries of the partition even though it gave much less land than Zionist leaders felt they needed to accommodate Jews who needed refuge. ”

    If all 13.3 million or so of us moved to Israel,within it’s actual sovereign territories, there’d be enough room for all of us and growth. We are after all, only a tiny minority of the world’s population.

    “If you look at that partition map- and think of what’s been happening between Arabs and Jews all these years from the first – those borders never made any sense. They implied a good will, cooperation and coexistence that was just not there for too many who held sway over the rest”

    Israel was OVER it’s Declared borders at the time it declared them, it had already begun the cleansing process, without any intention of the dispossessed coming back. Villages and homes were razed. That is why there is no UNSC resolution against the Arab States Declaration on the invasion of Palestine.

  5. Further to : talknic // Oct 26, 2009 at 5:24 am

    Suzanne // Oct 20, 2009 at 2:14 am

    “That pre-war letter to Truman also can prove that the nascent Israel was very willing to live within the boundaries of the partition even though it gave much less land than Zionist leaders felt they needed to accommodate Jews who needed refuge”

    A) If that was so why has Israel acquired more and more territory? B) The Zionist lobby wanted more BEFORE the Holocaust. They expressed dis-appointment at the creation of TransJordan.

  6. Talknic: An independent Sovereign state. Read the Declaration CLOSELY. Sovereign states are bound by borders, they must be to give recognition of what they’re Declaring Soverignty over………Irrelevant….

    Not just because you say so. But Israel WAS given recognition with the borders it held at the time ( 1949) with NO mandatory conditions. The nations states have ALL been accepted similarly. Your point that it is illegal to acquire territory by war is true but the irrelevant point which is not in dispute. This does not go backward in time, it’s not retroactive, be that time one minute to a millennium. Signing the charter is acceptance of this law going forward. Prove otherwise. You have not. The ‘67 war on the other hand applies the law (with regard to occupation, holding land for security).

    Regarding Arafat- and from your articles as well- it appears that he treated PA funds as if they were his own and to keep himself in power…. and to support his wife’s fancy lifestyle. He “diverted” these funds your article says. Legal???

    From YOUR article:

    Armin Laschet, a German member of the European parliament who has investigated Palestinian finances, says: “Everybody knew that Arafat was corrupt. But this was accepted by Israel, the US and the EU as long as he was helpful to the peace process and stopped terrorism. This changed in 2000.”

    The IMF later questioned the financial strategy. “Since there was neither transparency nor accountability surrounding these investments, one may surmise that the only strategy was to build up equity with little regard to risk,” it said in a 2003 report. Arafat also developed sources of income from a small clique of officials strategically installed in other institutions and companies. Not all the funds collected through these bodies were captured by the IMF’s estimates.

    My goodness- it was a theft and corruption at least until found out. Read the article you linked.

  7. Suzanne // Oct 29, 2009 at 2:00 am

    “Not just because you say so. But Israel WAS given recognition with the borders it held at the time ( 1949) with NO mandatory conditions. ”

    There were no border decisions or agreements made in 1949. Put up the documentation….should be easy…right? You can cite them, yes?

    “Your point that it is illegal to acquire territory by war is true but the irrelevant point which is not in dispute. This does not go backward in time, it’s not retroactive, be that time one minute to a millennium. ”

    It was Law BEFORE Israel existed.

    “Signing the charter is acceptance of this law going forward. Prove otherwise. You have not.”

    Uh? The Laws in respect to the illegal acquisition of territory by war existed BEFORE Israel Declared. So did the UN Charter.

    ” The ‘67 war on the other hand applies the law (with regard to occupation, holding land for security)”

    Er….Israel has claimed occupied territories as it’s own, which is why in the UNSC resolutions it reaffirms that it is inadmissible to acquire territory by war. The same applies to all the UNSC resolutions condemning Israel’s illegal annexation of East Jerusalem.

    “Regarding Arafat- He “diverted” these funds your article says. Legal???”

    Not transparent, not illegal, not theft.

    “Everybody knew that Arafat was corrupt. But this was accepted by Israel, the US and the EU as long as he was helpful to the peace process and stopped terrorism. This changed in 2000.”

    Was this in regard to Palestinian funds going into his own pockets? Or in how he operated as a leader under occupation in order to get things done? The final IMF audit suggests he was sly, devious, clever, and not very transparent. But it does not accuse him of theft or corruption in respect to pocketing the monies for himself.

    “The IMF later questioned the financial strategy. “Since there was neither transparency nor accountability surrounding these investments, one may surmise that the only strategy was to build up equity with little regard to risk,” it said in a 2003 report. Arafat also developed sources of income from a small clique of officials strategically installed in other institutions and companies. Not all the funds collected through these bodies were captured by the IMF’s estimates.”

    Which says nothing about the monies going to himself or his wife. You’re grasping at straws in order to verify propaganda. Which only shows thyat propaganda works.

    “My goodness- it was a theft and corruption at least until found out. Read the article you linked.”

    Where does it say it was theft and corruption? FACT .. It doesn’t.

  8. It would seem to me that Arab Israelis have never enjoyed full and equal civil rights with their Jewish fellow citizens. For example:

    1. Arab Israelis are exempt from the draft.

    2. Arab Israelis who volunteer to serve in the military must serve in segregated units.

    3. An Arab Israeli who wants to get his non-Jewish relatives into Israel will have a harder time of it than a Jewish Israeli, thanks to that democracy’s discriminatory immigration/naturalization law (the “Law of Return”).

    Suppose the shoe were on a different foot? Suppose that Mexico, for example, _democratically_ decided to become a “Gentile State” in which Jewish Mexicans could vote and serve in the Mexican Congress–and even run for President– but at the same time faced legal disabilities identical to those faced by Arab Israelis, right down to a Gentile Law of Return for Mexican Citizenship? I would hope that Jewish Americans would protest against this–just as I hope that someday they will see Israel for what it is: a poor democracy to call “home.” Far better to pick a democracy that has chosen the path of equal rights. There are many such democracies. The Reform anti-Zionists (e.g., the members of the American Council for Judaism) understood this point a long time ago, and they still do. It’s just that no one wants to listen to their arguments. Perhaps their ideas hit too close to home? Perhaps no one likes to argue against ideas with which they fundamentally agree? (“I’m for equal rights, too, but–“)
    Besides, compared to many democracies in the Diaspora, Israel isn’t even safe. It never has been, and it’s hard to see how it ever will be. So it isn’t just liberal idealism to reject the theories of Theodore Herzl; it also hard-headed realism.
    Finally, regarding a Palestinian state: does anyone believe that any Jews who (foolishly, in my view) choose to become Jewish Palestinians will have equal rights? And once the Palestinian government starts making its Jewish citizens into second-class citizens, what are the defenders of Israel going to say? It’s too late for them to say that discrimination against minorities “is just plain wrong.” Haven’t the Jewish nationalists already consigned that argument to the bottom of a very deep well?

  9. The Israeli draft is a fundamental socialization mechanism in your country. To exclude Arabs from the draft effectively limits their integration in society; that they may enter the army of their own volition helps not, unless you proivde the same status for Israeli Jews. I understand the difficulty of your country’s dilemma; the US failed for decades and more to treat all born residents as citizens. Perhaps it fails to this day. Perhaps the point is that failure is always given, that equality is the persistent refusal to accept that given as absolute. The Knesset has the tools to make this unending fight. “Never again” has more than one referent. The physical wall in the West Bank is mirrored by several invisible walls in Israel proper. That is where, in this outsider’s view, battle lies. In a democracy, you always fight your own.

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