Prof. Shlomo Hassan of Hebrew University began the substantive proceedings with a broad analytic and comparative overview of Israel’s level of democracy and Jewishness. In general, Israel does not rank with the highest level of democratic states, according to his analysis, but at a secondary ranking, along with such European countries as Greece and Bulgaria. One participant, reflecting later on this challenging presentation, was overheard to say approvingly that “complex issues were left complex — there were many points within points — and not resolved.”
This comment could well sum up the entire day’s events. Issues were examined from a variety of viewpoints and presented with their complexities. Plenary panels and small group discussions addressed two major issues: religion & state (the role of Judaism and what kind of Judaism), and the rights of minorities (especially Arab citizens of Israel).
One of the most memorable lines of the day was the demand by an Israeli-Palestinian panelist, discussing the problems of Bedouins in the Negev, that “development should be with the Palestinians, not jump [be imposed] on the Palestinians.” Because they see themselves as victims of discrimination, the Israeli-Arab participants sharply question the nature and validity of a Jewish state.
Those who persevered to the end were rewarded with the articulate remarks of Naomi Chazan, a political scientist and former Meretz Member of the Knesset, and The Forward’s editor in chief, J.J. Goldberg. Asked to reflect on visions for Israel’s future, Prof. Chazan pronounced her fondest hope that Israel become “a society with normal problems,” primarily concerned with “issues of quality of life.”
She recognized not only the individual rights of Israeli Arabs, but also collective rights. “As soon as it [Israel] varies one inch from a state of all its citizens, it loses its Jewish soul.”
Goldberg differed with Chazan on collective rights: “Justice is not indivisible,” he said. “Individual rights and group rights are not always compatible.” They exist on a “sliding scale. Both are legitimate….” He favored keeping in mind the “dilemma” of such a conflict and “recognizing the incompleteness of justice.”
I lean toward J.J. in this discussion. The Meretz party platform endorses autonomy for Israeli Arabs in education, but a legitimate concern is how this is implemented. It would be wrong for Arab students to read texts and absorb lessons that hail Zionism as an untarnished good (even wrong for Jewish students), but Arab Israelis should also learn about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, and come to understand Zionism as an effort of an oppressed minority to escape oppression.
Goldberg also spoke to Jewish historical circumstances today as being in an uncharacteristic position of power, when Jews are more accustomed to, and more comfortable with, “constructing our identity around being powerless.” In this vein, he indicated that “the less embattled Israelis feel, the better it is for Arab rights.” He wisely noted that the prospects for progress in Arab rights are currently complicated by the perceived threats emanating from Hamas and Iran.