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.
In some discussions, what comes up are various actions Israel takes against some of its most vulnerable citizens and residents. These are often most evident in East Jerusalem and in the Negev, where the village of al-Araqib recently made headlines as Israeli authorities used quite a bit of force (and some involved seemed to take quite a bit of pleasure in it) to repeatedly destroy the village. It has just happened for the fifth time.
But the question for me is whether a Jewish state, unlike other ethnic nation-states, must perforce do these things. I see no reason why that this need be the case.
I wrote to my friend the following:
“I do not believe the state needs to be structured as it currently is for it to be a Jewish homeland. There can be a constitution which guarantees equality and existing state structures can be reformed to fit that structure, remove rabbinical authority and separate the state from such bodies as the JNF and WZO. Similar transformations have occurred in many places, though there were always distinct and numerous structural differences between all of them.
It requires the same thing they all did: a commitment to democracy over ethnic chauvinism. That can happen in Israel as it has elsewhere. I contend that such a process was well underway in the 1990s before the so-called “generous offer” and the second intifada derailed it.”
Then there is the question of the Law of Return. In any formulation, I believe it is absolutely crucial that Israel guarantee, in its constitution, that any Jew and all Jews who are facing discrimination as Jews should be guaranteed asylum and the right to immigrate to Israel. And there should be immigration processes and standards for everyone else, as in any country, as well as special consideration for the families of any Israeli citizen, regardless of ethnicity.
But there is no reason that any Jew should be able to automatically claim a pre-existing citizenship. This undermines Israel’s existence as a state of its citizens, and while Jews should feel Israel is their homeland and Diaspora Jews will inevitably feel a connection to the state, Israel needs to be, at this point, a state of its citizens.
By the same token, while I think any resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict has to acknowledge Israel’s major role in creating the Palestinian refugee problem, the argument that the Jewish Law of Return implies that Palestinian refugees should return behind the Green Line doesn’t fit, and, in any case, would make a peace deal impossible.
On this matter, I told my friend:
“The Law of Return’s nucleus is a response to the world shutting its doors to Jewish refugees during the Holocaust. That is a very different issue than the question of Palestinian refugees, which is why the two need to not be put into one pot to boil. I resolve it as follows:
Jews are automatically granted citizenship in Israel IF they are fleeing persecution due to their Jewish identity in their homelands which threatens their lives. Palestinians then can return to the Palestinian state with whatever conditions the Palestinians set. Obviously, this presumes a 2-state solution.
But while there is a surface logic to putting the two together, the protection against persecution of Jews is not, actually, comparable to the restitution of dispossessed Palestinians. If the latter issue is ever to be reasonably resolved, whatever that resolution may eventually be, these two questions must not be put together.”
I summed up my view of Israel’s Jewish character thus:
“I don’t think of this question primarily in terms of safety, at least in terms of persecution.
To me, the American experience demonstrates that a distinctive Jewish identity would not survive without Israel, other than in the form of orthodoxy. And yes, that does matter to me.
I think a state, if it is a free and open society, must evolve as it does, free of demographic manipulation and of discriminatory laws and systems. But most states do have a character–exceedingly few are the melting pots the USA is.
In fact, Israel is already a cultural, ideological and religious center for a large percentage of those Jews who feel themselves a part of a global Jewish community. In my view, it has fomented in that global community many things, a lot of them (perhaps most, though certainly not all) very bad. These include intense xenophobia, militancy, and religious reactionism.
But it also is a center for that global Jewish community that I think is needed if Jews, as a people, are not to dissipate so that only the echoes of the shtetl are left. And I think we can see, in Israel’s peace and human rights communities what that center could be leading us to instead of what it is doing now.
I believe that too must be preserved and that it can be done in a secular and democratic state, even if that state is no longer discriminating in favor of Jews or even that Jews are the majority of the population. Those are not necessary conditions for Israel to be a Jewish homeland. Zionism has built something there, and there is a lot of good in it. That can be preserved through means other than ethnic chauvinism and discrimination. Indeed, that was precisely the goal of Zionism, and it needs to be rescued from those who have so badly distorted so much of the thinking of early left-wing, liberal, centrist and yes, even right-wing Zionists.
If it is merely the term “Jewish state” we find so troubling, I’m happy to do away with it. But a Jewish homeland is more than a refuge of last resort–indeed, that is a very minor component of it. And I do believe such a homeland, if it is run by democratic principles rather than tribalistic ones, can be not only good for the Jews but for the world.”