Arab or Jew? Israel’s Deliberately Confusing Census Classification

Israel has categorized its citizens in ways that serve its Zionist goals.

Zionist ideology, as realized by force in the settler-colonial state of Israel on 78 percent of historic Palestine in 1948, is Jewish nationalism. Zionism claims historic Palestine as the land of Jews worldwide and uses various philosophical and rhetorical strategies to legitimize this claim, a claim that continues to play political havoc in the Arab world and the Middle East at large [See Rima Najjar’s answer to Are Jews the indigenous people of modern-day Israel?]. Most of all, it continues to play havoc with the lives and property of the indigenous non-Jewish Palestinian Arab population, now fragmented and classified in Israel generically as Arab.

Among Israel’s strategies in realizing its Zionist vision is the dissemination of outright lies (such as the falsehood of historic Palestine as an uncultivated land without a people) and the myth of the ‘Land of Israel’.

The myth of the ‘Land of Israel’ comes with the implausible construct of an unbroken bloodline, a timeless biological attachment of Jews to Israel. It is meant to downplay the fact that by the 19th century, Palestine’s Jews made up only 5–7 percent of the Arab Palestinian population, which was at the time nearly one-half million, of whom more than 80 percent were Muslims and about 10 percent Christians (Kenneth W. Stein, The Land Question in Palestine, 1917–1939, p. 3).

Zionism has made the idea that Jews are “a people” commonplace today, when, in fact, Theodore Herzl’s insistence that the sophisticated Jews of Berlin shared a common destiny with the tribal Jews of Yemen is absurd. (See Shlomo Sand and Jewish Identity: Crystallisation of Hope). The myth of ‘Land of Israel’ is simply meant to obscure the settler-colonial nature of the Jewish state of Israel, and has, in fact, worked brilliantly so far, to the tragic detriment of Palestinians.

The in-gathering of Jews from all over the world into Palestine is evident in Israel’s categorization system, which has a number of categories for Jew (see In Israel, Jews are united by homeland but divided into very different groups). Arab Jews are not classified as Arabs in accordance with the nationality of the Arab country from which they emigrated or were forced to move into Israel. Israel prefers to refer to the construct of “Arabs” as a single “ethnicity” rather than different nationalities — e.g., Iraqi, Yemeni, Saudi, Syrian, Lebanese, Tunisian, Egyptian, etc.. Anthropologist Smadar Lavie, classified as “Mizrahi Jew” in Israel, writes and talks about the deep divisions between Western and Eastern Jews inside Israel.

But in Israel there is one category for Palestinian citizens - that of generic Arab, non-Jewish Israeli citizen, meaning, by the definition of Israel as Jewish, it is impossible for such a person to be assimilated into the mainstream social, political and cultural matrix of the Jewish state.

News reports play along with Israel’s erasure of Palestinian identity:

...a reminder of how news reports can erase Palestinians so easily …[is] multiple Australian media outlets describing 21-year-old Maasarwe as Israeli or Arab-Israeli, when she was in fact Palestinian. A Palestinian with Israeli citizenship.

In its system of categorization, Israel thus sets up a dialectic of polar opposition between the generic “Arab”, the non-Jew whose temporal or historical connection to the land Israel has succeeded in denying through military violence, and the Jew, wherever on the globe he/she might reside, who is invited, as a birthright, to inherit this land.

In other words, by categorizing non-Jewish Palestinian citizens generic “Arab”, Israel defines its Jewish illiberal exclusivity and denies the Palestinians’ inalienable right of return to their stolen homeland that continues to be “settled” by Jews. As Edward Said points out:

Zionism is historically incommensurate with any sort of liberalism, so long as Zionism is believed by its supporters to be identical with, or at least a logical extension of, Judaism as a religion of secular exclusion and nonassimilation. (The Palestinian Experience in The Politics of Dispossession: The struggle for Palestinian self determination 1969 -1994, p. 17)

The use of the generic term “Arab” by Israel also serves its goals of undermining Arab and Muslim culture in Western media by playing on tropes of “Arab menace”. The word “Arab” in Western culture is conflated with “Muslim” and ascribed a “national character”, as this declassified CIA document shows: Central Intelligence Agency.

Such use obscures the fact that Arab nationalism, which was a movement calling for separation from the Ottoman empire prior to World War I, has been realized in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq in the form of self-determination and statehood, but it has yet to be realized in Palestine.

The classification of “Arab” in Israel’s census scheme also creates an illusion that a form of Pan Arabism, rather than Palestinian nationalism, is the solution to the problem of Israel in Palestine. (See Muhammad Y. Muslih, The Origins of Palestinian Nationalism, Columbia University Press, 1988). It is this that drives Israel apologists to insist that other Arab countries must “absorb their brethren who ran away [in 1948] …”

Those few words in italics above say it all.
The above was first published in most part on Quora (22 Jan 2019) as an answer to the question: Why does Israel call Palestinians “Arabs” in its census categories? Does this category include Arab Jews? My answer was subsequently deleted and then reinstated on appeal by Quora Moderation.

Rima Najjar is an activist for justice in Palestine.



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Rima Najjar

Rima Najjar

Palestinian and righteously angry