Citizen Azmi Bishara is not Alfred Dreyfus. He did not serve as an IDF officer and does not view himself as part of the dominant Israeli identity. Besides, his affair has not yet been born. Yet he is a citizen of the state and an integral part of it, just like the public that chose him to represent it.
Therefore, the Jewish public's reaction and the fierce media storm that has been blowing powerfully against the entire Arab community are reminiscent of that historic story. Yet it is not merely the Azmi Bishara affair that is challenging Jewish-Arab relations at this time, but rather, also the vision recently outlined by Arab citizens of Israel through documents they placed on the public discourse agenda. As opposed to the Bishara affair, which only arouses murky juices of hatred against the minority, the Arab vision documents led to a raging yet legitimate debate.
The documents include pragmatic proposals with viable objectives that are difficult to digest, including ones that seem to get stuck in the throat of the Zionist reader, such as the characterization of Zionism as a result of a superpower colonial action. Yet there is one motive that serves as a perceptual basis for the documents: Namely, citizenship in the state.
The writers, and especially those debating the documents prepared by the drafters, make sure to premise their demand for fundamental equality on the basis of their citizenship. As a native-born minority they do not make do with passive citizenship, but rather, extend it into a demand to take part in building the country on the basis of full and equal citizenship, as well as proper representation in all state institutions.
Sounds familiar? Yes. This is the wording of the Declaration of Independence, which does not appear word for word in the Arab minority's vision documents, yet screams out from every line.
For example, the "Democratic Constitution" of the "Adalah" organization bases the nature of citizenship in the State of Israel on universal values of freedom and equality. In these sections, the Adalah proposal gives the Zionist reader a sense of warmth and longing to the forefathers and implementers of Zionism, ranging from Herzl to the drafters of the Declaration of Independence, who based it on universal values of freedom and justice.
There is no Israeli ambassador to the United Nations who does base his speeches on historical justice and universal values of protecting the minority that serve as a basis for the State of Israel's existence, and for the granting of Israeli citizenship to persecuted Jews, as a shelter against the horrors of the 20th Century.
Jews in the Diaspora realize the need for Israel to have equal citizenship, for Arabs too, and in the last two years we saw some prominent Jewish leaders come together in the United State in order to promote this issue. For them, equal citizenship is a foremost Jewish and democratic value on which the Jews premise their just rights anywhere in the world.
Exclusive jacket for Jews onlyHowever, this kind of justice is foreign to us, and the concept of citizenship that protects the other is considered a needless import from the Diaspora. Here, in the land of our forefathers, the Jews saw an alternative to citizenship emerging – namely, the very belonging to the Jewish people. In the State of Israel citizenship is not a protective vest for people, but rather, a splendid, shiny and exclusive jacket, for Jews only.
Theodor Herzl was greatly influenced by the anti-Semitic reaction of the French public to the Dreyfus affair, and particularly that of the press, which engaged in a campaign of de-legitimizing the Jewish minority there. Yet despite Herzl's proposal that French Jews leave it and head to a national home in the Land of Israel, there are more Jews in the world today than there are in Israel, and they enjoy the protection of citizenship everywhere.
There is no wonder then that Arabs in Israel are emphasizing their citizenship, as they feel as though they require protection – from their own state. Is equal citizenship that protects the minority a moral and political code reserved for protecting Diaspora Jews and other minorities abroad, but unfit for safeguarding the rights of the minority in the Jewish State of all places?
Perhaps citizen Azmi will not be back soon, but the other million and two hundred thousand Arabs residing in Israel must be able to wear the jacket of citizenship, and it is needed by the Jews no less. In line with the proposal made by the forefathers of Zionism, the Adalah group, and Diaspora Jews, citizenship in Israel must be premised on democratic values and equality.
These values and norms will serve as a standard for judging racist declarations by leaders and opinion makers and for evaluating government policies of ethnicity-based discrimination in Israel.
In Israel, the concept of citizenship is perceived to be an import, but it is worthwhile to acquire it both as a moral principle and as a means for running the state.
The writer is the co-director of the Sikkuy association for advancing civic equality in Israel