Israel’s ‘Jim Crow’ treatment of Palestinians continues

Israel’s new ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, when he presented his credentials in the White House earlier this month, sent a political message by giving President Obama cufflinks from the slipshod archaeological settlement in the City of David that is violently and illegally being imposed on the Palestinian community of Silwan in occupied East Jerusalem.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s very choice of Dermer was an abrasive and non-diplomatic selection. Dermer’s views on the two-state solution are well known: he opposes it.  Any public change in that position is surely cosmetic.

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Netanyahu claims to support the two-state solution.  Yet after Netanyahu’s first visit to Washington to meet Obama, Dermer dubbed it a “childish solution to a complicated problem.”  Why antagonize Washington by sending a two-state opponent to represent Israel’s interests in the U.S.?

I think it’s because Netanyahu at heart isn’t interested in the two-state solution and knows he has Washington’s Republicans – and many Democrats – on his side.  Right-wing Republicans will choose Israel’s conservative prime minister over their own president and an astonishing number of Democrats will, too.  Earlier this month, “liberal” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he thought Secretary of State John Kerry made a “mistake” when Kerry commented that Israel’s attachment to its settlements might convey a message of not being serious about peace.

Dermer can stir up a hornet’s nest of antagonism in Washington if Obama presses Israel too hard, because the issue in Washington isn’t justice and freedom for Palestinians, but frequently a misguided Biblical absolutism that cares little for Christian Palestinians here and nothing for Muslim Palestinians.

As a Palestinian citizen of Israel and elected Knesset member, I do not have the same willingness to look the other way that American legislators exhibit.  I regularly see Netanyahu’s Knesset enablers attempting to pass legislation that openly discriminates against my fellow Palestinian citizens.  There are, in fact, over 50 laws that already discriminate against us and more are on the way.  

American politicians, who seem thankful America has passed beyond its own Jim Crow era, frequently look the other way at Israel’s internal discrimination.  As for Israel’s actions in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, American politicians are only sporadically critical.  Freedom and rights for Palestinians are, at best, an afterthought.

The fact that discrimination practiced against another people is unacceptable in the 21st century scarcely registers among the right-wing extremists now running Israel. Israel’s Florida-imported ambassador to the U.S. seems intent on recreating the Jim Crow reality that existed in his home state until shortly before his birth – or at least the current legal inequality which the Trayvon Martin case so terrifyingly highlighted and which many Palestinian parents would instantly recognize as akin to the Israeli legal system with its rampant discrimination against Palestinians.  Dermer enters the job thinking not what’s best for all Israel’s citizens, but what’s best for Israel’s Jewish majority. Even more, he’s thinking about what is best for Israel’s settler minority in terms of expansionism in occupied Palestinian territory.

An Israeli ambassador to the United States should be a leader in the battle against discrimination and a proponent of the merits of diversity.  But Zionism is about the promotion of one group, Jews and Jewish citizens of Israel, and is an ideology at odds with the racial progress made over the past 50 years in countries such as the United States. Here in Israel we are still stuck in our Jim Crow reality.

Yes, I am in the Knesset, but too often Israeli hasbarists see Palestinian Members of Knesset as a democratic fig leaf – a democratic topping they can point to and say, See we are democratic.  But elections do not a democracy make. Protection of minorities and our rights is crucial and here Israel fails miserably.

Yet Israel’s success at limiting the rights of Palestinians in Israel and the Palestinian territories will not last forever.  And eventually Palestinians will give up on the two-state solution.  Men such as Dermer and Netanyahu will be surprised at the speed at which the Palestinian struggle may one day be reconstituted not as a battle for an independent Palestinian state, but as a battle for equal rights between the river and the sea.  Israeli and American politicians alike will then be forced to choose whether they prefer equal rights for all or exclusivism and superior rights for Jews. If they prefer a Jewish state with a two-tier legal system, they will then be forced to explain why that works for Israel, but is rejected by the American people.

Tibi is a Palestinian citizen of Israel and deputy speaker of the Knesset.

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