An Open Letter to President Obama About Anti-Arab Racism in Israel

03/25/2015 07:19 pm ET | Updated May 23, 2015

Dear President Obama,

Since Israel's Election Day, the White House has expressed its "deep concern" over a video message released by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in which he warned voters that the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel - a fifth of the state's population - were "coming out in droves" to vote at the polling booths. While the U.S. response is a positive step, it barely begins to address the much deeper problem at hand.

In a recent interview, you said that "although Israel was founded based on the historic Jewish homeland and the need to have a Jewish homeland, Israeli democracy has been premised on everybody in the country being treated equally and fairly." That, Mr. President, is far from being the case.

Since 1948, Palestinians in Israel have been denied equal rights in nearly all fields of life due to their non-Jewish identity, despite holding citizenship and despite being natives to the land before the state's establishment. Unlike the U.S. Constitution which, albeit imperfectly, enshrines the right to equality for all its citizens, Israel's legal framework does not guarantee such a right.

This context is necessary to understand why Netanyahu's statement on Election Day is not a minor matter. It is a reflection of the wider anti-Arab racism that permeates Israel's institutions, its political discourse, and much of its society which sees the Palestinian minority as illegitimate citizens, a demographic problem, and a security threat to the state. Most Israelis from both the left-wing and right-wing would not call these views racist, but as necessary tools to maintain the "Jewish state" which, even if it grants certain rights to others, should uphold the rights of Jewish citizens first.

This view is not one of equality or democracy. Calling the state "Jewish and democratic" is still as problematic as saying "white and democratic", particularly in a land that is home to multiple peoples and religions, not just one. It classifies its subjects into first and second class citizens based on ethnicity; it erases centuries of other histories and cultures in the land; and it allows the state to pursue discriminatory laws and policies in the name of that vision.

For example, there is a law in Israel that allows hundreds of towns to reject housing applicants based on "social and cultural suitability", which effectively means that people can be denied the right to live in a location due to their ethnicity, religion or other identities. This law, like others before it, was primarily enacted to prevent Arab citizens from living in Jewish communities. Another law bans the family unification of Israeli citizens who have spouses from the Occupied Palestinian Territories. This law affects tens of thousands of Palestinian families today and is deliberately applied to control the state's non-Jewish demographics; in contrast, any Jew in the world is allowed to enter and acquire citizenship in Israel simply for being Jewish.

The U.S. had many similar racist laws and policies that discriminated against African Americans, Native Americans and other minorities for decades. But while the U.S. has strived to remove these institutions of racial discrimination, Israel has instead proliferated them: out of over 50 laws that discriminate against Palestinians, around 20 of those laws were enacted under Netanyahu's governments since 2009. While the U.S. has worked to challenge racist opinions and discourses, Israeli government officials are legitimizing them: they have openly demanded the population transfer of Palestinian citizens, called their mothers and children "snakes", expressed indifference to killing their people, and said that "disloyal" Arabs deserve an axe to their heads, among many other statements. This incitement not only dehumanizes the Palestinians, but fuels racist actions including police brutality against Arab protestors, firing of Arab employees for anti-war views, and "price tag" attacks against Arab religious sites and properties.

Netanyahu's statement is thus hardly the first or worst offense committed against Israel's Palestinian citizens, including in the run-up to Election Day. However, it can serve as an important opportunity for the U.S. to correct its historical mistakes and misconceptions of the conflict. First, the U.S. must recognize that racial inequality against Palestinians in Israel is the rule, not the exception, and that full democratic rights extend only to its Jewish citizens, not its Palestinian citizens. Second, the U.S. should make the advancement of Palestinian citizens' rights a key priority in its possible "reassessment" of its relationship with Israel, as both a human rights need and a condition for peace. Third, the U.S. must adopt stronger language and measures to make Israel comply with the principle that racial discrimination is unacceptable, and there can be no historical, security or political excuse for Israel to justify it.

This is the message of the civil rights movement that you passionately spoke of at the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches, and which continues to fight racial inequality in the U.S. today. As Palestinians pursue their own human rights struggle both in Israel and in the Occupied Territories, we hope that you will recognize the commonalities of our efforts and our goals. If Israel's laws and policies existed in the U.S. today, many towns would be legally permitted to deny housing to African Americans because of the color of their skin; Arab and Muslim Americans would be forbidden from marrying and bringing their loved ones to the U.S. if they were born in the Middle East; and anti-Jewish incitement would be normalized political discourse. Just as you hope to use your Presidency to combat systems of racial injustice in your homeland, use it to help Palestinians and Israelis do the same in ours.


Amjad Iraqi