(Re)framing Jewish Privilege and Rebuffing Arab Rights

Gershon Shafir, UCSD


Israeli Jews have articulated at least four different ways over the previous century and a quarter to justify, frame and reframe their privilege over the land of Israel and in relation to Palestinian Arabs: they are settlers, they are a nation, they are a religion, and they are a race. There are also two ways in which, at historical junctures, left and liberal Jews were willing, not so much to recognize Arab equality, but to ‘generously grant’ national, civil and political rights.  The disjuncture between Jewish privileges and Palestinian Arab aspirations for effective rights is what discrimination is made of. This short essay examines how Arab citizens of Israel are discriminated against through the framing of Jewish privilege and, perhaps more controversially, its subsequent reframing as Judaic supremacy.

I chart my argument in the form of two arcs, or timelines. The first is the arc of privilege. Arriving in Palestine in the late 19th century Jews have framed themselves as settlers, in the context of the Peel partition program as a nation, following the 1967 War as a religion and, recently, as a race. To this arc I counterpoise the arc of rights. There are two intervals in the relentless march of Jewish privilege-seeking. During the period that lasted from the Arab Revolt to the eve of the 1948 War, there emerged in parts of the Labor Settlement Movement (LSM) a grudging recognition that the strength of Palestinian resistance was due to its national character and led to a conditional readiness to compromise with it. Roughly from 1992 to 2006, the combined Oslo Process domestic agenda and Aharon Barak’s Constitutional Revolution launched preliminary steps towards recognizing Palestinians as a nation and Israel’s own Palestinian Arab citizens as entitled to more effective rights. During these hiatuses, a pattern was broken but the direction of Jewish-Arab relations did not fundamentally change.

New stages did not fully erase previous ones and instead became interwoven with them, but all are similar in legitimating Jewish privilege. In this short paper, I cannot devote equal attention to each reframing and will focus most of my attention on two of the frames: Jewish Israelis as members of a Judaic religion and as race.


The century old British Christian-Zionism and the younger Zionist movement allied in 1917 in inventing a Jewish settler colony of sovereignty-carrying settlers under the Palestine Mandate.[1] As long as the natives of Palestine were not recognized as a political community, the Jewish settlers would not be viewed as intruders even as they engaged in the ‘conquest of land’ and ‘conquest of labor’ and instead construed themselves as immigrants and pioneers. The respective charters of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) and Histadrut that permitted leasing land to and employing only Jews were direct legal discrimination of potential Arab workers.

As the Yishuv grew and consolidated, so did its national consciousness. The British promise of the ‘national home’ was upgraded into a demand for independence and statehood in the 1942 Biltmore Program. Simultaneously, the Arab Revolt led to the realization that Palestinians were capable of collective action and resistance led to the British and Jewish grudging, first closely guarded and only later open, realization that just as Jews are a nation, so are the Palestinians.[2]

At this stage privilege and rights intersected, the privileged Jewish presence destined to become the majority was not to be abrogated, but land partition could be contemplated. After 1948, a similar duality led to attempts at the partial integration of Arabs into citizenship while keeping them under stifling military rule. The halakhic (Judaic law) rulings of Israel’s first two Chief Rabbis, Yitzhak Halevi Herzog and Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel, were accommodating and favored the equalization of Jewish and Arab rights of citizenship, to purchase land, to elect, and be elected.[3] But the ‘two states for two people’ concept itself went underground in 1948 and reappeared only in the late 1960s.


Following the conquests of the 1967 War, in Baruch Kimmerling’s words, the challenge of Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel in its vague biblical dimensions) to the State of Israel[4], led to yet another reforming of Jewish privilege. Religion was never absent from Zionism, but the Labor Settlement Movement (LSM) had nationalized Judaism, thus giving it a measure of autonomy from Judaism. In the process, the LSM refocused attention from the Talmud that guided Jewish diasporic life to the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, and the history of Jewish national life in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) in Antiquity.  Until 1967, the recovery of the biblical tradition, for example through the mandatory teaching of the Tanakh in secular Israeli schools, was amateurish and fragmentary.

In the wake of the 1967 occupation, prominent religious-Zionists rabbis forged what I call an ‘originalist’ interpretation around the commandments of conquest –The Conquest—particularly of its harsh codification in Maimonides’s 12th century Mishne Torah. The vast majority agrees that the land conquered cannot be returned to Arab hands, but they are also engaged in a protracted debate of the archaic conditions under which Arabs in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) are to be viewed as meeting the multiple conditions for being considered ‘ger toshav’ (resident alien) in ‘Judea and Samaria and Gaza?’ Are Arabs a new incarnation of the seven nations of Cana’an? Are they idolaters? Do they observe the seven commandments of the Sons of Noah (universal moral principles given to Gentiles)? Do they need to recognize Jewish supremacy in Eretz Yisrael, and even if they do, is it still necessary to make them ‘wretched and humiliated’ as Maimonides rules and if so how to do so presently? If Arabs don’t meet the requisite qualifications, they are not allowed to reside (al techanem) in Eretz Yisrael.[5]

In the arc of rights, I contest the view that ‘nothing has changed’ in terms of Jewish privilege versus Palestinian rights, or rather their absence, since the early days of the Yishuv. What the LSM did then, the Likud does now. Rabin headed the first Israeli government that relied not on a Jewish but a civil, Jewish-Arab, majority. The Barak government’s ‘Constitutional Revolution’ produced, for example, the Qu’adan decision which determined that it was illegal for the state to discriminate between its Jewish and Arab citizens in the allocation of land, even when the discrimination was done through the Jewish Agency and the JNF.[6] This is a period in which Palestinian national self-determination and domestic social equality expanded and nourished each other since the two were mutually dependent as Rabin relied on Arab support for the Oslo Accords.[7]

Notwithstanding the ‘failed reforms’ of the Rabin-Barak era, in the past two decades or so, a powerful challenge to Jewish privilege emerged from within Israel’s Arab citizenry. There is an ongoing and significant social mobility of Arab citizens which allow them to make more effective use of their formal rights. About one quarter are now middle class due to large socio-economic changes in Israel, such as the flourishing of community colleges in peripheral regions.[8] Modernization has led to Arab migration to Jewish majority towns, greater presence in the professions, media, and in the public sphere in general. A significant contributor to the self-confidence that accompanies this wave of mobility is the very active network of Arab and joint Jewish-Arab civil rights organizations and NGOs most of which were established with EU support in the wake of the October 2000 events (solidarity demonstrations of Palestinian citizens with the Second intifada which was repressed violently by the Israeli police).[9] These social advances led to Jewish rebuke that mobilizes all three forms of Jewish privilege, and rejects both types of rights.

The reaction to Jewish-Arab mixing has a distinctly religious dimension. Israel has not seen violent ethnic competition at places of employment, but rather a campaign against the phantom of Jewish assimilation into the Arab minority. In 2010, an Israeli Jewish association named Lehava (Flame, Hebrew acronym For the Prevention of Assimilation in the Holy Land) was formed with the declared goal of bringing a to halt marriages between Jewish women and Palestinian Arab men. Lehava admonishes Jewish women that “You were worthy to be sacred, pure; you are Jewish! You are a king’s daughter! The daughter of the King of Kings – the Lord!  Don’t let a goy (Gentile) or minority make you fall and defile you. He wants you and once he had his wish, you’ll discover what hell is like.”[10] Lehava calls for the separation of Jews and Arabs in housing, as well as at work, shopping, education, and leisure activities in order to prevent encounters that may lead to “romantic entanglements.” The construction of interfaith marriages as assimilation –the familiar threat to Jewish diasporic life– rather than the expression of the openness of a multicultural or pluralistic society, aims to police the boundaries of Jewishness and of Jewish femininity in particular.

Lehava is not satisfied with direct or indirect legal or institutional discrimination but threatens the personal security of Arab citizens through not only posters, fliers, stands, demonstrations, assemblies, social media but also arson, violent assaults and lynching. On a daily basis, 250 anti-Arab expressions, including 55 calling for violence, appear on Lehava’s blog.[11] Lehava is part of a broader, steady, and accelerating socio-cultural movement that seeks to accelerate Israel’s religionization. Lehava’s demands to prevent Jewish-Arab social mixing in the public sphere is part and parcel of a larger campaign to infuse halakhic demands, such as gender segregation, into the public sphere and expand rabbinical authority over social and political concerns.

A coalition of haredi and religious-Zionist rabbis, including Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, and the late dovish Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, prohibit renting Jewish-owned homes to Arab citizens and a large subset also seek to recover the settler privilege of Hebrew Labor.[12] Mayors in Nof Hagalil (formerly Upper Nazareth) and Afula are hard at work to prevent the entry of new Arab residents and bar the establishment of institutions, such as Arab-language schools, that would serve those who have already become residents, in order to prevent the reversal of the Judaization of the Galilee. The bitter assaults on Arab electoral participation and potential coalition membership are one of the clearest expressions of the pushback against Arab affirmation of political citizenship. The adoption of the Nation State Law in May 2018 demonstrates that national rights have again returned to be part of Jewish privilege. The invocation of insistence on settler, national, and religious privilege is done to re-segregate Arabs, to deny their access to public space, and return them to the ghetto.


The most recent stage is the framing a Judaic racial privilege, indeed supremacy, entitling Jews to be placed above and over their Arab counterparts once and for all. Race is a knotty concept to use especially in a Jewish context. I want to proceed carefully, which means that I will want to think historically and sociologically.

I am following the gradual replacement by sociologists of the concept of racism with the concept of racialization.[13] This is the historical process, commonly going through several stages, of asserting group privileges by framing competing ethnic or religious groups as inferior and wretched cultures due to genetic inferiority. The term could be used to describe the full length of Jewish-Arab interaction, that is, as an ahistorical process coterminous with Zionism itself. But this approach is not supported by historical or sociological evidence. For example, my own study of the first two waves of Jewish settler-immigrants did not uncover the use of racialized expressions of the country’s Arab population.[14] Racialization is a recent phenomenon in Israel, of the last decade.

The chronology of racialization operates in the context of a sociological dynamic. Racialization of Arabs in contemporary Israel is a backlash, the rebuffing of those who already left the ghetto. It is also a reversal of the customary Israeli policy of fragmenting Palestinians into subgroups, To deprive the emancipated minority of its citizenship rights and presence in the public sphere they are lumped together with the Arabs in the OPT and the other 75% of Israeli-Arab citizens at the bottom of the socio-economic hierarchy. The restoration of direct legal discrimination and segregation against Arabs through the reinstitution of full Jewish privilege is predicated on breaking down any intra-Arab differentiation, of reframing them as an inferior group that has a murderous culture and is incapable of running a functioning state.

Israeli racialization proceeds along several tracks –almost all religious– to racialize Jewish chosenness and innate Arab inferiority. I will mention only a few. The first, hardali racialization, is headquartered in the first, largest, and most prestigious military preparatory yeshiva of Beni David in the Eli settlement. The yeshiva head, Rabbi Eliezer Kashtiel teaches his students that “Yes, we’re racists. We believe in racism…peoples have genetic traits…The Jews are a more successful race [and]… instead of just walking the streets and being stupid and violent and harming each other…the Gentiles will want to be our slaves.” According to Rabbi Giora Redler, “Hitler…was the most correct person ever …he was just on the wrong side.” [15] The second is Chabadnik racialization, in the teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, the guru of the ‘hilltop youth’ and the inspiration for their Tag Mechir vigilantism (acts of violence and vandalism aimed to extract a ‘price’ from neighboring Palestinians for constraints placed on settlement expansion). Ginsburgh finds the pure divine spark, the yechida, in the Jewish nefesh (soul) only. In the next breath, Ginsburgh teaches that the blood of Israel is favored by God and therefore it is preferable to die than to shed it but this commandment is reversed when it concerns a Gentile’s blood.[16] The third, of course, is the mainstreaming of the Otzma Yehudit Party of Kahane’s own students by Netanyahu and the Jewish Home-National Unity hardali party, in the April 2019 elections.

The last two forms of racialization originate in the mainstream. About two years ago, the Chief Rabbinate started using mitochondrial DNA tests to authenticate the Jewishness of immigrants from the former-USSR; in other words, to self-racialize Jews.[17] Finally, there is what I call ’non-racist racialization’ of the likes of Benny Tsiper,[18] Yaron London,[19] or Likud MK Miki Zohar, who lectured Ahmad Tibi in a Knesset subcommittee that “the Jewish race is special,” not superior just special, because “what flows in the DNA of the Jewish people is something special…they are a smart, successful people [who] demonstrated how in 60 years it is possible to take a country from nothing and turn it into an empire.”[20] Racialization is an emerging trend, its religious enunciations disseminated through secular inventors of Jewish supremacy. Its goal is to restore direct legal discrimination.


Why and when these reframings become necessary and what are their uses? I suggest that newer articulations of privilege answer three requirements.

First, the beneficiaries of privilege reach for a new horizon when established privilege encounters resistance and shows signs of wear and tear, or when they become greedier. Palestinian nationhood was put on the table when the British support for the Zionist settler project waned and Arabs revolted against it. Religious privilege emerged to replace the limiting demographic definition of Jewish privilege with a more expansive territorial one. The implosion of religious privilege as the result of Israeli withdrawals, the 2005 Gaza disengagement, occasional removal of illegal settlements, opened the door to racialization. Israeli racialization of Arabs and self-racialization aim to rebuff Arab social mobility within Israel and national aspirations in the OPT.

Second, claims of religious and racial privileges, in fact the transformation of privilege into supremacy, make possible the imposition of tighter and harsher control mechanisms on Israel’s Arab populations. Since 1948, Israel has relied mostly on the fragmentation of Arabs into subgroups, treating the Druze and Circassians as non-Arabs, and the latter between Muslims, Christians, and the Bedouin, and in the OPT residents of East Jerusalem, Areas A, B. C. Hebron H1 and H2, Gaza, and so on to different rights, protections, and types of punishment. Under the aegis of religious and racialized privilege the mechanism of fragmentation might be replaced with lumping, viewing all Arabs as the same, none entitled to citizen or national rights.

Third, each stage of self-privileging claims a more extensive and exclusive form of privilege and sets up a less porous and more impenetrable barrier to those seeking their own rights. The settler’s privilege claims access to land and immigration, the national privilege political independence, the religious one territorial expansion, the racist everything.

Examining the long-term history of the Yishuv and Israel might raise the question, are the ambiguities of a Jewish democracy finally laid bare and ‘resolved?’ Are the reframings of privilege signposts along the path of transparency? Are the contradictions, ideologies, denials finally cast aside, exposing the nakedness and true nature of what Zionism has become, because it has always been, resolved in favor of clarity? I do not share the ‘defining moment’ approach which is drawn from a philosophized view of history and which, among other things, overlooks contingencies and paths, such as the Rabin-Barak interlude, taken only in part or not taken. Rather, I suggest that the reframings of Jewish privilege as religion and race, and consequent disregard of Arab rights, reflect the gradual freeing of religion from its role of providing legitimacy to the Zionist movement and their growing conflict.

The religious and racial reframing of Jewish privilege is also part and parcel of the ambition to create a single state between the sea and the river, but rather than a Jewish-Palestinian binational or one-person-one-vote civic political order a Jewish, indeed Judaic, state. In a state such as this there is not only on room for Palestinian political rights but their very presence is cast in doubt.



[1]  Gershon Shafir, “Christian Zionism and the Balfour Declaration,” Fathom, Vol. 18, October 2017 & Balfour 100: The Fathom Essays, 2017, accessed July 6, 2020 http://fathomjournal.org/balfour-100-christian-zionism-and-the-balfour-declaration/?highlight=shafir

[2] Already in a debate held by the joint secretariat of Achdut Ha’avoda and Hapo’el Hatzair in the wake of the1929 riots, “most of the participants…acknowledged that an Arab national movement existed, although they denied the social character of its goals.”  Yosef Gorny, Zionism and the Arabs, 1882-1948, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1987, p. 209.

[3] Sagi, Avi, “Zionist Halakha and the Challenge of Liberalism (Hahalakha hatsiyonit ve’etgar haliberalism),” in Stern, Yedidia Z. & Yair Sheleg eds., Zionist Halakha: Halakhic Ramifications of National Sovereignty (Halakha tsiyonit: hamashm’auyot hahilkhatiyot shel haribonut hayehudit), Jerusalem, Israel Democracy Institute, 2017, pp. 76-77, 84-88.

[4] Kimmerling, Baruch, “Between the Primordial and the Civil Definitions of the Collective Identity: Eretz Israel or the State of Israel,” in Cohen, Erik, Lissak, Moshe and Almagor, Uri, (eds.), Comparative Social Dynamics: Essays in Honor of S.N. Eisenstadt, Boulder: Westview, 1985.

[5] Hadad, Eliezer, Minorities in a Jewish State: Halakhic Perspectives (Mi’utim bemedina yehudit: hebetim hilkhatiyim), Jerusalem, Israel Democracy Institute, 2010, pp. 44-61.

[6] Gershon Shafir & Yoav Peled, Being Israeli: The Dynamics of Multiple Citizenship, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp. 132-3.

[7] Ron Gerlitz, “Rabin’s Legacy: Basing the Government on Civic Majority Rather than Jewish Majority (Moreshet rabin: levases et hamemshala al rov ezrachi bemkom rov yehudi)”   Sicha Mekomit, October 25, 2015,  accessed July 6, 2020, https://mekomit.co.il/%d7%9e%d7%95%d7%a8%d7%a9%d7%aa-%d7%a8%d7%91%d7%99%d7%9f-%d7%a8%d7%95%d7%91-%d7%90%d7%96%d7%a8%d7%97%d7%99/

[8] Noga Dagan-Buzaglo and Etty Konor-Attias, Israel’s Middle Class 1992–2010: Who Are We Talking About? (report for the Adva Center, Tel Aviv, Israel, January 2013), accessed July 6, 2020, http://adva.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/middle-class12.pdf, 3–4; Statistical Abstract of Israel 2014, Table 8.72, Jerusalem, Central Bureau of Statistics, 2015.

[9] Gershon Shafir, “From Overt to Veiled Segregation: Israel’s Palestinian Arab Citizens in the Galilee,“ International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Vol.50, No.1, February 2018, pp.1-22.

[10] Blau, Uri & Shai Grinberg, “Kahane chai berevacha” (Kahane’s Spacious Existence), Haaretz, May 7, 2011,  accessed July 6, 2020, https://www.haaretz.co.il/misc/1.1173276; Cook, Jonathan, “Israel’s Lehava Stirs ‘Anarchy’ in Jerusalem,” Al Jazeera, December 4, 2016, accessed July 4, 2020,  http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/10/israel-lehava-stirs-anarchy-jerusalem-161025100901588.html


[11] Israeli Supreme Court Bagatz, 2017: 8-9;

[12] Motti Levy, “Rabbi Ovadya Yosef: It is Forbidden to Sell Apartments to Goyim (Harav ovadya yosef: asur lemkhor dirot lagoyim),” accessed July 6, 2020  https://news.walla.co.il/item/1749114; Idan Yosef, “Rabbis: To Hold Enemy to Measure for Measure (Rabanim: Lekayem ba’oyev mida keneged mida),” accessed July 6, 2020, https://www.news1.co.il/Archive/001-D-156704-00.html

[13] See for example, Patrick Wolfe, Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race, London, Verso, 2016.

[14]  Gershon Shafir, “Split Labor Market and the Sources of National Separatism in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” in van der Linder, Marcel & Jan Lucassen eds., Racism and the Labour Market: Historical Studies, Bern, Peter Lang, 1995, pp. 437-455.

[15] Tamar Pileggi, “Embracing Racism,  Rabbis at Pre-army Yeshiva Laud Hitler, Urge Enslaving Arabs,” Times of Israel, April 30, 2019, accessed July 6, 2020, https://www.timesofisrael.com/embracing-racism-rabbis-at-pre-army-yeshiva-laud-hitler-urge-enslaving-arabs/

[16] Ginsburgh, Yitzchak, The Book of the Kingdom of Israel, Vol. 1 (Sefer malchut yisrael, alef), Rechovot, Gal Eini, 1999; Hanan Mozes, “From Religious-Zionism to Post-Modern Religiosity: Directions and Developments in Religious Zionism since the Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin (Metsiyonut datit ledatiyut post-modernit: megamot vetahalichim batsiyonut hadatit me’az retzach rabin),” Ph.D. dissertation, Bar Ilan University, 2009.

[17] Editorial, “Race Theory (Torat hagez’a),” Haaretz, September 1, 2019, accessed July 6, 2020,  https://www.haaretz.co.il/misc/article-print-page/.premium-1.7772331

[18]  Sivan Tal, “Haaretz Editor: ‘For the Palestinians Murder is a Type of Sport, Perhaps a Substitute for Erotica,” September 10, 1029, accessed July 6, 2020,  https://mondoweiss.net/2019/09/haaretz-palestinians-substitute/

[19]  “Yaron London: ‘Arabs Are Savages;’ Kan: ‘An Unfortunate Statement by  an Aged Provocateur (Yaron London: ‘ aravim hem per’ai adam;’ Kan: ‘medubar be’amira umlala shel provokator ol yamim’),” Maariv, August 26, 2019, accessed July 6, 2020, https://www.maariv.co.il/culture/tv/Article-715665

[20] “Likud MK to Arab Lawmaker: The Jews Are a ‘Special Race,” Times of Israel, September 9, 2019, accessed July 6, 2020,  https://www.timesofisrael.com/jewish-mk-to-arab-mk-the-jews-are-a-special-race/