“This basic law aims to anchor the values of Israel as a democratic and multicultural state, treating its citizens with complete civil and national equality,” reads the bill that was created recently by Arab Knesset member Yousef Jabareen of the Joint List. Jabareen initiated his bill as a response to the Nationality law, which is scheduled to have its first Knesset reading soon. The Nationality law would secure Israel’s position as the state of the Jewish people, and its detractors argue that it does so at the expense of the country’s democratic values. The bill passed a preliminary reading in May 2017.
According to Jabareen, his proposal will expose the real faces of the Knesset members who support the Nationality law and the series of anti-democratic laws that were passed in recent years by the right-wing coalition. His bill will prove that democracy for them is no more than lip service. Simultaneously, he claims that his proposal will also challenge Israel’s left, or at least what remains of it.
Jabareen, a resident of Umm al-Fahm, is a professor of law. In his doctoral thesis, which he wrote while attending Georgetown University in Washington, he compared the African-American minority in the United States to the Palestinians in Israel. He is viewed as an expert on the subject of minority rights.
In a conversation with Al-Monitor Feb. 11, Jabareen said that the nationality bill discriminates against Arabs and other minorities in Israel. He added that he first conceived of his counterbill when he sat as a member on the Knesset’s Constitution Committee when it discussed the nationality bill.
“It really bothered me that no other alternatives [to the law] were discussed. The discussion was restricted and revolved around the framework created by the right, which focused on the Jewish State. It lacked mention of a minority group. Our status, our rights. Twenty percent of the Israeli population were excluded from the bill," he noted, in reference to Israeli Arabs. "Even academics who attended the committee were drawn into the narrow discussion on that one proposal, without looking for alternatives, compromise, logic regarding what to do with the minorities in Israel who are not Jewish. Will they remain without equal status? Discriminated against?”
Jabareen said that he was spurred to check whether there are still signs of live democracy in Israel’s parliamentary discourse and support for essential rights of the Arab minority and of other minorities in the country. He feels that his proposed bill would constitute the real test.
In a period in which numerous Knesset members from the coalition try to delegitimize the Arab public, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who called to boycott Arab residents of the Wadi Ara, Jabareen’s bill aspires to legally anchor equal rights for the minority he represents.
Members of the Joint List will not forget Netanyahu’s fear campaign against the Arab public just before the elections of 2015. They also remember the prime minister’s attempts to drive a wedge between Arab citizens and their representatives in the 20th Knesset. Jabareen recalled Netanyahu’s speech at the opening of the Knesset’s winter session in October 2015, when he painted the Arab Knesset members as Islamic State supporters and viewed the Arab public as constantly on probation, required to demonstrate their loyalty to the country. “I appeal to the Israeli Arabs, citizens of this country, and I say: Will you follow a leadership which incites, which reaches absurd heights — the members of the communist Balad party, behind whom stands a trail of [Islamic State] flags? A leadership which seeks to fragment the country? Or will you follow the path of coexistence, peace, loyalty to the country of which you are a part?” asked Netanyahu.
Liberman has conducted an ongoing campaign against Umm al-Fahm, Jabareen’s city. In addition to Liberman’s call for boycotting the Arab residents of the area, he also tends to denigrate the Arab-Israeli population, specifically the Arab members of Knesset. After US President Donald Trump made his Jerusalem declaration on Dec. 6 and the Wadi Ara Arabs conducted demonstrations in response, Liberman called the Joint List members of Knesset “war criminals,” and called for canceling the rights of Arab citizens. “I saw them with flags of the Palestinian Authority, with Hezbollah flags, with pictures of [Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan] Nasrallah. … Must I be their sucker who pays social security? We are a bunch of suckers; 14 billion shekels [around $4 billion] we give them. These citizens, who attended the funeral in Umm al-Fahm of the three murderers. As far as I'm concerned, they are not legitimate citizens.”
All this passed before Jabareen’s eyes when he labored on his bill, which was supported by the entire Joint List and submitted in its name. “The State of Israel will ensure equal protection before the law to all its citizens and ensure the national, cultural, linguistic and religious rights of its two national groups, Jews and Arabs,” read the proposal.
Jabareen has no illusions that the Knesset will pass his law. It is clear to him that the right will oppose it and, in his opinion, most of the Knesset members from the left center (such as the Zionist Camp and Yesh Atid) will not vote for it. He told Al-Monitor, “They will certainly make themselves absent from the plenum in order not to raise their hands against a proposal that attempts to enforce all the rights of the Arabs, even though it is formulated in accordance with international law and minority rights in general.”
Al-Monitor talked with Jabareen over the phone when he was in Romania, where he was sent by the International Relations team of the Joint List. This team, which he heads, was founded by the Higher Follow-Up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel. The team’s task is to present to international bodies the vision of the Arab minority in Israel. Jabareen was the one to formulate the legal section of the vision document. Over the recent weekend, he appeared in conventions in Bucharest and Sofia, Bulgaria; these were organized by the Palestinian Friends Association and Palestinian delegations in these countries. Joint List members have often been accused of seemingly acting as emissaries for the Palestinian Authority rather than acting on behalf of Israel’s Arab citizens. To this, Jabareen responded, “We cannot be disconnected from the Palestinian nation. We are part of it, while at the same time we are also citizens of the State of Israel as we seek to democratically define our rights as a minority group.”