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Bishara, Azmi (1956–) - PERSONAL HISTORY, BIOGRAPHICAL HIGHLIGHTS, PERSONAL CHRONOLOGY:, INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS, CONTEMPORARIES, THE WORLD’S PERSPECTIVE, LEGACY

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Azmi Anton Bishara is a Palestinian thinker and politician from Israel, known for his deep and comprehensive writings in the political and literary fields. Until April 2007 Bishara was a member of the Israeli Knesset (parliament) and leader of the National Democratic Assembly, a party representing the national movement among the Palestinians living in Israel. For his contact with leaders from the Arab world he was accused of spying by the Israeli General Security Service and had to leave the country and live in the Arab world. Bishara is the most well-known and central figure in the leadership of the Palestinian community in Israel. He managed to penetrate the Israeli and the Arab public arenas and introduce a new political discourse based on his liberal national worldview. He presents a comprehensive critique of Zionism and of Israeli policies toward the Palestinian people. His political thought fast became the most dominant in the Palestinian community in Israel, despite his remaining a disputed figure inside his own community.

PERSONAL HISTORY

Bishara was born on 22 July 1956 to Anton and Munira Bishara, a lower-middle-class Palestinian Christian family from Nazareth, Israel. He went to elementary and Baptist high school in Nazareth, and in 1974, while still eighteen, he established the National Union of Arab High School Pupils. This union became active within RAKAH (the New Communist List), the party that was rising to prominence inside the Arab community and that became the main representative of its basic interests vis-à-vis the state. Upon his enrollment at Haifa University he became active in the Union of Arab Students and in mobilizing students for political activity. Bishara represented the Union of Arab Students for the Committee for the Defense of Arab Lands, which was established in 1974 to protest and oppose the massive Israeli policies of Arab land confiscation that intensified in the early 1970s. Already then he was well known for his clear political vision and sharp rhetorical capabilities. He continued this political activity at the Front of Communist Students-Campus at the Hebrew University where he became the chair of the Arab Students Union.

Being a member of the communist party, he won a stipend to study for a Ph.D. in philosophy in East Germany. He enrolled in Humboldt University in 1980 and completed his studies in 1986. His Ph.D. dissertation was titled “Methodology in the Kapital of Karl Marx: The Myth of the Unity between the Logical and the Historical.” During his stay in Germany Bishara was politically active and discussed the inequality status of the Arab community in Israel and the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza.

Upon his return to the Middle East in 1986, he taught at Birzeit University in the West Bank and remained there until 1996. In the years 1990 to 1992 he chaired the Philosophy and Cultural Studies Department. In 1992 he became one of the principle founders of Muwatin—the Palestinian Institute for the Research of Democracy. In the years 1992 to 1996 Bishara was a senior researcher at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem and was one of the principle founders of the social sciences journal Theory and Criticism . During his period at Van Leer he led the research project “Europe in the Middle East,” which gathered a large group of Jewish and Arab intellectuals to discuss basic philosophical and political ideas and their impact on the worldview of people in the Middle East region.

BIOGRAPHICAL HIGHLIGHTS

Name: Azmi Bishara

Birth: 1956, Nazareth, Israel

Family: Wife, Rana; one son, Umar; one daughter, Wajd

Nationality: Palestinian citizen of Israel

Education: Ph.D. (philosophy), Humboldt University, Berlin, 1986

PERSONAL CHRONOLOGY:

  • 1974: Establishes and heads the National Union of Arab High School Pupils
  • 1978: Heads Arab Student Union at Hebrew University
  • 1980–1986: Studies for Ph.D. at Humboldt University in Berlin-Germany
  • 1986–1996: Lecturer at Birzeit University
  • 1996: Establishes and heads the Arab party National Democratic Assembly
  • 1996–2007: Member of the Israeli Knesset
  • 2001: Visits Syria
  • 2006: Visits Syria and Lebanon
  • 2007–present: Lives in exile

Bishara’s intellectual activity never stopped him from being politically active. In 1991 he left RAKAH—the Communist Party—after strong debates with his colleagues regarding the impact that the disintegration of the Soviet Union should have on the structure and ideology of the party. He fought for reform and fundamental change in the leadership of the communist party. He also emphasized the need for greater emphasis on national issues in its platform. He left the party after he was convinced that such a reform was not possible in the given circumstances. He immediately became active in establishing the Equality Contract, a union of Jewish and Arab academics to promote liberal political thinking in Israel and improve the status of the Arab community in Israel.

He was a key founder of the political party that he has represented since the late 1990s in the Israeli Knesset and the National Democratic Assembly (NDA, known as Balad). This party was established when Bishara joined forces with veterans of the Progressive List for Peace—an Arab-Jewish party that entered the Knesset during 1984 to 1992—and with activists from the Abna al-Balad (Sons of the Village) movement, and established a new political party that represented the voice of the Arab national movement in Israel. Fearing that the party might not pass the threshold set by the Israeli election laws, Bishara joined forces with the RAKAH-led Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (known by the Hebrew acronym Hadash) and entered the Knesset. After a short time his quarrels with Hadash members led him to split and establish his own faction in the Knesset. In the 1999 Knesset elections he joined forces with the Arab List for Change, led by Ahmad Tibi. Both leaders had to lead a well-orchestrated campaign to retain their legal right to run for Knesset election in spite of the allegation that their political platform negates section 7a of the Basic Law: Knesset. Despite that the Central Elections Committee denied them the right to run for election, the Israeli High Court overturned the disqualification decision. Bishara decided to utilize the Israeli law of split ballot in 1999 and run for the office of prime minister, who could be elected directly by the public. At the last moment Bishara gave up his campaign for prime minister and lent his support to the candidate of the Labor Party, Ehud Barak. After being elected Bishara and Tibi were not able to work together for a long time and they split into two different factions in the Knesset. In 2003 Bishara decided that his party, Balad, was ready to run alone for the Knesset elections and he proved to be right. The party won three seats in the Knesset and became the largest Arab party in the Israeli parliament. In 2006 he led the party for another election and maintained the power of the party, which again won three seats.

Israeli officials, who were determined to outlaw Bishara’s party, accused him of illegal activities. The Israeli attorney general decided to pursue prosecution procedures against Bishara for violating the law to combat terror and for helping other Arab citizens visit Arab countries, such as Syria, that officially were defined as enemy states. On 7 November 2001 the Knesset withdrew Bishara’s parliamentary immunity. The procedure enabled Bishara’s prosecution in a trial that later ended in a whimper. Before the elections to the Sixteenth Knesset, held 28 January 2003, the attorney general petitioned the Central Election Committee to disqualify Bishara and his party from running for election. One of the justifications the attorney general provided was that the idea that Israel should be a state of all its citizens—meaning a non-religious, nonethnic state—which constitutes a central point in Bishara’s thought, and is an essential principle of NDA’s political platform, violates Israeli law and is opposed to the definition of Israel as a Jewish state. The attorney general’s position was well received by the Central Elections Committee, which decided to disqualify Bishara and his party from participating in the elections. However, the High Court of Justice overturned this decision, and denied the attorney general’s recommendation. These two efforts by the attorney general, in addition to the decision of the Central Elections Committee, which ratified Bishara’s disqualification on 31 December 2002, reflected the antagonism held by the political and legal establishment toward Bishara and the ideas he represents. The concept of a state of all its citizens became target for attacks from intellectuals as well as the establishment.

These attempts to disqualify Bishara’s political thought reached a new peak in April 2007 when rumors were published that Bishara was being interrogated by the police for treason during the time of the July-August 2006 war between Israel and Hizbullah. The rumors were translated into official accusations by the Israeli General Security service, released officially on 2 May, claiming that Bishara was accused of treason and espionage. The charges reportedly center on Bishara’s alleged contacts with members of Hizbullah during Israel’s attack on Lebanon in 2006. As a result of these accusations Bishara resigned his position in the Knesset and left Israel. On 26 April 2007 the Israeli police and General Security Service searched his house in Haifa, his apartment in Jerusalem, and his offices in Nazareth. Some documents and his computers were taken for further investigation. Bishara compared his situation to that of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jewish army officer who was also accused of treason in late nineteenth-century France and proved to be innocent and that his identity as Jew was the main reason for such allegations.

INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS

Bishara is an intellectual who has utilized critical theory to assess reality and present alternatives. He proved to be a theoretician of praxis, who connects theory with reality through normative analytical tools in order to show social pathologies and offer solutions using ethical philosophy. He chooses a material epistemology, which views ideas as an expression of material relationships that preserves power and dominates relations. He explains historical development in neo-Marxist terms. Through these concepts, Bishara criticizes hegemonic ideas in Israeli political culture and offers alternatives that destabilize existing power relations and encourage the liberalization of the State of Israel. In suggesting that Israel transform itself from a Jewish state to a state for all its citizens (including the 20 percent of Israelis who are Palestinian Arabs), Bishara criticizes Jewish ethnic nationality and the ideology that promotes it: Zionism. The idea of a state of all citizens was presented by him to counter the ethnic identity of the Israeli state, reflecting his attempts to transform the identity of the state and thus change power relations within it.

As an Arab, Bishara promotes a national worldview that is an expression of modern political communitarianism and, in this way, he expresses his loyalty to the Western project of enlightenment. He utilizes the idea of the civic nation, which is derived from republican sources, to promote a liberal national perception. He adopts the concept of equal citizenship as a guiding political principle, viewing citizenship as equal and full participation of all individuals and national groups in the definition of the political rules of the game in every national framework they belong to. He combines liberal and communitarian thinking in one theoretical framework that reflects the relevancy of the multicultural political models as constitutional solutions in societies that are undergoing national and cultural conflicts.

Bishara deconstructs dominant worldviews in the material existence surrounding him. He oversteps the limits of critical theory, which is satisfied in only destabilizing oppositional consciousness, and puts forth a political program for mobilization. He therefore proposes solutions, rather than merely criticizes. Bishara’s thinking revolves around a number of tensions. A central tension is concerned with the relationship between Bishara’s liberalism and between his adoption of nationality as a political principle. In his early writings, his liberal perception is dealt with in-depth, and he also discussed nationalism extensively. In recent years, a multicultural aspect is found in his writing but is not sufficiently emphasized. His strategic placement within the two identities—the Palestinian and the Israeli—reflects his hybrid identity.

Unlike other Israeli and Palestinians theoreticians, who preoccupy themselves with their existence from the point of view of their peoples alone, Bishara succeeds in presenting a valid criticism toward his dual existence and toward the two nationalities—Jewish and Arab—and their politics in an effort to promote the project of modernity. He does not surrender to the complicated reality and is willing to live with its paradoxes as an integral part of its transformation. For this purpose, he offers a sociological and conceptual basis for understanding history, politics, and the dominant ideology in Arab society in Israel, while offering a clear warning not to be trapped into the analytical concepts and models of Jewish-Israeli thinkers that act from within the logic of the Jewish state.

Although Bishara has not specifically discussed the concept of multiculturalism until recently, both the solution of a bi-national state, and the solution of a cultural autonomy combined with equal citizenship that he offers, are based on the multicultural and liberal principle that necessitates the existence of liberal citizenship and the rights derived from it, alongside ensuring the rights of national minorities to preserve their national culture.

This model is presented as a substitute for two other models of citizenship, expressed separately in the Israeli citizenship discourse: liberal citizenship, that does not distinguish between different characteristics of the citizens for the purpose of their citizenship; and republican citizenship, that is measured according to the contribution of the individual to the promotion of the shared social good and bestows only second-class citizenship to those who are not part of the collective. The model that arises out of Bishara’s thought reconciles existing tensions between the atomistic liberalism that sanctifies civil equality, and the human need for belonging to a national collective.

CONTEMPORARIES

Ahmad Tibi (1958–) is a Palestinian citizen of Israel who was born in al-Tayyiba, Israel. He received his M.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1983, and practiced at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. In the 1980s he became a major contact for Israelis seeking to meet with YASIR ARAFAT and other officials of the Palestine Liberation Organization at a time when it was illegal for Israeli citizens to do so. In the early 1990s, he became a major “back channel” link between Arafat and Israeli government officials during the secret Israeli-Palestinian talks that led to the 1993 Oslo Accord. Despite various legal troubles he faced from the Israeli government for his activities, Tibi was elected to the Knesset in 1999 and has remained there since.

THE WORLD’S PERSPECTIVE

Bishara is respected for his intellectual contributions, both theoretical and literary. He raised a serious intellectual and public debate on his ideas concerning Islam, democracy in the Arab world, and the identity of the Israeli state as a Jewish state. He raised much debate in Israel concerning his struggle to transform Israel into a state of all its citizens, not just a state for its Jewish majority population. Despite the disagreements surrounding him, and perhaps because of them, Bishara has quickly infiltrated into the Israeli political consciousness. He succeeded, within a short period, in establishing a political movement that has gained wide support. Bishara struggles to fulfill his principles and has become a central figure in the Arab world, especially after leaving Israel in 2007. These processes have called great attention to his political thinking and made him an admired intellectual in many cities around the world. His lectures in the United States, in Europe, and in the Arab world are attended by hundreds of people. He won the Ibn Rushd Prize for Democratic Thinking in Germany in 2002.

Among many Israeli Jews, however, Bishara is the bête noire of Palestinian politicians in Israel. That he was intellectual, articulate, and forceful in presenting his arguments for turning Israel into a state for all its citizens only increased Jewish fears and distrust of him. Bishara was seen as a symbol of Arab attempts to de-Zionize Israel, to change its very character as a Jewish state. His high-profile visits to Syria in 2001 and 2006, and Lebanon in 2006—legally considered enemy states—combined with his public comments praising Arab politicians and movements such as Hizbullah, only fueled Jewish anger toward him.

LEGACY

Bishara is a well-known political thinker and critic. He has reshaped the political discourse of the entire Arab community in Israel and has great impact on the intellectual discourse in the entire Arab world. He has written extensively on various topics, such as democracy, civil society, modernity and identity, nationalism, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Among his books are: A Contribution to the Critique of Civil Society (1996), The Fragmented Political Discourse (1998), and From the Jewishness of the State to Sharon (2005). All three books were published in Arabic and several parts of them were translated into other languages.

He edited several books in Hebrew, including Between the I and the We and Enlightenment—An Unfinished Project? (1999). These two books formed an important academic resource for Israeli students. Since the 2000s Bishara started publishing his literary writings. He published two stories out of a trilogy: The Checkpoint: Wajd in the Checkpoint Land (2004) and Love in the Shadow’s Zone (2005) Both books were published in Arabic and are being or have been translated into other languages.

The books, besides the dozens of academic papers and hundreds of journalistic articles, reflect Bishara’s abilities as an active political thinker and critic. He addressed various issues that have to do with the complexity of human reality in the age of the modern national state, something that makes him one of the most prominent Arab thinkers not only in Israel but also in the whole Arab region.

WE FACE LEGAL, INSTITUTIONAL AND INFORMAL DISCRIMINATION IN ALL SPHERES OF LIFE

When Israel was established in 1948, more than 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled in fear. My family was among the minority that escaped that fate, remaining instead on the land where we had long lived. The Israeli state, established exclusively for Jews, embarked immediately on transforming us into foreigners in our own country. For the first 18 years of Israeli statehood, we, as Israeli citizens, lived under military rule with pass laws that controlled our every movement. We watched Jewish Israeli towns spring up over destroyed Palestinian villages. Today we make up 20 percent of Israel’s population. We do not drink at separate water fountains or sit at the back of the bus. We vote and can serve in the parliament. But we face legal, institutional and informal discrimination in all spheres of life. More than twenty Israeli laws explicitly privilege Jews over non-Jews. The Law of Return, for example, grants automatic citizenship to Jews from anywhere in the world. Yet Palestinian refugees are denied the right to return to the country they were forced to leave in 1948. The Basic Law of Human Dignity and Liberty—Israel’s “Bill of Rights”—defines the state as “Jewish” rather than a state for all its citizens. Thus Israel is more for Jews living in Los Angeles or Paris than it is for native Palestinians. Israel acknowledges itself to be a state of one particular religious group. Anyone committed to democracy will readily admit that equal citizenship cannot exist under such conditions.

BISHARA, AZMI, “WHY ISRAEL IS AFTER ME,” LOS ANGELES TIMES , 3 MAY 2007. AVAILABLE FROM HTTP://WWW.LATIMES.COM.

Bishara will also be remembered as the Arab politician who most pushed for changing the Jewish character of Israel in such a way that its non-Jewish citizens could fully identify and feel at home within in. By doing so not through the usual parochial Arab nationalist, Islamic, or Marxist discourses that characterized Arab politics in Israel over the years, but rather through more universalist approaches, Bishara laid an important theoretical basis for the ongoing internal debates about the character of   the Israeli state that continue to take place among both Jews and non-Jews in Israel.

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