Jewish Religious Nationalism in Israel and the Racist Exclusion of Palestinians

By: Nadeem Karkabi

August 6, 2021

Palestinian Citizens and Religious Nationalism in Israel

To understand the recent violent events in Palestine/Israel, it is important to return to the historical formation of Jewish nationalism in Palestine and the emergence of Israel as a Jewish state. Although Zionism was originally a secular national movement influenced by modern European thought, it embedded Jewish religion as inseparable from Jewish nationality. More than simply an ethnic category that cohesively defined a diverse target population of settlers against the native Arab population in Palestine, Judaism as a religion was important for Zionism to legitimize its settler-colonial project based on a biblical narrative of return. Moreover, to accommodate the ultra-Orthodox movement as part of the Jewish collective in Palestine, the Zionist secular leadership symbolically wove the observance of Shabbat and the laws of kashrut into the fabric of the state. However, it left the Orthodox rabbinical court to decide who qualifies as a Jew, based on matrilineal descent or rabbinically sanctioned conversion. Thus, according to Zionism, Judaism has been defined as a national category exclusively based on biological ethnicity (or race) and religion.

More than simply an ethnic category that cohesively defined a diverse target population of settlers against the native Arab population in Palestine, Judaism as a religion was important for Zionism to legitimize its settler-colonial project.

The State of Israel was established in 1948 after the displacement and dispossession of the majority of the native Palestinian population, in what is termed the Nakba (catastrophe). Defined as a democracy for the Jewish people, Israel structurally excluded the Palestinian Arab minority who remained within its borders, even when they were granted Israeli citizenship in 1952. This discrimination was legally institutionalized through the Law of Return, which encouraged the settlement of Jews from all over the world, while not allowing the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes. Moreover, the state confiscated the properties of “absent” Palestinian refugees and redistributed them to Jews. Ironically, this also included the properties of Palestinian “present absentees,” who were internally displaced and remained within the borders of the Israeli state. 

The Zionist racialization of Jews, based on religious grounds, came along with a racialized definition of Arabs. While Arab identity is mostly constructed according to cultural affiliation, primarily based on language, it became uniquely defined in Israel as a racialized “ethnic” category. Aiming to contain Palestinians in Israel by denationalization, the state defined them as “Israeli Arab” and fragmented them into religious sub-minorities, such as Muslims, Christians, and Druze.

While religion has been a tool for defining an indigenous inferiority based on racial grounds, it also served in the 1950s and 1960s as a mediator to bring Jewish immigrants from Arab countries into the settlers’ collective in Israel. Looking like Arabs and speaking Arabic, Arab Jews were de-Arabized upon their arrival in Israel and nationally “ethnicized” as Jews on the basis of their religion. Turned into Mizrahi (Oriental) Jews, they gave up their original Arabic culture and language in exchange for Hebrew, and became more religious to qualify as part of the Jewish nation in Israel and to distance themselves from Palestinian Arabs.

Looking like Arabs and speaking Arabic, Arab Jews were de-Arabized upon their arrival in Israel and nationally 'ethnicized' as Jews on the basis of their religion.

However, ethnicity in Israel has also been used as a racialized construct of eda (congregation), through which an internal hierarchy between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews was created, based on Orientalist categories of cultural motza (origin). To distinguish between the “modern” European settler of higher class and “traditional” Oriental settlers of lower class, ethnicity as a construct of cultural racialization was translated into class. Many Mizrahim were settled in distant ma'barot (encampments) with little infrastructure and in “development towns” on the periphery, where they had to compete with Palestinians for manual labor and scarce opportunities.

With the additional conquest of Palestinian (and other Arab) lands in 1967, Israeli politics gradually became divided between the “left-wing” Mapai (and later Labor) Party and the “right-wing” Likud Party. Whereas the first represented the old secular Ashkenazi hegemony, which eventually sided with the failed negotiations of the two-state solution in the 1990s, the latter allied with the expansionist religious nationalist settler movement, which sided with imposing sovereignty over Eretz Yisrael Hashlema (Complete or Greater Israel), including the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. When the Likud eventually overthrew Mapai in the famous election of 1977, it was thanks to the Mizrahi vote, which was seen mainly as a class vote against the Ashkenazi elite. While the Israeli “left” sided with the establishment of a Palestinian state—solely to overcome the demographic problem of controlling a large population of Palestinians, without implementing full equality to Palestinian citizens in Israel—the Israeli “right” became the loyal representative of the Zionist settler-colonial project as an expansionist ideology that aims to sustain Jewish domination over Palestinians, based on theological and racist perceptions of Jewish privilege.

This “right-wing” coalition, along with Jewish Orthodox parties, has, since the new millennium, gradually become the dominant force in Israeli politics. Unapologetic about Jewish supremacy over Palestinians in the entirety of the land, Benjamin Netanyahu’s extreme right-wing governments have brought forward a series of anti-democratic laws since 2009. The Jewish nation-state law, approved in 2018, is the latest of these laws; it solidified the definition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people and structurally legitimized the discrimination against its Palestinian citizens. With religious nationalism becoming mainstream in Israel, it has become evident that the Zionist settler-colonial project distinguishes little between Palestinian citizens in Israel and Palestinian subjects living under military rule in the West Bank or a militarized siege in the Gaza Strip.

The Zionist settler-colonial project distinguishes little between Palestinian citizens in Israel and Palestinian subjects living under military rule in the West Bank or a militarized siege in the Gaza Strip. 

In recent years, Israeli governments have been debating how to annex parts of the West Bank without legally incorporating its Palestinian population as part of the Israeli polity, with Donald Trump’s “peace plan” being the latest such attempt. In tandem, a growing number of Gar'in Torani (Torah nucleus) groups of religious nationalist settlers have been established in so-called mixed cities, or cities severely cleansed of their native Palestinian residents in 1948. Akin to similar practices in occupied Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Hebron in the West Bank, these groups aim to reclaim properties of Palestinian citizens inside Israel—in Jaffa, Lyd, Acre, and elsewhere—by terrorizing Palestinians with the goal of leading to a silent transfer. Although unable to displace Palestinians by using provocative, at times violent, everyday actions, these settlers are supported by Jewish Israeli real estate agents who seek to make a profit from gentrifying these lucrative coastal towns. These agents, whether private companies or settler organizations, have been approaching Palestinians living in these cities to sell their homes at undervalued prices and move elsewhere, usually to overcrowded Palestinian villages. 

The last round of violence, in May 2021, was horrific because the settler violence appeared with new intensity, on a larger scale, and with greater legitimacy. Backed by the Israeli police and government, members of the newly elected (in March 2021) Jewish supremacist settlers’ party Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), as well as other Jewish fascist organizations, such as Lehava and La Familia, provoked the confrontations in Sheikh Jarrah and elsewhere in Jerusalem. Settlers, joined by many disenfranchised Mizrahi youths, also raided mixed cities, overtly targeting anything Palestinian—from private property, to businesses, to people. Over 1,500 Palestinians were arrested, in what can be termed political prosecution, yet only six Israeli Jews were arrested and charged in relation to the horrific attempted lynching of a Palestinian driver, Said Moussa, which appeared live on Israeli TV Channel 11. 

The last round of violence, in May 2021, was horrific because the settler violence appeared with new intensity, on a larger scale, and with greater legitimacy.

In another incident, a settler who cold bloodedly shot Moussa Hassouna dead in Lyd was arrested but soon released, after Minister of Internal Security Amir Ohana praised him, and other armed settlers, for helping the “authorities’ power to immediately neutralize threat and danger.” None of the settlers who severely damaged Palestinian homes, businesses, and cars were brought to face justice. As no action was taken to stop such incidents, many Palestinians in Israel feel exposed in the face of state and settler violence. 

Despite the grave situation, this moment united Palestinians around the realization that they are facing the same settler-colonial structure. After long decades of geopolitical fragmentation, it became clear that Israeli settler colonialism does not distinguish between different Palestinians, be they citizens or occupied subjects, as much as it distinguishes between settlers and natives. In this sense, this is not a civil war, but a settler supremacist and expansionist regime that is willing to do anything it takes to achieve the elimination of a large indigenous population, under the façade of liberal democracy.

It is important to listen to and act upon the current Palestinian call: “Aan lil-Nakba a-la tastamer” (It is time for the Nakba not to continue).

Considering settler colonialism as a structure, not an event, many scholars have been pointing out that the Palestinian Nakba is not simply an event of the past, but is ongoing, to this day. Therefore, it is important to listen to and act upon the current Palestinian call: “Aan lil-Nakba a-la tastamer” (It is time for the Nakba not to continue).

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