Wednesday, November 28, 2018

On Israel's "60 Discriminatory Laws"

At a UN meeting commemorating International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, Temple University Professor Marc Lamont Hill referred to the existence of "more than 60 Israel laws that deny citizenship rights to Palestinians just because they are not Jewish."

It's one of those claims I've heard bandied about, in various formulations, many times, and I thought it was worth digging into a bit.

The basic referent here, as far I can tell, is a list from the Israeli NGO Adalah (The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel), which compiles laws which "discriminate directly or indirectly against Palestinian citizens in Israel and/or Palestinian residents of the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) on the basis of their national belonging." The "or indirectly" matters quite a bit -- as Adalah confirms, while some of these laws represent explicit discrimination, "more often, the laws are worded in a seemingly neutral manner, but have or will likely have a disparate impact on Palestinians in their implementation."

Now, one might think that my objection here is to the conflation of "direct" and "indirect" forms of discrimination. And to be sure, there is a very large difference between a law which says directly "Israeli Jews, but not Israeli Palestinians, are entitled to X" and a law which is neutral in form but happens to have a disparate impact on Palestinians. Likewise, not all of the entries on the Adalah list seem like fair play. For example, Adalah includes a 2010 law which offers certain perks to soldiers discharged from the IDF. It contends this discriminates against Palestinian Israelis because, unlike other Israeli citizens, they are not subject to mandatory military service. But they aren't excluded from military service either -- they just (unlike Jewish Israelis) have the option to forgo it (one could argue that this is a law which favors Palestinian Israelis at the expense of their Jewish co-citizens). So to characterize this law as one that denies Palestinians equal citizenship seems like an extraordinarily deep stretch.

Others are likewise shaky calls. For example, the law which increases the threshold for entering parliament is attacked as a means of seeking to squelch Arab political participation. And to be sure, it seems evident that one motive (though not the only one) for that law was the belief that, given deep fragmentation among Arab Israeli parties, it would knock out some of the smaller groupings. But if that was the goal, it backfired: Arab parties instead united under a Joint List and surged to become the third-largest party in the Knesset. In any event, to characterize that law as one which " den[ies] citizenship rights to Palestinians just because they are not Jewish" is more than a bit of a stretch.

Still, it is absolutely fair to observe that "indirect" forms of discrimination nonetheless contribute in a very real way to tangible inequality. That's as true in Israel as it is in America; a focus on formal equality is manifestly insufficient to capture ways in which Palestinian citizens of Israel are disadvantaged in Israeli society. And it'd be unfair to accuse Hill of hypocrisy on this score, at least -- I have no doubt that he would, if asked, also deem American laws which are facially neutral but have a disparate impact on African-Americans as contributors to a racist American system.

Nonetheless, something slick is happening here, and I think it's important to zero in on what it is. The phrase "laws that deny citizenship rights to Palestinians" is vague, intentionally so, but it certainly connotes more explicit forms of identity-based discrimination that mimic something like South African apartheid or American Jim Crow. Hill could rejoin that this isn't what he means by the phrase -- he intends to sweep more broadly, because unjust inequality isn't limited to cases which mimic South African apartheid.

Fine -- but if that's the case, then we have to start asking whether a state having "60 laws" which are facially neutral but have a disparate deleterious impact on certain vulnerable minorities is comparatively abnormal. Put another way: if we adopted Adalah's standard for a law which "den[ies] citizenship rights" to a particular outgroup and applied it to America, how many discriminatory laws would we have? 20? 100? 1000? What about Poland? What about Cameroon? What about China? What about Kuwait? And so on. My strong guess is that, under this metric, having sixty discriminatory laws falls well within the normal range for countries of its size.

To be clear, despite the verbiage above my argument isn't "whataboutism". It is perfectly fair to say that the existence of such laws -- even the existence of more of such laws -- in many other countries wouldn't justify them in Israel's case. And I'd agree with that. But -- and here's the "slick" part -- Hill is not trying to make the argument that Israel is common among nations in having laws which in effect disadvantage certain outgroups. He's trying to assert that Israel is unique in this respect, or at least uncommon. Speaking of "laws that deny citizenship rights" is meant to suggest that Israel stands out and beyond the pale -- so much so that we should support (Hill is explicit on this point) violent resistance efforts against it akin to that which the ANC employed against apartheid South Africa.

What we have, in short, is a bait-and-switch. On the one hand, the rhetoric Hill employs is designed to give the impression of a narrower and more virulent set of wrongful conduct that is similar in form to apartheid and seems harmonious with a relatively aggressive set of responses. On the other hand, if you press him on the substantive meaning behind the rhetoric, he can fall back and say "no, no -- I'm talking about something much more expansive". But that class of wrongs is no longer in sync with the sort of remedies Hill is proposing -- unless he's willing to say that pretty much every country on earth should be subjected to violent insurgency on account of its failure to abolish laws which have a disadvantageous disparate impact on certain minorities in the state.

And if even he is willing to ride that slope all the way to its slippery bottom, he'll find that few are willing to follow him down. A theoretical consistency is overshadowed by an known and accepted practical inconsistency; the mobilizing force of his remarks depends on preserving an intentional asymmetry between substance and rhetoric, between the actual content of the wrongs he's alleging Israel commits and the connotations implied by how they're described. It is not feasible to get widespread support for the proposition that every country should be targeted for a terrorist insurgency as a means of overturning its unjust practices. It is feasible to get widespread support for the proposition that a particular country (preferably someone else's) be so targeted.

Again, the argument here isn't "well, if you don't criticize Romania and Sri Lanka for this, how can you criticize Israel?" I'm well aware that caring equally about everything is an impossible and unreasonable demand; people focus on what they focus on for all number of reasons. But there is a very large difference between arguing "this is a wrong we see everywhere, I just happen to focus on it in this particular place" and "this particular place stands out as wrongful in a way one doesn't see anywhere else." The former and the latter are different claims and demand different justifications.

And likewise, I'm concerned about the rapidity with which people are beginning to argue that a claim of double-standards is just a way of kicking up dust. Yes, it's true that no functioning program of political or social action actually comprehensively applies to every "like" case simultaneously. No, that doesn't mean that patterns of disparate or disproportionate focus on a particular group never can give rise to an inference of discriminatory maltreatment (hell, that's the entire basis for looking askance at disparate impact!). Curtis Marez's limp argument that academic BDS targets Israel because, hey, "one has to start somewhere" -- as if the focus on Israel was a sort of random precipitation, as if the next academic organization over might just as easily look at China or Turkey or America -- is an insult to everyone's intelligence.

Certainly, Hill understands this well in his case -- defending his friendship with and admiration of Louis Farrakhan (with whom he is far closer to than, say, Linda Sarsour), Hill contended that "Black people are the only people who are demanded to throw people away". Regardless of whether it is in fact true that this is only demanded of Black people (and I might respond with: "Hi! I'm a Jew! My people should talk with your people about our shared experiences on this dimension!"), would it really suffice as a response to reply by saying "well, maybe 'throwing away' open bigots is only demanded of Black people -- but it's still the right thing to do, and we should demand it everyone, so what grounds have you to complain"? In reality, it isn't an accident that such demands disproportionately fall on certain groups and not others, and that non-accidental non-proportionality does not exist outside of valid discourses about justice and equal treatment.

In any event, we've strayed afield from where we started. In broad sweep, the move Hill is making is a similar play to that which I critiqued in my column on accusing Israel of "genocide". That allegation likewise attempts to harness the moral gravity of a narrow set of wrongs and apply it to something substantively much broader -- switching back and forth between the rhetorical force generated by the former (genocide as death camps) and the substantive sweep captured by the latter (genocide as "losing your culture"). The move only works if one consciously blurs the pivot, but that obfuscation is fair to call out. Here, it's paired with the more prosaic problem I identified with those omnipresent maps -- a failure to use consistent metrics across cases, such that the statement "laws which deny citizenship rights" doesn't mean "nothing short of explicit segregation or denaturalization" in Turkey and "any law which isn't arrived at through a perfect simulacrum of the Rawlsian original position" in Israel.

The problem with the "60 laws" formulation isn't that there aren't valid objections to some or even many of the laws Adalah has in its database. Nor is it the self-serving (and transparently ridiculous) argument that Palestinians (whether citizens of Israel or not) face systematic and serious discrimination in Israel, much of which emanates directly from the Israeli state. The problem is that the move Hill is pulling relies on a set of disingenuous rhetorical tropes that deliberately mislead as to the content of the claims he's making. The substantive content of his claims absolutely establish that Israel commits wrongs -- but only within the normal bandwidth. That's a problem, because Hill needs to characterize Israel as especially evil, especially mendacious, especially corrupt, and especially worthy of revulsion. Why? Because he knows full well that the sorts of demands he wants to make -- a full boycott coupled with a violent military insurrection -- only fly if people believe he's talking about an especially horrible Other.

And that's how you get a phrase like "more than 60 Israel laws that deny citizenship rights to Palestinians just because they are not Jewish."


Erl said...

Law counting is also just such an arbitrary metric. I mean, I understand the temptation to quantify. But whether this and that clause represent "one law" or "two laws" is a function of nothing more than parliamentary convention, which is of course orthogonal to social repression.

Coming from the Bay Area I'm tempted to try to refactor the question into "lines of code", but really, so much of oppression is about the epigenome and not the genome. Is cash bail racist? Is no cash bail racist? Yes and yes, but that's just because it's the racism of American society expressing itself through the laws as they stand.

Tess said...

Thank you for this analysis. I have been using this report to respond to people on social media who refer to the Adalah claims:, I’ll refer them here too.