In my recent piece on the Israeli demand to be recognized “as a Jewish state,” I made the point that there is no clear definition of what it means t be a Jewish state. There is no consensus in Israel as to what this means; indeed, this has been a question that has vexed Jews both in Israel and the Diaspora since the birth of the Zionist movement.
That put me in mind of a question a good friend asked me some time ago. Knowing that I am a strong believer in a two-state solution, he asked me whether I believed it was possible for Israel to be both Jewish and democratic.
My answer was yes, but not until the term “Jewish state” is defined more clearly and very differently than I perceive it to be used in common parlance today.
The issue of Israel’s identity is one that can only be resolved by Israelis, of course (I note: Israelis, which means all citizens of the state, Jewish or not). But what kind of state we in the Diaspora, as well as non-Jews not connected to Israelis or Palestinians, will choose to support is a question that we can answer. It is one that is being asked more and more these days as Israeli policies generate growing discontent around the world.
The first, crucial element is ending the occupation. A country can be democratic and hold territory under military occupation, but not when it has transferred its own citizens to that territory, in contravention of international law. That creates a situation where the state controls a territory wherein the residents live under different laws – citizens, with all the rights of citizens, in the settlements and the occupied populace, which has no rights of citizenship whatsoever.
But ending the occupation is only the beginning. Discrimination against non-Jews is a serious problem in Israel. It goes well beyond personal bigotry, and seeps into government programs and other institutions, where the allocation of resources is severely skewed. It is also manifest in the structural partnerships the Israeli government has with such bodies as the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish National Fund, as well as the position of the rabbinate in personal matters. It is fine for groups like the JNF and WZO to exist to promote the interests of Jews as they them, but they should be working independently, not in hand in hand with the government. Such a partnership cannot but create institutionalized discrimination.
The key, in my view, is a change in the way we think about Israel’s “Jewishness.” Perhaps one might say that I am proposing a shift from thinking of a Jewish state to thinking of a Jewish homeland. Continue reading