In the early months of 2023, Jewish Israelis flooded the streets of Israel in a massive display of civil disobedience to save their “Jewish democracy.” They referred to the crumbling of democratic checks and balances as a “judicial coup” engineered by an extremist coalition that came to power in the Knesset at the end of 2022. This coalition targets Palestinian minorities (Christians, Muslims, and others), pursues an annexationist agenda (intent on annexing the territories occupied in 1967), and advocates conservative sexual politics framed as “Jewish.” This essay examines the blinders operative in constructing the Palestinian citizens of Israel as minorities, or as the “Arab sector,” and how these blinders have enabled spinning a Jewish Zionist supremacist regime as “Jewish and democratic.”
How Jews became a majority or majoritized in Israel/Palestine is central to the story of “minority rights” or the minoritization of Palestinians. Israel’s case exposes what is often concealed in discussions about minorities—namely, the violence that creates minority groups and how their political grievances and visions are diminished when minorities are viewed as “religious” or “cultural.” Scholars and analysts of Israeli society produce knowledge on Israeli “Arab minorities” (they deploy the generic “Arab” rather than the specific identification as Palestinian) in abstraction, as if their minority status were an unproblematic given, such as flora and fauna, rather than the product of violent processes of minoritization. From its inception in Europe, where Jews as minorities were the target of genocide, Zionism was a movement to create a Jewish-majority polity in Palestine. This project has relied on settler-colonial violence framed as a redemptive “return” to the Land of Zion.
Majoritization of Jews
By creating the category of the “Palestinian citizen of Israel” and establishing a bureaucratic regime of identification cards, Israel effectively fragmented Palestinians. Those living within the boundaries of “Israel proper” (or the territories associated with the Armistice or “Green Line” of 1949) became a “minority,” and those living in the Occupied Territories of 1967 became subjects of a military regime (the Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem have “residency” status, which is revocable, and Palestinians in Gaza have been under blockade for over sixteen years). This multipronged process of depopulation, fragmentation, and minoritization amounts to political and cultural violence. Hence, the label “minorities” is not an innocent description of the religio-cultural landscape of historical Palestine but rather a product of ongoing processes of Palestinian displacement/replacement.
The numbers tell the story. At the time of the Balfour Declaration of 1917 (when a British lord “gave” Palestine to Jews to create a “Jewish Home”), Jews comprised 6 percent of the inhabitants. By 1947 they grew to represent 33 percent of the population, at which point the UN Partition Plan granted Jews 55 percent of historical Palestine at a time when indigenous Palestinians owned 94 percent of the land. The War of 1948, or what Palestinians experienced as the Nakba, or Catastrophe, entailed ethnic cleansing or the depopulation of 750,000 Palestinians. Israel thereafter spanned 78 percent of the land. Palestinians refer to their current situation as an ongoing Nakba. According to Amnesty International, since the military occupation of the West Bank in 1967 (when 300,000 more Palestinians were expelled), Israel has appropriated over 100,000 hectares of Palestinian land. The 1993 Oslo Accords determined three areas of control—A, B, and C—with Area A (comprising only 18 percent of the West Bank) technically under the Palestinian Authority and Area C (comprising 60 percent of the West Bank), where growing settlements persistently disrupt Palestinian contiguity, under Jewish Israeli control. Those who remained within the Green Line as a “minority,” who now make up 20 percent of Israeli citizens, were minoritized and fragmented from other Palestinian communities and the various Palestinian diasporas. The cumulative minoritization, fragmentation, and occupation of Palestinians have accelerated the eventual crumbling of the image of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic” state.
In November 2022, Israel’s fifth election in four years resulted in a coalition government under the leadership of the longest-serving Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. The coalition consists of political parties led by individuals such as Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, who moved from the margins to the mainstream of Israeli discourse. This is the most right-wing, religious, and extremist coalition in Israeli history. It centers people who are self-described homophobes and actively call for ethnic cleansing and massacres, and who aspire to recreate Temple rituals on the site of the Haram al-Sharif/Dome of the Rock and religionize Israeli society.
Hundreds of thousands Israelis protest the Netanyahu–Smortrich–Ben-Gvir government primarily for its assault on democratic infrastructures that affect them, such as its judiciary overhaul and its anti-LGBTQI+ and anti-women outlooks, taken from the textbooks of Viktor Orbán and the like. These Israelis fail to see the layered violence that has always undergirded their “Jewish democracy.” This blinder explains the failure of public mobilizations in the past decades, from the so-called “cottage cheese” anti-neoliberalism protest (2011) inspired by the Occupy Movement to the anti-Bibi (Netanyahu) mobilization that resulted in a brief political (cosmetic) change before Netanyahu’s return to power with a vengeance. All those mobilizations failed to connect their struggles, including Mizrahi (marginalized Israeli Jews who trace their roots to Arab and Islamic countries) and Ethiopian grievances, to the ongoing Nakba. The current mobilization against the Netanyahu–Smortrich–Ben-Gvir government is no exception.
Largely absent from the movement’s rhetoric is the evidence-based analysis of prestigious human rights organizations (including the Israeli B’Tselem). These necessary, but missing, analyses account for an entire geopolitical space from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea that operates according to an apartheid logic under one sovereign (Israel). The deployment of the apartheid category in international law means that Jews and Palestinians are treated differently according to what B’Tselem calls “Jewish supremacy,” which manifests through distinct mechanisms throughout the entire area—from the imposition of blockades on Gaza to the segregation of maternity wards within the Green Line. Without this framing, the current protest against the erosion of democratic norms in Israel appears shortsighted. The protestors’ myopic discourse, backed up by decades of scholarship on “Arab minorities,” only focuses on “minorities” as they relate to other potentially vulnerable communities within the Green Line, where there is a Jewish majority. This discourse therefore, with some exceptions, delimits the analytic prism along with political imaginations.
Ben-Gvir was influenced by the American rabbi/terrorist Meir Kahane, who imported US racial categories to the Israeli context in the 1980s. Kahane advocated for the “transfer” of Palestinians and argued against miscegenation between Jews and Palestinians. Ben-Gvir and other contemporary Kahanists are also embedded in the religious settler Zionist movement. Many see themselves as disciples of Baruch Goldstein, an American Jewish physician and a settler devotee of Kahane who murdered twenty-nine Palestinian worshippers in the Ibrahim Mosque in Hebron in 1994. Since December 2022, Ben-Gvir has controlled the police and the newly created National Security Ministry. His powers as minister of national security include overseeing a unit dedicated to the surveillance of Jewish terrorism. Ironically, Ben-Gvir was once a subject of this unit with his hundreds of arrests, fifty-three indictments, and seven convictions for incitement to terrorism.
Smotrich, whom Netanyahu granted, as part of the same coalition agreement, the power to oversee the Civil Administration in the West Bank, obtained a green light to legalize illegal outposts (all settlements in the territories occupied in 1967 violate the Geneva Conventions) and expedite the further displacement of Palestinians. While shocking in its explicit tone, this annexationist attitude is familiar. Over the decades, as I illustrate above, the Yishuv (pre-state Zionist governing infrastructure in Mandatory Palestine) and Israeli policies were designed to maximize land and minimize Palestinians on this land. Since long before his rise to power, Smotrich has argued that there is simply no room for two national groups. According to his platform, the Palestinians (whom he refers to as “Arabs”) have two options. If they forgo their national aspirations, they can be accommodated as individuals. If they refuse to relinquish their national consciousness, they will be forced by Israeli authorities to emigrate to Arab countries. But if they choose to stay, Smotrich underscores, they must be confronted with force. The third “option” Smotrich outlines is not categorically different from the early observation by Ze’ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky in his 1923 essay, “The Iron Wall.”
Jabotinsky, the ideological “father” of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, read the realities of Palestine pragmatically and recognized that the creation of a Jewish-majority state could only happen through violence. He was honest about this. The ongoing requirement for violence enhanced the appeal to sacred warrants, a reenactment of biblical scripts, the ethos of the Holocaust, and doubling down on redemptive and messianic sanctification of ontological self-defense, domination, and control over another (non-Jewish) population. The harder it is to justify the oppression of Palestinians and the denial of their histories, the more “sacred” and “righteous” the repertoire of “Jewish” licensing of such violence becomes. The short distance between “The Iron Wall” and Smotrich’s platform reveals violence as constitutive of Israeli nationalism. While those protesting the “judicial coup” of 2023 experience this assault on the democratic independence of the courts as a sudden departure from the essence of the Jewish state, it is neither sudden nor does it signal a categorical departure. Juxtaposing Smotrich with Jabotinsky illuminates why the consistency between the logic of minoritization and elimination dates back not to the emergence of an extremist right-wing government in 2023 but to the roots of Euro-Zionist praxis in 1923 or thereabout.
On January 21, 2023, Kahanists, some wrapped in the Israeli flag, chanted, “We want Nakba now” in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of occupied East Jerusalem. On February 26, Jewish settlers instigated a pogrom in the Palestinian village of Huwara near Nablus in the West Bank. They framed it as revenge for the killing of two settlers (days before the military massacred eleven Palestinians and wounded over one hundred in daylight in Nablus). In a long-established pattern of collusion and impunity, the Israeli military did not interfere and enabled the pogrom. A couple of days after the pogrom in Huwara and other surrounding villages, Smotrich said that Huwara needed to be “wiped out,” but not by private citizens. He was effectively calling for state-orchestrated ethnic cleansing. How is this different from Zionism’s definitional reliance on and dream, as Alon Confino explains, for the land to have fewer Palestinians on it? The “dream” became a reality during the Nakba orchestrated by Labor Zionist (Ashkenazi) leadership, the head of which was David Ben-Gurion.
To argue, as I do, that Ben-Gvir’s promotion of another Nakba is consistent with Ben-Gurion’s logic of depopulation or Jabotinsky’s “Iron Wall” is not to say that no other political paths were possible. Instead, I contend that Ben-Gurion was driven by the desire to empty the land of Palestinians to create a Jewish democracy (he needed majoritarian demographics for this). Ben-Gvir and Smotrich puncture the liberal democratic façade and expose the interwoven logics of minoritization and elimination. Like Jabotinsky in 1923, Ben-Gvir and Smotrich are honest in 2023.
Shira Robinson’s analysis of citizenship as a category of exclusion in the consolidation of what she calls the liberal settler state of Israel in the 1950s clarifies why the later Basic Law: Israel-The Nation State of the Jewish People (ratified by the Knesset in 2018) resolves the tensions between (rather than departs from) “Jewish and democratic.” The law, a building block for the rise of the Netanyahu–Smortrich–Ben-Gvir convergence, underscores that Israel is the state of the Jews and them only. Examining Palestinian citizens only through the prism of “minorities” conceals the political forces and sociological mechanisms at play that radically transformed the demographic realities in historical Palestine. Once only 6 percent of the population in 1917, Jews are “lords of the land” full stop in 2023. Ben-Gvir assaults Palestinian citizens of Israel and the Palestinian residents of occupied East Jerusalem not because they are Christians or Muslims. He targets them because they are Palestinians.
The case of Israel/Palestine reveals that the production and reproduction of political boundaries within the framework of modern nationalism and majoritarianism myopically conceals the anatomy of violence, exclusion, and minoritization that undergird their construction.