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Reviewed by:
  • Strangers in Their Homeland, and: National Minority, Regional Majority
  • Ian S. Lustick (bio)
Strangers in Their Homeland, by Ra'anan Cohen. Brighton, UK and Portland, OR: Sussex Academic Press, 2009. ix + 226 pages. Appendix. Figures. Map. Tables. Notes to p. 240. Bibl. to p. 254. Index to p. 277. $34.95 paper.
National Minority, Regional Majority, by Yitzhak Reiter. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2009. xxx + 298 pages. Notes to p. 342. Bibl. to p. 360. Index to p. 403. $49.95.

While providing testimony to the Anglo-American Commission of Inquiry into the problem of Palestine in 1946, David Ben-Gurion sought to convince the panel that the Arab minority that would come to live within the Jewish state would be well treated. Far from being oppressed or discriminated against, Ben-Gurion predicted that Arabs in the future Zionist state would enjoy a privileged status. He based his argument on a rather amazing thought experiment. "When things in Palestine change," he declared,

The Arabs would be a minority and we would become the majority, but the Arabs here would still be in a privileged position. They would have nothing to fear because they are surrounded by Arab countries that are independent … Imagine that in the neighborhood of Poland there were a big State like Russia, with 180 million Jews, the Jewish minority in Poland would not be persecuted, they would be perhaps in a privileged position. I am sure the Arabs will be in such a privileged position here.1

Well, not all thought experiments lead to correct conclusions. The two books reviewed here testify to Ben-Gurion's error. They portray an Arab population within Israel that has been persecuted and compelled to surrender most of its resources, all of its national aspirations, most of its desire for equality of opportunity, and any legal basis for opposing the Jewish-Zionist character of the state or for demanding a proportional share of political power. What is striking about these books is not this analysis, which recapitulates what dozens of studies have confirmed about the structural, institutional, and policy-enforced domination of Arab Israelis, but that it is delivered by former apparatchiks in the system of control whose very existence was for so long and with such vehemence denied by those who operated it.

Since 1948, the (Jewish) men who have operated this system have been known as "Arabistim (Arabists)." Most came to their positions along one or more of three paths —from the military and the security services, from the ranks of academics with specializations in Middle Eastern area studies, Arabic language, or Islam, and/or as Arabic-speaking Mizrahi Jews with political aspirations or connections. Indeed the newest and most interesting material in these books is the sometimes detailed autobiographical accounts of bloody infighting among succeeding generations of Arabists for power and influence within a portion of the Israeli bureaucratic maze (that dedicated to monitoring and supervising the affairs of the Arab minority) to which are consigned political dead-enders —military officers, civil servants, party operatives, or academics destined never to rise to the top ranks of power or prominence within the power centers of the Jewish state.

Cohen was born in Iraq. When appointed to head the Labor Party's Arab Department he describes himself as "completely unprepared ... [M]y only references were my friendly relations with several figures in the Israeli Arab and Druze sector…" (p. 44). His account of selecting individuals as parliamentary representatives of the Arab population provides insight into the typical "colonial officer" type mix of condescension and frustrated good intentions that mark the liberal-minded of the Arabists: [End Page 138]

In 1981, I managed to include an Israeli Arab in the Labor Party list of candidates for the Knesset: Muhammad Khalaila from Sakhnin became a member of the tenth Knesset. He was neither a university graduate, nor particularly young, and to the new generation he represented exactly the same generation of yes-men whose influence they were trying to shake off. For the next election campaign, I decided to go for the "real thing", and focused on a man with strong nationalist opinions, a member of the younger generation, who...


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