Can a ‘Jewish State’ be for all its citizens?

Can a ‘Jewish State’ be for all its citizens?

The official Meretz answer to the question above is an emphatic ‘ yes’. The following article by Tom Segev (from the Nov. 24 issue of Haaretz), depicts the failure of a panel of liberal-minded Israeli Jews and Arabs to agree upon Israel’s fundamental identity. While it is worrying for a liberal Zioinist like myself that Israeli Arabs (or Israeli-Palestinians, as the PC crowd would have it) tend not to accept the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state, perhaps this is less important than most of us think.

Wouldn’t Jews and Arabs get along better if Israel becomes more equitable in its treatment of all its citizens? The hard work’s in changing governmental policy so that funds and services are distributed more fairly to Arab municipalities and communities.– R. Seliger

Breakdown (from Haaretz … Nov. 24, 2006) By Tom Segev

One day, a few years ago, the historian Adel Manna attended the graduation ceremony of his son, who had just obtained a law degree. The event was held at the Sultan’s Pool in Jerusalem. Toward the end of the ceremony, the Manna family decided to leave, before the singing of “Hatikva,” the national anthem. They did not want to remain seated while everyone stood and sang, nor did they want to stand.

Embarrassingly, they had not managed to reach the exit when the singing began, and people shouted at them, “What’s going on here? What kind of behavior is this? You want equality, but you’re not ready to respect the state?!”

Manna, who is generally a model of composure, lost his patience and responded, “Shut up, already! You go on singing your Hatikva. It’s not mine. What do you want from me?”

Manna afterward described the incident to his colleagues in a working group that was convened by the Israel Democracy Institute, with the aim of formulating a charter to define and regularize the essence of the relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel.

The group consisted of twelve Jews, headed by the jurist Mordechai Kremnitzer, and eight Arabs, headed by Manna. None of the participants expressed the most extreme view; they agreed that Israel should be a democracy. The Jews agreed on a series of arrangements intended to reduce discrimination against the Arabs, including land arrangements and affirmative action in various spheres, and Kremnitzer even agreed to change the anthem, the flag and the state emblem.

They met once a month for two years, generated fascinating interpersonal dynamics, and treated the charter they were asked to draft with profound seriousness, as though it were to be a historic document, matching Israel’s Declaration of Independence in importance. Every word uttered in the meetings was recorded, and in time hundreds of pages of transcripts piled up. Journalist (and Haaretz columnist) Uzi Benziman has now edited them for publication.

“Whose Country Is This?” (in Hebrew) is one of the most important, most depressing and most worrisome books that has been published in a long time. Because the talks broke down. The Jews demanded that the Arabs recognize that Israel is a Jewish state, and the Arabs refused, because if Israel does not define itself as the state of all its citizens it will not be a true democracy and will perpetuate discrimination against the Arabs. The group broke up, charterless.

One of the guests who was invited to the discussions of the group of 20 was the then head of the Shin Bet security service, Ami Ayalon. He tried his best to give a businesslike, liberal impression. He has no objections to Israel’s Arabs serving in the Israel Defense Forces, if they so wish, and if they serve in the IDF, they can also serve in the Shin Bet. He has no objections to an Arab member of Knesset being a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. He hopes to ease the security check that Arabs undergo at Ben-Gurion International Airport.

The Shin Bet does not view the Arabs in Israel as a threat, Ayalon maintains, but the organization’s basic working assumption, as he described it, indicates the opposite: “The degree of fear of the Jewish society in Israel [fear also of Israel’s Arabs] dictates everything. This is the basis for the construction of consciousness and also for the shaping of the Shin Bet.”

Ayalon also said that the Shin Bet should be involved in the Arab school system (and in the Jewish one, too): “The serious educational messages of extreme groups in the Arab and Jewish society get through and trickle into [people’s] hearts and consciousness through the education system, and therefore the question of who teaches and who must not have the right to teach has security implications.”

Ahmad Saadi, from the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, responded to Ayalon’s remarks: “One of the problems with the Shin Bet’s concept of the Arab population is the one you yourself presented here. The thoughts are the source of the danger. In fact, your thinking is the source of the danger.”

About a year after the panel began to meet, the intifada broke out, together with the “events of October.” It is tempting to believe that the discussions failed because of the violence; in retrospect, some of the participants wondered whether they would have achieved more if the discussions had been conducted differently. Like the first Zionists, the Jews in the group almost begged the Arabs to define Israel as a Jewish state, but they spoke in give-and-take terms: the underlying assumption was that the Arabs of Israel are sort of sub-tenants who have to pay in return for the civil rights they get from the Jewish landlord.

“They want to get all they want without paying anything,” law professor Ruth Gavison complained, looking back, and added, “You [Arabs] want National Insurance, public education, health … and on the other side there is a state, a burden, problems … Lend a hand! Lend a hand! … You do not want to lend a hand because ‘it’s theirs,’ it belongs to the Jews. So go somewhere else.”

Avigdor Lieberman couldn’t have put it better, although he, at least, claims he is offering the Arabs equality. Not Gavison: “One of the fraudulent things about the Israeli-Jewish left is the statement that yes, there will be equality. There will not be equality. There will be dispute. It will be better than [elsewhere] in the region; it will be better than in many other places; there will be a process; but there will not be equality ….” She likened the Israeli Arabs to the Mizrahim – the Jews of Middle Eastern descent – in that both groups are themselves to blame for the discrimination they have endured.

“A great deal of the distress of the Muslim-Arab population – not the Christian – in Israel is due to the culture of large families, lack of education and an unreliable and unqualified workforce for modern life. All of that creates poverty, even without ethnic discrimination. From this point of view, the Muslim Arabs resembled the Mizrahi Jews, who are not succeeding in breaching the cycle of passive, uneducated, uncompetitive culture. This is a major cultural problem in itself, and with the Arabs it is heightened by another problem: their being Arabs.”

On the road from the presidency of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel to the commission to investigate the second Lebanon war, Gavison moved right, in a process which she describes in the following words: “For many years I had an unpleasant feeling that we were not being fair to Israel’s Arab citizens. I will confess that, amid all the processes and events of recent years, in the light of their attitudes and those of their political leadership, my feeling of guilt toward them is gradually diminishing.”

But the book’s greatest disappointment is not Gavison – it’s Kremnitzer. At one point he threatened to resign as the group’s facilitator. That happened when it emerged that the Arab participants were refusing to accept the text defining Israel as a Jewish state.

“That was a moment of truth,” Kremnitzer, a law professor, recalled afterward. “On this question the distance is vast and unbridgeable, both from the Jews’ point of view and from the Arabs’ point of view ….”

He tried to persuade the Arabs with politics: “Without an explicit statement concerning the state’s Jewish character, the document will be shorn of most of its power to influence, because it will be perceived by the majority of the population as a list of demands or requests which are intended to strengthen the Arabs at the expense of Israel’s character as a Jewish state.”

He put forward a legal argument: anyone who does not recognize that this is a Jewish state is liable to act against it, in violation of the law. But at this point, the discussions went deeper, below the shell of politics and the law, and presented Kremnitzer with the need to examine the foundation of his identity. Committed to human and civil rights, a possible candidate for the Supreme Court, he clung to his identity as a Zionist. Everyone displayed good will and ignored the difficulty of defining who is a Jew, but at the moment of truth reverted to the first square of Zionism: a Jewish state.

Adel Manna summed up: “The discussion exposed the internal contradiction in people who define themselves as democrats and liberals. Effectively, they want two opposite things. On the one hand they want equality and democracy in Israel, while on the other they want the Arab population to recognize the character of the State of Israel, which is not democratic but anti-democratic, in return for various arrangements they [the Arabs] will be granted.”

The belief in a Jewish and democratic Israel has made life pleasant for many Israelis, much like the belief in peace. In the crucible of the group of 20, that belief turned out to be an illusion, if not a fraud. In the meantime, more and more Israelis have also stopped believing in peace. A lot of disillusionment for one decade.

By | 2006-12-15T05:10:00-05:00 December 15th, 2006|Blog|1 Comment

One Comment

  1. Anonymous December 19, 2006 at 1:08 pm - Reply

    In truth most Western industrialized states are based on an identity of their first settlers. In that sense Israel is no different than the french regarding a pied noire as more french than an ethnic Algerian citizen whose family may have lived in France for several gnerations, or the American phenomenon of Black-Americans always being regarded as second class citizens. It should be something that we all keep striving for to live in countries that are not rooted in ethnic identity, but are the collective representation of its citizens based on common history and national achievement, otherwise why bother singing a hymn to all nations? Rather than being bothered by the breakdown of the talks between Arab Israelis and Jewish Israelis over the reluctance to discuss whether a Jewish State is inherently racsist and criminal, let us look at this as a good first effort. These are Israelis talking about their problem. It should be remembered that it took a foreigner, Swedish economist Gunar Mydral, to begin serious intellectual discussion of the race issue in America. Perhaps if the occupation of the West Bank were over, and the Palestinians given some form of legitimate self-rule, a discussion could begin of whether a Jewish State would not be discriminatory and hold out the possibility of equal citizenship to all its members. In light of present circumstances that such a discussion was even contemplated is nothing short of miraculous.

    Abbie Gorin
    Millburn, N.J.

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