Spotlighting human rights inequities is not anti-Semitic

In his Feb. 10 op-ed in j., Guy Herschmann accuses Palestinian activist Ali Abunimah of “classic anti-Semitic imagery“ for stating that “Israelis as human beings don’t have a right to superiority.”

Herschmann, a senior at U.C. Santa Cruz and a campus coordinator for StandWithUs, also accuses other critics of erasing the “context for Israel’s actions, such as the Palestinian terrorist war.”

In the hope of providing the necessary context for criticism of Abunimah and others, I want to tell j. readers about Taiseer Khatib.

Like me, Taiseer is an Israeli citizen and a graduate student of sociology. He has been married for seven years to Lana, and they have two children, Adnan, a boy of 4, and Yusra, a girl of 3. They live in Acre (Akko in Hebrew), north of Haifa.

But they may not be able to live there for long. In January, Israel’s Supreme Court refused to strike down a law that criminalizes their relationship. There are no accusations against Lana, a student of economics and business administration, but she, like tens of thousands of other Palestinians in her condition, is a non-citizen.

Formerly a resident of Jenin, a Palestinian city in the northern West  Bank, she is now married to Taiseer, who does hold Israeli citizenship. A new amendment to Israel’s Citizenship Law prevents such unions from being recognized, so that Lana cannot work, drive, travel freely or enjoy any of the rights of Israeli citizens — making her continued residence in Israel virtually impossible.

Taiseer is now expected to choose between separating from his wife and leaving his home, where his family has lived for generations, and where he is supposed to be a citizen with equal rights.

The state justifies this new amendment in the name of security. It claims that since 2001, there have been 54 cases of non-citizen Palestinians receiving citizenship and being involved in terrorism. Israeli human rights organizations have responded that to deny tens of thousands of Israeli citizens the right to marry because of 54 alleged cases is an unacceptable violation of basic human rights.

But the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the West Bank should be considered an enemy country, and its residents should therefore be barred from becoming Israelis through marriage.

A week before the ruling, Justice Noam Solberg was appointed to serve on the same court. Solberg lives in the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut, in an area that was never annexed to Israel. According to Peace Now data, a quarter of the settlement is built upon what Israeli law defines as private Palestinian land.

As a resident of this Jewish-only community, Solberg has the right to marry whomever he pleases within Israel, regardless of the involvement of other settlers in illegal or violent activities. He has easy access to Israeli transportation, water and electricity systems that serve his settlement. If he breaks the law, he will appear before an Israeli civilian court, not a military one. He can vote for the only sovereign authority in the West Bank — the Israeli parliament and government. These are the bodies that control the Israeli army, which can prevent West Bank residents from leaving or entering the country. The same army regularly detains, without trial, elected Palestinian members of parliament.

Lana, of course, has none of Solberg’s rights. But even Taiseer does not enjoy full equality with Solberg: Although he is an Israeli citizen, the court has explicitly declared that Israelis like him cannot exercise their right to marry a West Bank resident without leaving their home.

Marriage is just a part of it. Taiseer and Lana live in Acre, where they hope to remain. But there are vast areas of Israel where they cannot live.

Thirteen percent of land in the country is controlled by the Jewish National Fund, which is prohibited from leasing land to non-Jews, according to its charter (three quarters of this JNF-controlled land was owned by Palestinians before 1948, and was subsequently “sold” by the state to the JNF).

In other communities, Arabs are banned more informally, through Jewish-only residents’ associations that regularly prevent them from membership on the basis of “cultural differences.” Tens of thousands of Bedouins are currently scheduled to be cleared off land in the Negev, to make way for more Jewish-only communities. Meanwhile people like Justice Solberg can continue to live in settlements that are often constructed on private Palestinian property, and still serve on the country’s Supreme Court.

There is a simple, consistent logic in all of these policies: keeping Jews and Arabs separate and unequal, both within Israel and in the West Bank.

As an Israeli Jew, I fully agree with Abunimah when he says that “Israelis as human beings don’t have a right to superiority.”

I’ve seen the misery this discrimination has caused to Palestinian friends of mine, both citizens and non-citizens. This is constant message that they get: that they are a nuisance, an obstacle, a “demographic threat.” I don’t want them to continue living this way.

On the U.C. Berkeley campus, where I now study, I’ve helped organize events for Israeli Apartheid Week — not in order to slur or defame any of my fellow citizens, Jews or Arabs, but to call attention to the legal and administrative structures that divide them and treat them unequally, structures that must change if we are to attain the truly democratic society that all of us deserve.

Instead of crying “anti-Semitism,” Herschmann and others who see themselves as “pro-Israel” should be promoting elementary human rights for Israelis like Taiseer and Lana. As a step toward that, Taiseer is now calling on people “to act towards abolishing the racist, exclusionary and undemocratic law, towards an enlightened, egalitarian and democratic future.” Think how you can help him.

Tom Pessah
, a Tel Aviv native and Israeli army veteran, is a graduate student at U.C. Berkeley. He is active in Students for Justice in Palestine.