The myth of Israeli democracy

February 20, 2024
The 19th weekly rally on Gadigal land/Sydney
The 19th weekly rally on Gadigal land/Sydney. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

Nachshon Amir, an anti-Zionist Jewish activist and former Israeli Defense Forces soldier, told a Green Left-hosted forum on January 30 that while he grew up as a Zionist, after many years he had changed his view. 

Amir said he joined the IDF to “proudly to defend my country”, but, “After many years, I turned 180 degrees … and I’m now in Free Palestine Melbourne, supporting the Palestinian struggle for justice and rights.”

Amir said the apartheid system violates Palestinians’ basic human rights, their political and civil rights, their right to privacy, right to education and work.

Democracy makes us think that the “country … has elections, a parliament and [an] independent justice system”, he said. But South Africa “had all these things, but it wasn’t a democracy, because it was only for white people”.

It is “the same in Israel”, he said, where democracy is “for Jewish people”.

He explained how millions of Palestinians live without political rights because of Israel’s military control in the Occupied Territories. It controls the use of land, and access to land and resources, such as water in the West Bank.

“No one can build a house in the West Bank anywhere without Israeli permission, and they don’t give you any permits for that.

“The Israeli regime is on top in every aspect of life,” Amir said. “I was a combat officer … in a lot of villages [and] towns in the West Bank … That was in the First Intifada … before the Oslo Accords.

“But I, as a young officer, could do whatever I wanted there. I was like a sheriff of the village or the area I was in … And no one controlled me … I could put [up] a checkpoint in the middle of the village or the town, whenever I wanted, to stop all the cars. And they all waited for two hours because I decided [to do] this … that was my power…”

Unchecked power

Amir said this unchecked power meant he could knock on doors in the middle of the night “because I saw something written on the wall outside the house, which I didn’t even understand because it was Arabic” and “could tell the person inside to … clean it or paint [over] it”.

The point, he said, is to continually harass Palestinians in the hope that they give up any resistance.

Amir said the apartheid system violates Palestinians’ basic human rights, their political and civil rights, their right to privacy, right to education and work. Palestinians are tried in military courts, whereas Israeli citizens who break the law are tried in civilian courts. Even commemorating the Nakba (catastrophe) is outlawed.

Israel’s apartheid system has been criticised by its largest human rights organisation, B’Tselem. Its Not a ‘vibrant democracy’. This is apartheid report, published in 2021, details how only Jews live in a democracy; the Indigenous Palestinian population live as either second-class citizens or non-citizens in their own country.

Identity of resistance

Mai Saif, who was born in Palestine and traces her ancestry back more than 4000 years, told the forum that, for Palestinians, “talking about your identity is a form of resistance”.

This is because “there was a denial that we were even ethnically cleansed out of our lands and homes. There’s even a denial that we actually even exist”.

In practice “this is shown with the criminalisation of us being able to carry our flags, practise our national culture, the destruction of our lands and connection to land, which is something we hold very closely, like our Indigenous brothers and sisters do.

“A lot of us have been denied the ability to go back and visit our ancestral homes and lands, or visit family.”

Despite having grown up in Australia, Saif said she “grew up in a household that talked about [its] Palestinian heritage; that was so connected with its Palestinian identity”.

During the First Intifada, Saif lost countless family members, including a cousin “who died through the ‘broken bones’ policy during the First Intifada … if [the Israelis] got you, they'd break your bones and leave you naked and stripped in the middle of the street and if anyone helped you, they’d get sniper shot.

“[This] actually happened to my uncle. He was trying to help a friend … and he got shot by a sniper. It just missed his heart. He went into hiding for about two years in the mountains …

“My grandma … was helping the resistance movement at the time, by hiding those young men in their lands, which would have been very, very dangerous, she could have been easily killed, and the family would have been arrested.

“During that period, my grandfather was a political prisoner. He was kept in prison for 14 years … he was a school principal, and a writer and a poet. And he was accused of inciting resistance against the Israeli state.

“When he got too sick to remain in prison, they just swapped him [for] my uncle. And so my uncle served out his sentence in his place.”

Saif said intergenerational trauma is part of being Palestinian. We’ve been living it for decades, but the world seems to have finally caught up … slowly it’s creeping into mainstream media.”

Despite this, Saif said, the media tries to deny that Israel is an apartheid regime. “You cannot have a democracy if it’s a democracy for some and none for others,” she said.

Saif lived and worked in the West Bank when the Second Intifada broke out and witnessed IDF soldiers’ brutality. “[A]s I was walking, going through a checkpoint, I met a very excited Jewish soldier. He was 18 years old and had] just started serving in the West Bank.

“I saw eight men lying on the side of the road, their hands behind their backs … [it] looked like they’d been there for hours … That was a game to him … [and it] really brought home to me the level of dehumanisation that Palestinians experience.

“I think it becomes part and parcel with the Israeli state and the Zionist agenda. It’s an ethnic supremacist agenda. And it is built on the idea that Palestinians are subhuman.

“They’ve been doing it for 75 years. And what we have seen, though, is that every generation has become even more brutal, and more violent.”

'Big lie'

Loud Jew Collective member Meredith Lawrence, who grew up in a family of Holocaust survivors, described as “heroes”, took up the Palestinian cause in 1973, after learning about what had really happened.

“In many ways I feel like I have got a family connection to the genocide and dispossession,” Lawrence told the forum.

“While the propaganda at the time [of Israel’s establishment] was that Palestine was another terra nullius, there was a clear recognition right from the beginning that Palestine was a settled state. The Zionists were open about the ‘need’ to displace the Palestinians to create a secular Jewish state and the ethnic cleansing of the Indigenous Palestinian population was always intended.”

With the help of the Global North, Israel promotes itself “as the only truly liberal democratic state in the Middle east, a bastion of civilization among the ‘barbarians’”.

“The founding documents describe the state of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state” she said. The emphasis historically has been on the rights of the Jewish majority rather than the population as a whole.

“Until 1966, Palestinian Israelis lived under martial law, but after it was lifted they did not enjoy equal rights with Israeli citizens.”

Israel is copying the former South African Apartheid regime. “Jews and Muslims are not allowed to marry in Israel … [Palestinian Israelis] can be forcibly transferred from one place to another. They are subject to administrative detention … torture [and] unlawful killings … and chronic underinvestment in Palestinian Israeli communities.

“Discrimination against Palestinian Israelis was written into the Israeli constitution in 2018, when it enshrined Israel as the 'exclusive nation state of the Jewish people'.

"This law also promoted the building of illegal settlements on occupied territory and downgrades the status of Arabic as an official language.”

The myth of Israeli democracy amounts to “a big lie used to try and build support for Israel across the world”, Lawrence concluded.

[Listen to a podcast of the Green Left forum here.]

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