- Citizen Strangers: Palestinians and the Birth of Israel’s Liberal Settler State by Shira Robinson
Secretary of State John Kerry said on December 7, 2013 at the Saban Forum that “Palestinian citizens of Israel are a ‘demographic threat’ to the Jewish state . . .” This Israeli concern is not something new, as Shira Robinson documents in her book. In fact, Robinson details the decade after 1948 when the new state faced the challenges of structuring its government and society and dealing with the remnants of the Palestinian population — those who remained and those who managed to return after the war. The goal was to limit the number of Palestinians in Israel and any political power that could result therefrom.
Robinson first draws on existing scholarship which situates Zionism within the context of European imperialism and settler-state nationalism. Zionism made the same claim as European imperialism and colonialism, i.e., that it was bringing civilization to the local peoples and liberal democracy. Israel’s settler colonialism claimed to be rooted in the idealized version of Western liberalism. As such, Israel’s Zionist leaders had to formulate their policies and actions within this Western liberal tradition in order to gain international recognition. And yet, from the beginning of the Zionist project, the majority view was to seek a Jewish state for Jews. Israeli leaders had to deal with the constant contradiction of proclaiming Israel as a democratic state based on equality for all its citizens, while working constantly to prevent the remaining Palestinian population from expressing equal rights and demographic political weight. Thus, on the one hand, Palestinians were placed until 1966 under martial law and confined in circumscribed areas, while on the other hand they were granted suffrage to appease the international community.
After reviewing the pre-state Zionist strategy to achieve a Jewish state for Jews and the resulting catastrophe (or nakba) of 1948 which saw 80–85% of the Palestinian inhabitants expelled by force or fear, Robinson then details the tactics used after independence to fulfill the Zionist strategy of restricting the remaining Palestinians in Israel and to prevent others from returning. Robinson points out that in the initial post-1948 phase there was much confusion and lack of coordination regarding directives to effect these goals. Among other policies, the Zionist leaders kept the old British emergency laws which allowed them arbitrary power to detain, arrest, and inflict collective punishment. In addition, they added laws of their own which created closed areas and created some 58 separate ghettos. Palestinians received less resources and rations after the war than did their Jewish counterparts. Israeli leaders developed a ‘war on return’ to prevent Palestinians from crossing back into Israel. And yet, even under martial governance, Palestinians were expected to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day annually to show the international community their embrace of the Jewish state. Palestinians were bused in to celebrations and asked to show loyalty to the state by participation in the festivities. Zionist [End Page 325] leaders debated whether they should aim to “integrate” Palestinians while at the same time they were clear about not wanting them to become a political force within Israel. In short, Robinson documents from interviews with survivors of that period and archives, especially the newspapers of the Communist Party, that Zionist leaders wanted Palestinians to show public loyalty to the state while simultaneously not granting them equality.
During that early postindependence period, the Israeli leadership performed the balancing act of displaying its liberal democracy to the international community by granting suffrage to the Palestinians while also constructing a discriminatory system. In order to gain membership in the United Nations as a symbol of the state’s legitimacy, it agreed to accept General Assembly Resolution 194 on the right of return of Palestinian refugees as well as reversing the Zionist occupation and transformation of West Jerusalem. After being admitted to the United Nations, Israel reneged on its promise.
For decades after Israeli statehood, the plight of its Palestinian citizens in Israel and Israel’s actual...