Arab Israeli parliamentarian calls Israel's bluff
in a room at the renaissance Hotel, gesticulating Israeli parliamentarian Jamal Zahalka inhales deeply from his umpteenth cigarette of the hour and tells me flatly, "Israel is a democratic state for its Jewish citizens, and a Jewish state for its Arab citizens."
Zahalka, one of 10 Arab politicians in the 120-member Knesset, was in town recently for Israeli Apartheid Week and brought his strong message to 300 participants at OISE.
The elegantly dressed pol with a PhD in pharmacology from Hebrew University insists there is a separate and lesser order of citizen rights for the 20 per cent of Israelis who are Arab.
"Palestinians have become the demographic victims of the obsession to establish a Jewish democracy,' he says, offering as an example the fact that the country spends a yearly average of 4,935 shekels ($1,372) per Jewish student but only 862 ($240) for each Arab one.
Zahalka's party, Balad (which means "homeland'), supports a two-state solution but provokes head-counting panic in Israel because it seeks to transform the country from a "Jewish state into a democratic one.'
Of all the points of discrimination Zahalka identifies, he is most incensed by the Citizenship And Entry Into Israel Law, which outlaws family unification for Israeli citizens married to Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza. "Exceptions are made in humanitarian cases,' he says dryly, "only marriage and children do not qualify as humanitarian cases.'
The law pointedly does not apply to Jewish settlers in the West Bank. "Palestinian love and the institution of the family has become a demographic conspiracy against Israel,' he says.
At the Israeli embassy, spokesperson Ofir Gendelman will only speak generally, retorting that "Israeli Arabs are part and parcel of Israeli society and its political establishment.' He says those who consider Israel an apartheid state misunderstand the history of the Middle East conflict and insult those who fought South African apartheid.
Back in the hotel room, I can't help but ask Zahalka over his third cup of coffee whether, if things are as bad as he says, participating in the Knesset won't legitimize an unfair system.
No, he says. "Arab Israelis have got to use every right they have. Real democracy does not distinguish between people on an ethnic basis.' It's a question, he says, of calling Israel's bluff.