U.S. Lessons for Israel’s Jim Crow

Israel’s David Duke, Avigdor Lieberman, took center stage last month as foreign minister. Americans—on the whole—rejected Duke’s rank racism. But Lieberman was frighteningly successful in February’s national election, indicating a bigoted viewpoint in Israeli society that chooses Jewish supremacy rather than equal rights for all citizens.

U.S. special envoy George Mitchell was apt to come face to face with the recalcitrance and bigotry of the new Israeli government during his trip to the region. But will he denounce the headlong plunge into extremism and rejectionism pursued by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his foreign minister? Unfortunately, this is unlikely, though the day may be drawing nearer.

Lieberman has long espoused the notion that Israel’s Palestinian citizens are a demographic and strategic threat. We are the ones who remained on our land when roughly 700,000 Palestinians were expelled by the new state of Israel in 1948. We comprise nearly 20 percent of Israel’s population. Yet Lieberman—an immigrant from Moldova—would have us stripped of our second-class citizenship in a land swap with a future Palestinian state—a state whose very existence Netanyahu has yet to accept.

Imagine the uproar if an American politician called for loyalty tests and the expelling of the country’s remaining indigenous population. This is precisely what Lieberman has proposed. Will he really be welcomed in Washington at the White House or State Department?

However, Lieberman’s views are not controversial among the major parties and political elites in Israel. The Obama administration will make a crucial error in judgment if it thinks of the rise of Lieberman and his party, Yisrael Beiteinu, as a new development. Focusing on Lieberman distracts attention from the real issues to one disagreeable politician. Such logic wrongly suggests that, without Lieberman, peace between Palestinians and Israelis would be easier to achieve.

Lieberman only exacerbates an already existing problem, and he cannot be easily dismissed as a marginal case of excess or as an abnormality of the Israeli political system. Among Yisrael Beiteinu’s elected members of the Knesset are a former ambassador to the U.S. and a former senior commander in the police force. Theirs is not simply a right-wing political insurgency, but an outlook deeply rooted in Israeli politics.

Dismayingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, Labor’s Ehud Barak rejected calls from some of his senior party members not to join a coalition that included Lieberman. Worse, prior to the vote, he sought to outflank Lieberman in belligerence by claiming that Lieberman talks the talk but does not walk the walk. “Lieberman,” he said, “is strong in words and not in deeds. I do not know how many times, if ever, he held a rifle and shot anyone.” Barak believes that he—and not Lieberman—is the tough leader able to make life miserable for Palestinians.

The question of Palestinian citizenship in a Jewish state started long before Lieberman used incitement against Palestinian citizens to gain votes. Many prominent Israeli academics and politicians have expressed support for ideas repugnant to Americans. Barak claimed in June 2002 that Arab citizens will serve as the “spear point” of the Palestinian struggle and that this would require changes in the rules of the “democratic game” to guarantee the “Jewishness” of the state. He also expressed support for a land swap that would strip Palestinians inside Israel of their citizenship because it makes “demographic sense.”

Tzipi Livni, another so-called centrist, holds similar discriminatory views. On January 23, 2002, she urged members of the Knesset to reject an equal-protection clause according to which equality is the right of every citizen in the state regardless of his or her nationality, religion, or views. The proposed bill was rejected, and formal equality remains outside the Israeli book of laws. Livni also supported bills in the Knesset that would grant settlement and allocation of land for Jews only, such as the one submitted by MK Rabbi Haim Druckman on February 18, 2002. Finally, she repeatedly argued that Israel will never be the national home for its Palestinian citizens and averred that, if they have a collective aspiration, they should look for it elsewhere.

MK Effie Eitam of the National Religious Party is another proponent of expulsion. He derided Palestinian citizens of Israel as a “fifth column,” “ticking bomb,” and “cancer.” Nevertheless, these views did not prevent the former general from being appointed as a minister of national infrastructure in 2002 and of housing from 2003 to 2004.

Such bigoted vitriol typically ends political careers in the U.S. George Allen’s bid for the U.S. Senate derailed when he referred to one of his opponent’s campaign workers, an American of Indian descent, as a “macaca,” or monkey. In the 2006 and 2008 U.S. congressional and presidential elections, American voters signaled a desire to transcend a history of Jim Crow discrimination. In Israel, however, the country is on an opposite track with careers buoyed by bigotry directed at the country’s Palestinian minority.


Nimer Sultany is an SJD candidate at Harvard Law School. He is a Palestinian citizen of Israel.