National Minority, Regional Majority: Palestinian Arabs versus Jews in Israel
By Yitzhak Reiter
(Syracuse University Press, 2009), 403 pp

Reviewed by Asaf Romirowsky, Ph.D. Candidate, Kings College London

One of the core narratives that continue to fuel the Israeli Palestinian conflict is the Nakba, the Arabic phrase for catastrophe. The Nakba is much more than just the physical creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948, which Palestinians decree as the cataclysmic disaster, but rather the Palestinian process of refusing to accept that a Jewish sovereign state could have been allowed to come to fruition.

In addition to the Nakba resulting from the State of Israel, one of the by-products of 1948 was the creation of an Arab minority that received Israeli citizenship as a result of naturalization. By the end of the war the new Palestinian refugees faced a troublesome reality that left them dependent on their Arab brethren, who in turn kept them as refugees. They also realized that those who did not flee as a result of the war were welcomed by the new Jewish state as “Arab Israeli” citizens. As part of their psychology of ‘resistance’ Palestinians therefore began to define those same Arab-Israelis as “internal refugees.” This demonstrated that they will never accept a Jewish State with an Arab minority and created a constant tension between these two segments of Israeli society for equality and national identity.

Yitzhak Reiter, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, reexamines the conflict between Israel’s Jewish majority and Palestinian Arab minority in his latest book National Minority, Regional Majority: Palestinian Arabs versus Jews inIsrael. Placing it within the context of the broader interlocking conflicts in theMiddle East, Reiter focuses on the unique dynamic at work between a religiously and ethnically defined majority and a significant national minority and chronicles the pattern of alternating tranquility and rebellion in Jewish-Arab relations.

One of the many encounters between the majority and the minority which the author discusses is the role of the Nakba in the Israeli public discourse. The greatest irony is that the Israeli government entertained a discussion within the Israeli Knesset about establishing a ‘Nakba Day.’ But what was this particular Israeli version of ‘Nakba’ really about? It highlights on the one hand the extent and openness of Israeli society to entertain such ideas – even ludicrous ones. On the other hand, more disturbingly, it shows Israel willing to do so at their own expense by sacrificing Israel’s Zionist heritage and ideology. Segments of Israeli society seem to have forgotten what patriotism and Zionism is all about. One has to wonder why Israelis do not understand that marking the ‘Nakba’ marksIsrael’s destruction by viewing their birth as illegitimate.

Along these same lines some Israeli “intellectuals” have suggested dropping the Hatikvah (The Hope) as their country’s national anthem, since it refers to the Jewish soul’s yearnings for a return to Zion. Others also urged repeal of Israel’s longstanding Law of Return, which gives members of the Jewish Diaspora the right to immigrate and become citizens at any time.

Some Israeli Arabs have advocated that Israel should become a state identified with no particular ethnic or religious group but rather a “state for all citizens.” Israelis commonly view this liberal ideal with skepticism, as it has no relation to any political practice found in the Middle East. It is instead a stealthy, if transparent, ruse to transform Israel from a Jewish into an Arab-Muslim state. Furthermore, individuals like former Knesset member Azmi Bishara, the principal Israeli Arab proponent of “a state of all citizens,” incensed many Israelis by supporting Hezbollah’s war against Israel in 2006. Bishara was what Reiter considers to be an anti-Israeli Zionist as he would never consider joining forces with the Labor party where other Arab-Israeli parties did. It speaks volumes ofIsrael’s democracy that one can advocate an anti-Israel position within the Israeli Knesset. But it also says something about the real goals of the “state for all of its citizens.”

At the end of Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, the Palestinian Arab community was profoundly shattered. Of the 750,000 Arab residents of the territory that came to be Israel, only 160,000 had stayed put through the hostilities; at the state’s founding, they formed 13.6 percent of the total population. But these numbers did not stay low for long. Thanks to a remarkable birth rate of 4.2 percent a year, and despite successive waves of Jewish immigration into Israel, the proportion of Arabs grew rapidly. Ben Gurion and leaders of the Yishuv had always assumed that there would be a substantial Arab minority in the future Jewish state, and the general conviction was that they would take part in the Israeli experience as such within a Jewish State.

But the fundamental problem of Israel’s Arab minority lies not in any lack of freedoms or opportunities but in its unique ‘national’ makeup. Unlike almost every ethnic or religious minority throughout the world, Israeli Arabs appear unwilling to assimilate into Israeli society but feel entitled to both the benefits of citizenship and to fundamentally reshape the state, given their sense of being a ‘majority, when their relatives in the territories are included’. Far from seeking to adapt themselves to the norms and habits of the majority they regard themselves as unlawfully dominated by an alien aggressor who must be overcome. This fuels their sense of being second class citizens who reject Israel’s right to exist.

Reiter concludes that the Israeli government can play a key role in de-escalating this internal conflict by recognizing an official Arab-Israeli partner, redefining what the Jewishness of the State means and understanding that by resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the anger of Arab Israelis will diminish. Reiter, might be correct in his recommendations, however, the flip side is that there needs to be reciprocal recognition of Israel, not only by the Arab world but also from the Arab-Israelis. Will this happen, or will Arab-Israelis be emboldened by peace to demand even more?