Can a 'Jewish State' Be a Democracy?
In our neighborhood in south Jerusalem, a pickup truck driven by an Arab man comes around once or twice a week, a loudspeaker mounted on top blaring a recording, "Alte Sachen." He collects old appliances and clothing that people are giving away, employing the Yiddish phrase that European Jewish peddlers used when they came to town: Alte Sachen -- Used Items.
There’s something quaint about an Arab man coming to an Israeli neighborhood where most of the residents speak English or French, beckoning to them in Yiddish. But it’s also absurd -- his message to them is in a language that neither he nor his prospective “clients” understand. It’s not clear if he even knows that it’s Yiddish.
That loudspeaker is an apt metaphor for the relations between Israeli Jews and Arabs, who though citizens of the same state, increasingly have nothing to talk about. That has become even more clear recently, with Israel embroiled in a conflict over whether to pass a law that would officially declare that Israel is a state for the Jewish people. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who introduced the bill to curry favor with his right flank in advance of possible elections, struggled to defend the bill in the Knesset today and said that among other virtues, the bill would restore balance to Israel since its democratic values are trumping its Jewish character. He also insisted that the bill would help Israel rebuff any future attempts at returning Palestinian refugees to Israel for “family reunification” purposes, presumably in some possible future settlement of the conflict.
Outside Israel, the very idea of such a law is bewildering. It’s common, but utterly incorrect, to analogize Israeli Arabs to black Americans. “All they want is to be treated like any other citizen,” the argument goes. “Their vision of society need not be any different.”
But that argument is wrong at its core. Who is an Israeli Arab and who is a Palestinian refugee is for the most part an accident of which was on what side of the line when the fighting between Israel and the Arab States ended in 1949. Had today’s elderly Israeli Arabs been a few kilometers farther east or north in 1949, they would be Palestinians. In many ways, of course, they are better off as Israelis. They have better education and medical care, a free press and are citizens of a democracy. They know that. But the complexity of their fraught identity is belied by the overly simplistic analogy to African-Americans.
For decades, Israel has tried to paper over what may be an unbridgeable gap. The Declaration of Independence appeals “to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the building of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship.” But although Israel’s record is decent, it is not good enough. Access to housing is not always equal. Spending on infrastructure in Arab towns is much lower than in Jewish towns.
This is true, of course, with minorities in many countries. But in Israel, the situation is complicated by the fact that Israel was explicitly founded for the purpose of being a Jewish State. Even those who oppose Netanyahu’s proposed bill do not deny that. Israel has always been a well-functioning democracy, too, but the tension between being Jewish and democratic has never been fully resolved. Until now, Israeli leaders have chosen to let the tension simmer, knowing that any explicit resolution would sacrifice one or the other.
Now is an exceptionally tense period: After a recent terror attack, the mayor of Ashkelon announced he would not allow Arabs to work near some schools, but was quickly forced to retreat; in another instance, recorded on video, an argument in the Knesset when an Arab member of Knesset called a Jew a neo-Nazi almost led to blows. Yet Netanyahu has chosen to press on. One version of the law reads: “The right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” While the draft guarantees "the individual rights of all its citizens according to the law," tellingly, it makes no mention of Arabs as a community and does not contain the word “equality.”
Even many people who believe that Israel is and should be a Jewish State and who, in principle, have no objection to a law being passed to codify that fact, believe the versions now being introduced to the Knesset are ill-worded. The U.S. State Department has decried the bill, as have Israeli Arabs, who seek more recognition as a group, not less. But so, too, have both Ultra-Orthodox and Reform Jews, each uncomfortable with the bill’s implied definition of Jewishness. Israel's attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, has said that any such bill should be submitted by the government, and not by individual Knesset members, which would make it subject to much greater scrutiny.
Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni, opposition leaders, have said they will vote against. Ruth Gavison, a jurisprudential giant in Israeli life and professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is similarly worried. “Israel is a nation-state whose vision has three essential ingredients: Jewishness, democracy and human rights,” she said. “The nation-state law is likely to upset the essential balance of safeguarding the entire vision.”
Perhaps most interesting, however, is that President Reuven Rivlin is also opposed, despite being a member of Netanyahu's Likud party, which is commonly seen as hawkish and nationalist. The bill’s “hierarchical approach, which places Jewishness before democracy,” he warned, “misses the great significance of the Declaration of Independence, which combined the two elements together -- without separating them.”
Rivlin, rapidly becoming Israel’s most interesting and nuanced public figure, understands what Ze'ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin -- the founding fathers of the Likud tradition -- intended, but that Netanyahu has missed. Israel is “a state established on two solid foundations: nationhood on the one hand, and democracy on the other. The removal of one will bring the whole building down,” Rivlin warned.
Zionism was always more a conversation than an ideology. Religious versus secular, socialist versus free-market, in favor of Palestine or a homeland anywhere it could be gotten -- Zionists argued vociferously without ever resolving their differences. The horror of the Holocaust and the crumbling of the British Empire led to a unique moment, on May 14, 1948, on which the Jews, divided though they were, could seize the opportunity to make of sovereignty what they could.
Like the founding fathers of the U.S., who agreed to skate around slavery in the Constitution because they knew the issue could kill the Union, Israel’s leaders have always understood that on the question of how Israel could stay both Jewish and democratic in the long run, ambiguity was safer than clarity.
At the moment, Israel’s prime minister seems not to understand that. The delicate, unspoken balance that has long made Israel possible may hinge on whether that changes.
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