Israel tries to ban non-Jewish celebrations
Israel’s large Palestinian minority is often spoken of in terms of the threat it poses to the Jewish majority. Palestinian citizens’ reproductive rate constitutes a “demographic timebomb”, while their main political programme – Israel’s reform into “a state of all its citizens” – is proof for most Israeli Jews that their compatriots are really a “fifth column”.
But who would imagine that Israeli Jews could be so intimidated by the innocuous Christmas tree?
This issue first came to public attention two years ago when it was revealed that Shimon Gapso, the mayor of Upper Nazareth, had banned Christmas trees from all public buildings in his northern Israeli city.
“Upper Nazareth is a Jewish town and all its symbols are Jewish,” Gapso said. “As long as I hold office, no non-Jewish symbol will be presented in the city.”
The decision reflected in part his concern that Upper Nazareth, built in the 1950s as the centrepiece of the Israeli government’s “Judaisation of the Galilee” programme, was failing dismally in its mission.
Far from “swallowing up” the historic Palestinian city of Nazareth next door, as officials had intended, Upper Nazareth became over time a magnet for wealthier Nazarenes who could no longer find a place to build a home in their own city. That was because almost all Nazareth’s available green space had been confiscated for the benefit of Upper Nazareth.
Instead Nazarenes, many of them Palestinian Christians, have been buying homes in Upper Nazareth from Jews – often immigrants from the former Soviet Union – desperate to leave the Arab-dominated Galilee and head to the country’s centre, to be nearer Tel Aviv.
The exodus of Jews and influx of Palestinians have led the government to secretly designate Upper Nazareth as a “mixed city”, much to the embarrassment of Gapso. The mayor is a stalwart ally of far-right politician Avigdor Lieberman and regularly expresses virulently anti-Arab views, including recently calling Nazarenes “Israel-hating residents whose place is in Gaza” and their city “a nest of terror in the heart of the Galilee”.
Although neither Gapso nor the government has published census figures to clarify the city’s current demographic balance, most estimates suggest that at least a fifth of Upper Nazareth’s residents are Palestinian. The city’s council chamber also now includes Palestinian representatives.
But Gapso is not alone in his trenchant opposition to making even the most cursory nod towards multiculturalism. The city’s chief rabbi, Isaiah Herzl, has refused to countenance a single Christmas tree in Upper Nazareth, arguing that it would be “offensive to Jewish eyes”.
That view, it seems, reflects the official position of the country’s rabbinate. In so far as they are able, the rabbis have sought to ban Christmas celebrations in public buildings, including in the hundreds of hotels across the country.
A recent report in the Haaretz newspaper, on an Israeli Jew who grows Christmas trees commercially, noted in passing: “hotels – under threat of losing kashrut certificates – are prohibited by the rabbinate from decking their halls in boughs of holly or, heaven forbid, putting up even the smallest of small sparkly Christmas tree in the corner of the lobby.”
In other words, the rabbinate has been quietly terrorising Israeli hotel owners into ignoring Christmas by threatening to use its powers to put them out of business. Denying a hotel its kashrut (kosher) certificate would lose it most of its Israeli and foreign Jewish clientele.
Few mayors or rabbis find themselves in the uncomfortable position of needing to go public with their views on the dangers of Christmas decorations. In Israel, segregation between Jews and Palestinians is almost complete. Even most of the handful of mixed cities are really Jewish cities with slum-like ghettos of Palestinians living on the periphery.
Apart from Upper Nazareth, the only other “mixed” place where Palestinian Christians are to be found in significant numbers is Haifa, Israel’s third largest city. Haifa is often referred to as Israel’s most multicultural and tolerant city, a title for which it faces very little competition.
But the image hides a dirtier reality. A recent letter from Haifa’s rabbinate came to light in which the city’s hotels and events halls were reminded that they must not host New Year’s parties at the end of this month (the Jewish New Year happens at a different time of year). The hotels and halls were warned that they would be denied their kashrut licences if they did so.
“It is a seriously forbidden to hold any event at the end of the calendar year that is connected with or displays anything from the non-Jewish festivals,” the letter states.
After the letter was publicised on Facebook, Haifa’s mayor, Yona Yahav, moved into damage limitation mode, overruling the city’s rabbinical council on Sunday and insisting that parties would be allowed to go ahead. Whether Yahav has the power to enforce his decision on the notoriously independent-minded rabbinical authorities is still uncertain.
But what is clear is that there is plenty of religious intolerance verging on hatred being quietly exercised against non-Jews, mostly behind the scenes so as not to disturb Israel’s “Jewish and democratic” image or outrage the millions of Christian tourists and pilgrims who visit Israel each year.
Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. He won this year’s Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books).
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The recently published report by an Israeli judge concluding that Israel is not in fact occupying the Palestinian territories – despite a well-established international consensus to the contrary – has provoked mostly incredulity or mirth in Israel and abroad.
Leftwing websites in Israel used comically captioned photographs to highlight Justice Edmond Levy’s preposterous finding. One shows an Israeli soldier pressing the barrel of a rifle to the forehead of a Palestinian pinned to the ground, saying: “You see – I told you there’s no occupation.”
Even Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, seemed a little discomfited by the coverage last week. He was handed the report more than a fortnight earlier but was apparently reluctant to make it public.
Downplaying the Levy report’s significance may prove unwise, however. If Netanyahu is embarrassed, it is only because of the timing of the report’s publication rather than its substance.
It was, after all, the Israeli prime minister himself who established the committee earlier this year to assess the legality of the Jewish settlers’ “outposts”, ostensibly unauthorised by the government, that have spread like wild seeds across the West Bank.
He hand-picked its three members, all diehard supporters of the settlements, and received the verdict he expected – that the settlements are legal. Certainly, Levy’s opinion should have come as no surprise. In 2005 he was the only Supreme Court judge to oppose the government’s decision to withdraw the settlers from Gaza.
Legal commentators too have been dismissive of the report. They have concentrated more on Levy’s dubious reasoning than on the report’s political significance.
They have noted that Theodor Meron, the foreign ministry’s legal adviser in 1967, expressly warned the government in the wake of the Six-Day War that settling civilians in the newly seized territory was a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Experts have also pointed to the difficulties Israel will face if it adopts Levy’s position.
Under international law, Israel’s rule in the West Bank and Gaza is considered “belligerent occupation” and, therefore, its actions must be justified by military necessity only. If there is no occupation, Israel has no military grounds to hold on to the territories. In that case, it must either return the land to the Palestinians, and move out the settlers, or defy international law by annexing the territories, as it did earlier with East Jerusalem, and establish a state of Greater Israel.
Annexation, however, poses its own dangers. Israel must either offer the Palestinians citizenship and wait for a non-Jewish majority to emerge in Greater Israel; or deny them citizenship and face pariah status as an apartheid state.
Just such concerns were raised on Sunday by 40 Jewish leaders in the United States, who called on Netanyahu to reject Levy’s “legal maneuverings” that, they said, threatened Israel’s “future as a Jewish and democratic state”.
But from Israel’s point of view, there may, in fact, be a way out of this conundrum.
In a 2003 interview, one of the other Levy committee members, Alan Baker, a settler who advised the foreign ministry for many years, explained Israel’s heterodox interpretation of the Oslo accords, signed a decade earlier.
The agreements were not, as most assumed, the basis for the creation of a Palestinian state in the territories, but a route to establish the legitimacy of the settlements. “We are no longer an occupying power, but we are instead present in the territories with their [the Palestinians’] consent and subject to the outcome of negotiations.”
On this view, the Oslo accords redesignated the 62 per cent of the West Bank assigned to Israel’s control – so-called Area C – from “occupied” to “disputed” territory. That explains why every Israeli administration since the mid-1990s has indulged in an orgy of settlement-building there.
According to Jeff Halper, head of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, the Levy report is preparing the legal ground for Israel’s annexation of Area C. His disquiet is shared by others.
Recent European Union reports have used unprecedented language to criticise Israel for the “forced transfer” – diplomat-speak for ethnic cleansing – of Palestinians out of Area C into the West Bank’s cities, which fall under Palestinian control.
The EU notes that the numbers of Palestinians in Area C has shrunk dramatically under Israeli rule to fewer than 150,000, or no more than 6 per cent of the Palestinian population of the West Bank. Settlers now outnumber Palestinians more than two-to-one in Area C.
Israel could annex nearly two-thirds of the West Bank and still safely confer citizenship on Palestinians there. Adding 150,000 to the existing 1.5 million Palestinian citizens of Israel, a fifth of the population, would not erode the Jewish majority’s dominance.
If Netanyahu is hesitant, it is only because the time is not yet ripe for implementation. But over the weekend, there were indications of Israel’s next moves to strengthen its hold on Area C.
It was reported that Israel’s immigration police, which have been traditionally restricted to operating inside Israel, have been authorised to enter the West Bank and expel foreign activists. The new powers were on show the same day as foreigners, including a New York Times reporter, were arrested at one of the regular protests against the separation wall being built on Palestinian land. Such demonstrations are the chief expression of resistance to Israel’s takeover of Palestinian territory in Area C.
And on Sunday it emerged that Israel had begun a campaign against OCHA, the UN agency that focuses on humanitarian harm done to Palestinians from Israeli military and settlement activity, most of it in Area C. Israel has demanded details of where OCHA’s staff work and what projects it is planning, and is threatening to withdraw staff visas, apparently in the hope of limiting its activities in Area C.
There is a problem, nonetheless. If Israel takes Area C, it needs someone else responsible for the other 38 per cent of the West Bank – little more than 8 per cent of historic Palestine – to “fill the vacuum”, as Israeli commentators phrased it last week.
The obvious candidate is the Palestinian Authority, the Ramallah government-in-waiting led by Mahmoud Abbas. Its police forces already act as a security contractor for Israel, keeping in check Palestinians in the parts of the West Bank outside Area C. Also, as a recipient of endless international aid, the PA usefully removes the financial burden of the occupation from Israel.
But the PA’s weakness is evident on all fronts: it has lost credibility with ordinary Palestinians, it is impotent in international forums, and it is mired in financial crisis. In the long term, it looks doomed.
For the time being, though, Israel seems keen to keep the PA in place. Last month, for example, it was revealed that Israel had tried – even if unsuccessfully – to bail out the PA by requesting a $100 million loan from the International Monetary Fund on the PA’s behalf.
If the PA refuses to, or cannot, take on these remaining fragments of the West Bank, Israel may simply opt to turn back the clock and once again cultivate weak and isolated local leaders for each Palestinian city.
The question is whether the international community can first be made to swallow Levy’s absurd conclusion.
Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His website is http://www.jkcook.net.
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