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Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

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Shofar - Book Reviews

National Minority, Regional Majority: Palestinian Arabs Versus Jews in Israel, by Yitzhak Reiter.  Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2009.  403 pp. $49.95.


National Minority, Regional Majority is an ambitious book written by a scholar who has both academic experience and government service. He was the Israeli Prime Minster’s deputy advisor on Arab affairs from 1978 to 1987. The book provides insights into a variety of issues related to present day Israel studies. Students of Israeli domestic policies concerning Palestinian citizens will be most served by it. 

              The book is focused on providing an understanding of the dynamic relationship between Jewish and Palestinian citizens in Israel. It is organized in a fairly straightforward manner and provides useful conclusions on the topic. The study, in the words of Mr. Reiter, seeks to add a new dimension of analysis, interlocking conflict, to the body of work already engaged with the subject. The framework employed analyzes the relationship between Jewish and Palestinian citizens in Israel and the impact on it by the Israel-Palestinian conflict, the Arab-Israeli conflict and great power conflicts in the Middle East region (p. xiii).

              The chapters of the book are organized around two bookends. One is a historical narrative and the other some conclusions. Chapters in between, on individual Israeli governments and their treatment of Palestinian citizens of Israel, make up the bulk of the study. The best chapter is number seven, “Peace and Affirmative Action,” which details the Oslo Process and the lead up to the Second Intifada. It is the most analytical chapter of the book.

              The final chapter in the study offers thoughtful suggestions for the way forward for Jewish and Palestinian Israeli relations. These are largely focused on how Israel can continue to be a self-professed Jewish and democratic state with a significant non-Jewish minority. From his analysis, Mr. Reiter maintains that the government of Israel needs to be more mindful of the needs of the Palestinian community if it hopes to avoid a full-scale reproach of the idea of being both Jewish and democratic. He implies that had Israel been more aware of the needs of Palestinian Israelis they would have been less inclined towards Land Day 1976 protests, a rallying cry now for equal rights by Palestinians in Israel, and solidarity with the first and second intifadas  (p. 296). This conclusion is similar  to one made concerning Israel’s occupational overreach in the West Bank and Gaza Strip by Neve Gordon in Israel’s Occupation (2008).

              Unfortunately, the limitations of the book place it within a category of literature that is broadly defined as status quo. Reiter is clearly comfortable with government nomenclature. Calling Palestinian Israeli citizens Arabs and Israeli Arabs throughout the book is a case in point. Can Jews not be Arabs? Joel Benin (The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry, 2005), Reuven Snir (numerous), Salim Tamari (Mountain Against the Sea, 2008) and others have documented the important contributions of Arab Jews to contemporary Arab culture. Lumping together all Palestinian citizens of Israel who are not Jewish into the catch-all Arab category strikes me as contrary to this body of research.

              In many ways the central aim of the book, to advance the understanding of the dynamic relationship between Jewish and Palestinian Israelis, is really a secondary topic when considered in the light of the data presented. A narrow focus on understanding this relationship misses the opportunity to tackle a larger and more fundamental concern, which is how the government of Israel relates to being both a self-professed Jewish and democratic state when 20+% of its population is not Jewish. A more direct focus on this topic would strengthen the contribution of this book to the academy. 

              A conclusion of Mr. Reiter’s is that the Israeli government improves relations with its Palestinian citizens when it does not feel threatened. The data used in the study tells another story. Despite the blowing winds of threat—which are documented—a vibrant Zionist project that secures land for exclusive Jewish use in Israel was shown to exist. In this context then, the “relationship” between Jews and Palestinians in Israel concerns the level of violent repression needed to continue the project, and how that violence impacts relations between Jews and non-Jews in Israel.

              Other reviewers (Ian Lustick, Middle East Journal, Vol. 64, No.1 [Winter 2010]: 138) of the study have noted that pejoratives (terror, moderate, radical, violent, etc.) are reserved almost exclusively in the text to Palestinian actors. I agree. This ultimately limits the usefulness of the book. The language problem is most evident in chapter nine, “Black September,” which details the October 2000 killing by Israeli security forces of Palestinian Israeli citizens in Israel.

              Moral philosopher Thomas Merton reminded us that the laws of a state can be unjust and sufficiently implemented such that the brute force of the state to compel their acceptance is no longer needed. This peg on which to hang the rich data that Mr. Reiter has collected to analyze the relationship of Jewish and Palestinian citizens in Israel is not emphasized. Throughout the book there are glimpses of it but, they never seem to be connected in such a way that lands the Jewish and/vs. democracy issue as a central one of discussion.

Paul Beran

Center for Middle Eastern Studies

Harvard University