Without a state, within the State: Arab citizens in Israel and the judicial protests

The current issue of Bayan is being published amidst an emotional public and political controversy over the reform of the judicial system in the State of Israel, and deals with the Arab public’s position on the judicial reform. The article by Dr. Maysoun Ershead Shehadeh deals with the participation of Arab citizens in the public protest against the judicial reform.

הפגנות בירושלים נגד הרפורמה המשפטית
A demonsration in Jerusalem against the Judicial Reform, February 2023.
Hanay, via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0].


Young Arabs and members of the middle class in Arab society are noticeable in their absence from the weekly mass demonstrations against the judicial reforms. The fact that they are ignoring the protests is not in keeping with the character of this generation, which in general does not take a passive stance but rather tries to influence the trajectory of events in the State.

Arabs in Israel possess a variety of identities, one of which is the “hybrid realistic identity” which emerged following the Nakba. Their identity differs from that of the Palestinians outside of Israel, due to the fact that the building of their identity took place within the Jewish State and due to the influence of Israeli culture on their identity, among other things.

The absence of Arab citizens from the protests against the reform of the judicial system reflects their feeling that the Supreme Court has not fulfilled its obligation towards them. It has never dealt with the issue of defining the State and has protected Israel’s essence as a Jewish state.

There are few cases in which the Supreme Court has promoted legislation for the benefit of the Arabs. In these circumstances, they do not see any reason to get out on the streets and to protect an institution whose motives are tied to the identity of the Jewish majority, which marginalizes the Arabs because of their identity.

Most of the clauses of the judicial reform are to do with the only institution that has the ability to constrain the power of the government: the Supreme Court. The weakening of this constraint will undermine the position of Israel’s Arab citizens if the Supreme Court loses its power to protect minorities.[1] Even though the Supreme Court is the gatekeeper that prevents the decline of the Arab minority’s sociopolitical status in Israel, only a small group of Arabs have so far participated in the protests against the judicial reform.

It is difficult to identify the presence of Arabs within the massive demonstrations in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Ignoring the protest is also characteristic of the Arab towns and the social media, which are not discussing it. Particularly interesting is the absence of the young generation of intellectuals and the members of the new middle class.[2] The fact that this generation is ignoring the protest is not in keeping with its character, since in general it tends to adopt strategies of adaptation in response to events and to assimilate within them; or in other words to shift from passivity to political activism in order to influence events and encourage a policy that advances its interest.[3]

Young Arabs therefore are choosing to ignore the protest and not to use the platform that has become available to them. The protest could serve as a golden opportunity to nurture a new young political leadership. They would be able to make their voice heard and to replace the existing political leadership, as well as being able to recruit additional young people who are seeking a leadership that can fulfill their aspirations and which attributes importance to their future. They would be able to take advantage of the protest in order to create a convincing platform that will pave the way to greater influence in the upcoming municipal elections and to build a partnership with groups of young Jews that is based on a shared social and political platform. However, the members of this generation have not done so.

Many have wondered about the absence of Arab hi-tech workers from the hi-tech protest, which stands at the forefront of the opposition to the judicial reform. The hi-tech industry is responsible for one-quarter of income tax revenues and one-half of Israel’s exports. There are about 400 thousand workers in the sector, although only about 2 percent of them are Arabs. This tiny proportion explains their limited influence and why they have not been prominent as an ethnic group in the protest. Arab hi-tech workers have not held up signs in Arabic while in contrast their Jewish counterparts have waved signs that say, “If there is no democracy, there is no hi-tech” and “If there is no freedom, there is no hi-tech”; these are threatening slogans that are backed up by power and influence. The young Arab hi-tech workers do not have the same power as their Jewish counterparts – their weight does not justify signs in Arabic. All they can do—even though they are members of a sector that is at the center of Israeli society—is to stand on the sidelines.

The question therefore arises of why the Arabs, and in particular young Arabs, are not participating en masse in the demonstrations? Indeed, signs such as “The Supreme Court protects us as a minority” and “A democratic state” would express their views and would be in line with their aspirations.

Realistic citizenship

The questions at the core of the protest are “Who are we?” and “Where are we headed?” rather than the future of the Supreme Court. In other words, the issues at the core of the protest are the image and character of the State. This question also determines whether Arabs will participate in the protest or not since it determines if they are to be included within the definition of “us”. Therefore, who is “us” and who is “them”?

As with other collectives, the identity of Arabs in Israel is characterized by continuity and dynamism and is constructed according to the unique situation of processes in time and space.[4] Like anyone else, the Arabs in Israel possess a variety of identities;[5] however, their identity also has a “realistic” nature. In the eyes of the majority of Palestinians that became part of the newly created State of Israel, the Nakba meant separation from their brothers, from their homes, from their land, from their political and national leadership and from their people. The defeated Arabs, who lost everything and feared for their fate, immediately understood the new reality. They adopted a realistic approach and very soon accepted—and even asked for—the Israeli civil identity, in addition to their own. As proof of their acceptance, they participated in the first Knesset elections, which took place already in February 1949, while the conflict still raged between their state and that of their brothers and compatriots.[6] Despite this acceptance, the State of Israel declared a security emergency and imposed a military government on the Arabs (which ended only in 1966), based on special regulations that restricted their movement and their activity. Among other things, the military government allowed the Jewish settlement apparatus to establish new Jewish settlements, to house new immigrants in abandoned Arab homes and to confiscate a large portion of the land that had belonged to Arab residents.[7]

The policy of isolation, separation and inequality towards the Arabs began with the creation of the State of Israel. To this policy was added the prolonged and stubborn conflict with the Palestinians and with the Arab states and its effect on the identity-building of the Arabs in Israel, which is still going on today. A situation in which a national minority is included within a majority state whose national identity is different from that of the minority and which grants citizenship without it being able to influence the minority’s national identification, leads to the creation of an identity as a “stateless minority”. A minority of this type is included within the State but does not feel completely identified with it.[8] The feeling of exploitation and oppression is one of the main factors that drives national movements and stateless national collectives to rise up against the state in which they live and to fight for independence or to demand autonomy. Like any stateless minority, the situation of the Arabs in Israel is influenced to a great extent by their view of the State and its apparatus as a barrier to their socioeconomic development.

Unlike Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza who are fighting for national independence and territorial sovereignty, the Palestinians in the State of Israel have remained part of State while demanding cultural autonomy accompanied by equal civil rights. Even when their State fought against their people, they have acted according to realistic considerations of survival and security and have adopted a non-violent struggle to establish an independent state for their Palestinian brothers outside of Israel.

In general, stateless minorities are controlled by two power centers that pull in opposite directions. The first is their national movement (including civil society organizations) and the second is the majority state and the degree of democratic flexibility that it is prepared to grant to the minority group.[9] The greater is the extent of democracy and equality granted to the national minority, the less will be the counter-influence of the national movement that exists among the minority. This is because its power to bring together the members of the minority to oppose the ethno-national majority state is weakened. In other words, to the extent that the minority benefits socioeconomically and has rights equal to those of the majority group, its national struggle and national identity are weakened. This can be seen in particular when the fate of the minority is dependent on the majority group and it lacks the power to threaten the majority group’s security situation, its economic status or its culture. This situation embodies the reality of the Arabs in Israel and is reflected in their absence from the protest and the lack of their influence over its direction. The Arab minority is fearful for its socioeconomic security – it does not participate in the protest in order to avoid any threat from the State.

This year, Israel is marking its 75th year of independence. The Arabs in its midst are realists with a hybrid identity: it differs from that of the Palestinians outside of Israel due to, among other things, their identity within the Jewish State and the influence of Israeli culture. Recent history, as well as less recent history (such as the massacres of Kfar Kassem (1956), Land Day (1976), October 2000 and May 2021), have taught them to accept the fact that their fate is dependent on the State’s decisions and its attitude towards them. The Supreme Court was meant to use its powers in these cases in order to protect the Arab citizens of the State, whose treatment was in violation of the principles of democracy and equality. The absence of the Arabs from the protest reflects their feeling that this body is not fulfilling its role with respect to the Arabs who constitute a significant minority within the State.

The Arabs and the Supreme Court

Someone observing the activity of the Supreme Court over time would quickly understand that it is based on a definition of the Arabs as “citizens without a state”. The Supreme Court has never dealt with the question of the definition of the State in a way that takes into consideration the existence of various ethnic groups within it, such as a binational state or a state “for all its citizens.”[10] The Supreme Court has also maintained a very narrow space to maneuver within in its decisions with regard to the Arab minority. It has protected the definition and character of the State of Israel as a “Jewish state” and thus has maintained its legitimacy among the Jewish majority in Israel.

In petitions submitted against the Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law (temporary directive), 2022, which is meant to deny any official status to Palestinians married to Israelis, the Supreme Court (headed by Esther Hayut, the current president of the Supreme Court) went no further than requesting that the State explain its position with respect to granting exemptions to Palestinians who are seeking some status in Israel based on their marriage to an Israeli citizen. The judges asked whether the State is prepared to increase the annual quota of permits granted for requests based only on humanitarian grounds, but did not discuss the law itself and they were careful to avoid creating any opening that would lead to a public reaction against it, despite its direct relevance and sensitivity for Arab citizens in Israel.

In dealing with the question of allowing the return of exiles from the Arab village of Ikrit, who had been promised by the government (on July 31, 1951) that they would eventually return to their land, the Supreme Court released the State (on June 26, 2003) from its promise on the basis of a critical public interest. The Supreme Court explained that its ruling is opposed to keeping the promise because of “the need to prevent a precedent that would strengthen the claim regarding the Palestinian right of return.”[11]

Added to the long-held and growing feeling among the Arabs that the Supreme Court has abandoned its role of defending them as a minority are factors that support their non-participation in the judicial protest. Among them are the diminished sociopolitical activism among both Jews and Arabs; the creation of the Joint List (a uni-national Arab political framework that has eroded the Arab-Jewish political partnership); the political polarization and the rise of an extreme-Right government; separate living space for each people and the limited encounters between Jews and Arabs in the workplace, which is controlled by the majority group; the weakened influence of the Supreme Monitoring Committee as a body that leads and directs the political activity of the Arabs; the preference of the Arab parties not to get involved as a result of the political polarization and their inability to choose which side to join; the dispersion of Arab intellectuals and the lack of a broadly based organization that will bring them together and enable them to have an effect on the shaping of Arab identity, on sociopolitical activism and on the relationship between the State apparatus and the civil society organizations; etc.

The aforementioned factors are important but they support the main reason for the low level of participation by Arabs in the protest: the growing feeling that their identity is not protected. There are very few instances in which the Supreme Court has promoted legislation for the benefit of the Arabs. In these circumstances, they do not see any reason to get out onto the streets in order to protect an institution whose motives are tied to the identity of the Jewish majority, which is working to marginalize their own identity. If they join the demonstrations en masse, it will only be because of utilitarian-rational considerations. Until then, the struggle will remain, in the eyes of Arab citizens, a struggle between brothers or between “tribes”, in the words of Reuven Rivlin, the former President of Israel, and the Arabs are still a non-Jewish tribe that has no place among them.[12]

Dr. Maysoun Ershead Shehadeh is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University and a lecturer in the Department of History, Philosophy and Judaic Studies at the Open University in Israel. She specializes in Arab identity in Israel, Communist parties, and sectoral realism, with a focus on questions of the hybrid identity of Arabs in Israel.

*The opinions expressed in MDC publications are the authors’ alone.

[1] I. Saban, “The Supreme Court and the Arab-Palestinian minority: A picture (and a prediction) that isn’t black and white”, Mishpat Umimshal 8 (2005), pp. 23–47. [Hebrew]

[2] The middle class is defined as a group whose gross income ranges from 75% to 125% of the average wage in the economy. For further details, see: “The weight of the middle class and an analysis of how it has changed in recent years”, Knesset Center for Research and Information, May 4, 2021. [Hebrew]

[3] A. Haidar, The new Arab-Palestinian middle class in Israel: An economic, sociocultural and political perspective (Tel Aviv University: the Walter Leibach Institute and the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Studies, 2021). [Hebrew]

[4] Husamettin Inac and Feyzullah Unal, "The Construction of National Identity in Modern Times: Theoretical Perspective", International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, 3:11 (June 2013), pp. 223-232.

[5] C. Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).

[6] Member of Knesset Abdul ‘Aziz Zouabi who belonged to the Mapam party (1965–74) described this as “My state is fighting against my people”.

[7] Y. Bauml, “The discriminatory policy towards the Arabs in Israel: 1948–1968”, Studies in the Creation of Israel 16 (2006), pp. 391–413. [Hebrew]

[8] M. Shehadeh Ershead, "The Arabs in Israel – Hybrid Identity of a Stateless National Collectivity", Mediterranean Studies, 29:1 (2021), pp. 65-88.

[9] M. Guibernau, Nations Without States: Political Communities in a Global Age (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999).

[10] Aharon Barak, A Judge in Democratic Society (Haifa University Publications, Keter and Nevo, 2004), pp. 157–161. [Hebrew]

[11] Supreme Court 97/850 Sabit v. Government of Israel, ruling 67(4)(803) - See here. [Hebrew]

[12] Reuven Rivlin, “The Tribes Speech” at the Herzliya Conference, 2015.