Last week’s speech from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the UN General Assembly has drawn diverse reactions from all over the world. American decision makers heard tough talk with room for compromise; comedians saw the inherent ridiculousness of a cartoon bomb; and many citizens of Israel heard their strong leader stay the course. The 20% of Israel’s population that defines itself as the Arab Palestinian minority heard an entirely different speech, one which ignored their constant struggle thereby marginalizing their existence. They heard a speech from the prime minister that summarily dismissed or ignored the near-constant calls of inequality and discrimination. There are internationally recognized abuses of human rights and humanitarian law enshrined in Israel’s official institutions, but Netanyahu continues to present the state he leads as a beacon of “modernism” in a sea of “medievalism”.
The domestic and international media in its reception of the speech, positive or negative, has universally accepted the Prime Minister’s focus on Iran and nuclear weapons. This omission must be rectified. So, using the perspective of human rights and keeping in mind the struggle of the nearly 1.5 million Arab Palestinians living in Israel, Let us read closely his words and consider their implications.
Netanyahu opens the speech with perhaps the most controversial, yet most ignored, piece of rhetoric in his arsenal. He describes the history of the Jewish people in the land of Ancient Israel and conflates the historical tradition of Jews in this geographical area with the modern Zionist movement and its manifestation in the State of Israel. Of course, this is nothing new. In fact, the Zionist dream for the State of Israel claimed all Jews for its cause. According to Zionist doctrine, Israel was, and is, the state for the world’s Jewry, and this has been its definition from the beginning. So, when Netanyahu said the following, he was just reiterating an old construct:
The Jewish people have lived in the land of Israel for thousands of years. Even after most of our people were exiled from it, Jews continued to live in the land of Israel throughout the ages. The masses of our people never gave up the dreamed of returning to our ancient homeland.
That is Netanyahu’s claim, but Zionism is just a little over a century old and the institutions of the State of Israel even younger. Ancient Israel and modern Israel share a name, but are not the same. This country may choose to see itself as successor to ancient kingdoms, but it exists in a modern world; one where there is a diverse population living within its borders and that the human rights of each citizen deserve protection regardless of ethnicity or religion. Notice, the key word is “protection”, not allocation. Human rights are not some trivial commodity to be distributed at will. These are universally ascribed tenets for human life and each state has an obligation to protect those of all its citizens. Excusing that central responsibility on the grounds of ethnic or racial differences is wrong.
After the history lesson and some good old fashioned nationalist saber-rattling, Netanyahu comes to the main theme of his speech: Modernity vs. Medievalism. He defines his terms:
The forces of modernity seek a bright future in which the rights of all are protected, in which an ever-expanding digital library is available in the palm of every child, in which every life is sacred.
The forces of medievalism seek a world in which women and minorities are subjugated, in which knowledge is suppressed, in which not life but death is glorified.
Unfortunately, the glib, terse response to this absurd pair of statements is also the best defense. The Arab Palestinian minority is constantly discriminated against in “modern Israel”. There are 70,000 Bedouin in the Naqab who live constantly in fear that today will be the day that Israeli bulldozers come to demolish their homes. There exists a culture of impunity for perpetrators of violence against Arab Palestinian citizens in Israel. In the sector of education, The Follow-Up Committee for Arab Education found that the Israeli government spends $192 per year on every Arab student in the public education system and $1100 per year on every Jewish student. If in Israel, this minority is being subjugated and flow of knowledge is being restricted, does that not make Israel Medieval?
That question cannot be answered simply, yes or no, because there is a lot more nuance to the issue than the Prime Minister wished to convey. The purpose of his speech was to present a tough and confident position which would inspire feelings of security in his citizens and to demonstrate credibility abroad; it was not a speech given in defense of democratic virtue. If it were, Netanyahu would be quoting John Locke and discussing the “consent of the governed” and “will of the people”. If it is difficult to imagine the Israeli PM espousing those central principles of democracy, remind yourself that Israel defines itself as equally Jewish AND Democratic.
Later on in the speech, Netanyahu describes the Arab Palestinian minority’s role in Israel’s healthcare sector:
In the past year, I lost both my father and my father-in-law. In the same hospital wards where they were treated, Israeli doctors were treating Palestinian Arabs. In fact, every year, thousands of Arabs from the Palestinian territories and Arabs from throughout the Middle East come to Israel to be treated in Israeli hospitals by Israeli doctors.
I know you’re not going to hear that from speakers around this podium, but that’s the truth. It’s important that you are aware of this truth.
Yes, healthcare is a strong example for Netanyahu to use to demonstrate the equality of all Israeli citizens and their scientific prowess. However, notice the way Netanyahu uses this one strong counterexample. Though there are statistics showing relative equality in the number of Jewish and Arab Palestinian doctors in Israeli hospitals (a fact which is still disputed), Netanyahu chooses to describe the recipients of health care rather than the high paying, high status jobs in hospitals. In this way, he ascribes a position of benevolence to the Jewish State. Should the world’s leaders jump to applaud the magnanimity of the Israeli leader for allowing these “medieval” Arabs into his hospitals? No, the premise is absurd.
Additionally, Netanyahu describes treating the thousands of Arabs from around the Middle East with Israeli health care, but he ignores the tens of thousands of Gazans living under blockade. The population of Gaza has suffered for lack of proper health care in addition to the many other severe restrictions of their human rights.
This brings us to the halfway point in the speech. From here on, what started as essentially boilerplate for the State of Israel became, at least visually, a comedy routine. As tempting as it is to add another laughing voice to the crowd, Netanyahu’s description of the Iranian nuclear threat is not directly relevant to the human rights of the Arab Palestinian minority.
In closing, these words come from the end of the Prime Minister’s speech. If only they were true:
At the same time, the Jewish people have always looked towards the future. Throughout history, we have been at the forefront of efforts to expand liberty, promote equality, and advance human rights.