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.