The vast majority of Jewish Israelis don’t want to give up their privilege. But nobody has the right to ‘democratically’ deny rights to another.
The most shocking piece of information to come out of a Pew Research Center survey of Israeli society published Tuesday is that nearly half of Jews in the country say they support the ethnic cleansing of Arabs. Forty-eight percent of Jewish respondents agreed/strongly agreed that “Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel.”
Digging deeper into the data, however, that glimpse into the collective political mindset of half of Israel’s Jewish population becomes less and less surprising. Furthermore, the full set of data makes the prospect of Israel voluntarily ending the occupation and becoming a state of all its citizens appear more distant than ever.
The picture of the Jewish Israeli body politic drawn by the Pew survey seems to mirror the state of Israel’s politics, an indication that Israel’s system of government is more akin to a tyranny of the majority than democracy.
For instance, we learn from the survey that the vast majority of Israeli Jews (79 percent) think Israel should give preferential treatment to its Jewish citizens. A statistically identical number (76 percent), with some obvious dissonance, say they believe that democracy is compatible with a Jewish state. Democracy without full equality for all citizens, however, is only a democracy in name.
Another insight, which is possibly more troubling although not as sexy a headline, is that there is no viable political force or portion of Israeli society that opposes those illiberal currents which run straight to the core of Israel’s national identity — a system of government that academic Oren Yiftachel termed ethnocracy.
Where is the political opposition? Where are those political forces, those peace-seekers and civil rights crusaders who would fight for a better, more equal, liberal and democratic future? Where is the Left?
The Pew survey found that only 8 percent of Jewish Israelis today identify with the political Left — 92 percent with the Center and Right. Or in other words, there is no Left. Indeed, the only Zionist party that places itself on the political Left, Meretz, holds a mere five of 120 seats — 4 percent — in the country’s parliament, the Knesset. (There are non-Zionist parties that are often identified with the Israeli ideas ascribed to liberalism and the Left, but their support from the Jewish population is nominal.)
So if there is no Left, and if the vast majority of the Center and Right believes one ethno-religious group should receive privileged or preferential treatment from the state — necessarily at the expense of other ethno-religious groups — then we can deduce that under current circumstances the prospects of Israel voluntarily becoming a state that treats all citizens equally are slim to none.
“History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his Letter From Birmingham City Jail. In Israel today we can see that tragic process playing out yet again.
We are at the tail end of two decades of failed peace processes. Those processes were not meant to liberate Palestinians or to grant them equality, either in Israel or the occupied territories. By drawing political boundaries — a la gerrymandering — to ensure a Jewish majority, the peace process was designed to preserve Jewish privilege within a Jewish state while maintaining the country’s democratic, or rather ethnocratic, character.
Today even the Labor party, which designed, championed and sold the two-state solution to the world as an alternative to both full equality and apartheid, has given up on that dream. In turn, that has led us into an abyss where half of the Jewish population appears willing to openly consider a step as drastic as ethnic cleansing to preserve its privilege, privilege 91 percent say is necessary for the long-term survival of the Jewish people.
But just as it is not legitimate for Israel’s Jewish population to “democratically” decide whether to treat the country’s Arab citizens equally, it is even less legitimate for Jewish Israelis to “democratically” decide to deny basic civil and human rights to the millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
The leader of the Israeli opposition, of the so-called “peace camp,” recently declared that “a full peace agreement, unfortunately, isn’t around the corner and at this stage.” Palestinians must wait for Israel to grant them their rights, he has been explaining for the past few months. But what right does he, or any Israeli leader, have to decide if and when a group of people — who did not elect them — can realize their rights?
Isaac Herzog wants Palestinians to patiently wait for their rights until he decides the time is right. He understands, and he knows that his constituency understands, that granting Palestinians equal rights would destroy Jewish privilege. And the alternative, a two-state solution, isn’t around the corner. So the Palestinians must wait.
But boycotts are wrong.