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Stop asking whether Israel is Jewish or democratic

This isn’t a choice between ‘Jewish or democratic’ — the only question is whether Israel can still become a true democracy.

Supporters of Labor and Tzipi Livni’s ‘Zionist Camp’ at a rally calling to oust Prime Minister Netanyahu, Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, March 7, 2015. (Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Supporters of Labor and Tzipi Livni’s ‘Zionist Camp’ at a rally calling to oust Prime Minister Netanyahu, Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, March 7, 2015. (Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

For some years, the political center-left in Israel has committed itself to the idea of a Jewish and democratic state. For these mostly secular and traditional people, “Jewish” used to mean some sort of cultural character, and democracy meant free and fair elections.

This political camp is deeply committed to the balance between those two ideas and believes that when one overtakes the other, we are lost.

Thus if Israel is too “Jewish,” it risks becoming a halakhic caliphate that makes a secular or flexible lifestyle impossible. Sunday’s revelation that the Education Ministry froze funds intended for organizations promoting religious pluralism is one more worrying sign.

The center-left is just as worried about too much democracy, whose natural end-point is full equality of individual and political rights, representation and opportunity regardless of ethnicity. But liberal Zionists do want Hannukah and they don’t want an Arab prime minister, though they feel impolite saying so. So they support democracy but also its limitation to ensure Jewish political, institutional, cultural, and economic dominance.

To resolve this contradiction the center-left has embraced the cause of a Jewish majority in Israel. Some years ago I asked center-left focus groups what a “Jewish state” meant to them and a consensus quickly emerged: “it boils down to a Jewish majority” — since we agree on so little else about what “Jewish” might mean. Thus the idea of “Jewish and democratic” is more accurately translated to “Jewish majority and a democratic state.”

When it became clear that a peace process didn’t automatically translate into security, the “Jewish and democratic” narrative replaced “peace for security” as the Left’s major justification for the two-state solution, in which an end to the occupation and a return to 1967 borders would guarantee greater numbers of Jews in the state.

A Palestinian shepherd tends his flocks near the Israeli separation wall close to the Bethlehem checkpoint, August 25, 2012. The Israeli barrier and settlements have rendered 85% of Bethlehem Governorate's agricultural lands off-limits to Palestinian use. (photo: RRB/Activestills.org)

A Palestinian shepherd tends his flocks near the Israeli separation wall close to the Bethlehem checkpoint, August 25, 2012.(photo: RRB/Activestills.org)

Then the Right created one state. With some help from the Left over the years — especially when it came to settlements — the Right has erased the Green Line, and made it unlikely Israel will ever extract itself from the West Bank. The old ‘67 borders have stretched their limbs, normalizing the large settlements blocs outside of Jerusalem, extending conceptually to include Ariel, a settlement of 18,000 people located deep inside the West Bank. Not a day goes by without talk of annexing the West Bank’s Area C (under full Israeli military and civil control) – including from cabinet ministers such as the deputy foreign minister, education and agriculture ministers. It’s only a small leap to annexing everything.

Today Israel controls roughly 6 million Palestinians, but only 1.7 million of them enjoy full civil rights — on paper, at least. All the rest are under complete Israeli control  — including Gaza, as a UN Commission following the last war pointed out. The U.S. ambassador let Israel off easy by observing its different standards of law enforcement for Israeli citizens and Palestinian subjects. Physical segregation is the reigning ethos.

What’s odd is that certain voices continue to portray this present as if it is still in the future. An otherwise laudable New York Times editorial this weekend observed that the two-state solution might just be threatened due to the facts on the ground – in language so tentative that the writers appear to be describing some other land.

Similarly, the Israeli-Jewish political center and left-wing camps continue to address the fear of losing a Jewish majority sometime in the future. It is as if we are middle-aged folks who cannot look in the mirror to see that we’ve thickened at the middle and our youthful size six clothes have been slowly replaced. The body filling up the current size 10 has changed: the Jewish and Arab populations are roughly equal. It doesn’t matter whether we lament or celebrate this fact, and it hardly even matters who is to blame for how we got here.

What matters is the temporal truth: the Jewish majority is gone in the present, not the future. The distinction between the West Bank and “Israel proper” is gone.

So is there any way in which Israel is still a Jewish state? Absolutely. It is Jewish in terms of political, military, civic and economic power. It is Jewish in terms of narratives, through education and culture and the preferential treatment afforded to those born Jewish. It is Jewish in terms of those who makes laws and policy, Jewish in terms of who enjoys legal protections, and of course standards of law enforcement, as the ambassador correctly observed — a factual observation that Israel’s leaders do not wish to be spoken.

In other words, Israel is Jewish in all the ways that it is unequal. “Jewish state” no longer means Jewish majority. It has become a euphemism for permanent institutionalized inequalities, ethnic violence against Palestinians that flows directly from those institutions, and segregation.

The relevant question for the future is no longer whether the two-state solution is viable. It is whether the various territories under Israeli control will remain non-democratic – segregated and unequal – or turn to democracy.  There are still robust institutions of a democratic state somewhere between the river and the sea, but they are increasingly compromised. Unless political leaders embrace the erstwhile ambition of being a democracy in the Middle East, they won’t last.

This isn’t a choice between “Jewish or democratic.” That equation has become a psycholinguistic mechanism of telling lies to ourselves. The only question is “democratic or non-democratic.”

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    1. Gustav

      Yes, we all know it is a tough world. And the Middle East is even tougher. And no, we don’t like the situation which the Palestinian Arabs are forcing on us. Them saying that we should either bow to their wishes or they will hold their breath and hope to die just so that we won’t be able to run a democracy.

      Now tell us what is a good alternative. Don’t just give us a worse alternative than what we have. Give us a BETTER alternative. Otherwise we will just live in this tough old world, adapt and learn to cope. That’s what resilient people do. They don’t pay attention to chicken little who warn us that the sky is falling but are unable to do anything about it.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        “the situation which the Palestinian Arabs are forcing on us.”

        You do like this process of standing things on their head.

        Dahlia Scheindlin undermines a whole lot of your assumptions about past, present and future and how they interrelate.

        Have you ever read the following by Noam Sheizaf? I think it devastates your assumptions about a “Jewish and democratic state” and Netanyahu’s demands on the Palestinians:

        Why I oppose recognizing Israel as a Jewish state

        http://972mag.com/why-i-oppose-recognizing-israel-as-a-jewish-state/78751/

        Reply to Comment
        • Gustav

          Ah ok, it must be right if Noam Sheizaf says so (NOT!)

          In theory at least, the only discrimination that non Jewish Israelis need to experience in the Jewish state of Israel is…

          1. Immigration rights.

          2. The national culture which encompasses things like national holidays, the official language etc. and even in those, the minorities can be given some quarter.

          In every other way, the minorities can have equal rights and opportunities especially if we would have real peace.

          You don’t think so Benny? Well then tell us why? Because of human nature and tyranny of the majority?

          …well then, if you are right (which you are not), then tell us why do you think we should agree to swap what we have to the alternative of an Arab majority who would oppress us instead?

          Moreover if an Arab minority would not be happy living in a Jewish country, they can do something about it. They could migrate to up to 22 Arab countries where they would be part of the majority.

          …but what would we do if the leftist experiment (gamble) that you want us to take would fail? What if the so called secular democratic state would turn into another Arab majority state and the Arab majority would oppress us? Where else could we go? After all there are no other Jewish states where we could practice the Jewish culture. Why should we give that up if you people object to Palestinian Arabs being a minority who feel that they cannot be proper Arabs in a Jewish state?

          PS
          And another thing in which Sheizaf is wrong. It IS possible for non Jews to become Jewish if they want to. You have not heard of converts to Judaism? There is a formal process which those who want to became Jews can undertake and voila, they can join the Jewish nation.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            This reply is not serious for at least two reasons:

            1. You simply dismiss the problem, with contempt for Israeli non-Jews and for every problem Sheizaf identifies. Instead of exploring with a shred of good intention how things really work. In every argument along these lines you trot out the English Anglican Church or the Italian Catholic Church or some such thing and say Israel is no different. But Sheizzaf simply blows that argument to smithereens. You have tried to avoid Sheizaf’s argument about the fact that Jewish identity cannot and does not wish to be inclusive, but that Israeli identity could be inclusive and that it is possible to imagine an Israeli identity that is indifferent to questions of ethnicity or religion. We will not let you off the hook.

            “In theory at least” — it’s a dodge. In theory at least I could take up a tennis racquet and win Wimbledon next year. In theory at least Gustav could win an argument against Ben (heh heh). In theory at least Gottesman and Kaine could become non-lunatics. In theory at least ‘Harry Gindi’ could undergo a conversion from cold hard Judeofascism. In theory. But it is not going to happen. I love the nonchalance with which you toss of “immigration rights,” and “the minorities can be given some quarter.” Frank supremacism that sounds like a British Raj official. We’re special. What’s the problem?

            2. As Dahlia Scheindlin observes, Israel is already not a Jewish majority state. (Your nonchalance in the face of that fact suggests to me you can only be thinking of extreme and desperate “answers.”)

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            Utter nonsense I answered all your points. I can’t help it if you deliberately ignore what I say or that your comprehension is poor. Read my post again.

            Utter nonsense, your claim that Israel is already not a Jewish majority state. Only 20% of our population are Arabs. Last time I heard, we have not annexed the entire West Bank which has a few million more Arabs.

            Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        Here’s a BETTER alternative: Israel could start funding schools in which Jews and Palestinians are educated together starting from kindergarten (there are a few such schools, but the government support they recieve is almost zilch). A BETTER alternative might be for Israel to revoke all tax subsidies for settlements beyond the ’67 lines so as to slowly draw the settlers in. A BETTER alternative would be for Israel to ease travel restrictions on Gaza and allow foreign investment for building businesses. A BETTER alternative might be for Israel to stop demolishing Palestinian homes because of “building permit” issues.

        Reply to Comment
        • Gustav

          About the schools. There is nothing to stop Arab children who are citizens of Israel from going to Israeli schools where Jewish Israeli children study. In fact, some Arab children do go to such schools. Not many, because their parents prefer to send them to Arab schools.

          As for the West Bank. Here is an extract from the memoirs of Raphael Vardi who became the military commander of the West Bank after the 1967 war…

          “The justices and other officials were employees of the Jordanian government that paid their salaries. When the Israeli administration offered to pay those salaries, they refused, contending that even salaries could not be accepted from us because we were non-Moslems.”

          That is what we were up against. We tried the civilized way, it did not work. So now we have what we have. Maybe you could talk some sense into the Palestinian Arabs to get them to change THEIR ways? Eh Bruce?

          Reply to Comment
          • Bruce Gould

            Are you the same person you were in 1967? I hope not.
            What’s the statute of limitations when making analogies from the past? 20 years? 40 years? 80 years?

            If you think the current situation is sustainable and ok for Israel then why are you here? Why bother posting?

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            Yes there should be a statute of limitation but that requires a change in the behavior of the offender/s. Is such a change evident in the Palestinian Arabs? Not in my opinion. I look at Hamas and I see the same old Palestinian Arabs. I even look at the PLO and I see their old charter which they refuse to amend despite promising to do so in letters they wrote before the Oslo accords. So your question is irrelevant Bruce.

            As for whether the current situation is sustainable? Again, it is irrelevant. We are riding the tigers back and hopefully we will prevail at the end.

            There is no other choice Bruce. The solutions that you lefties are trying to peddle to us are full of holes. We cannot afford to play Russian roulette and experiment with the lives of all whom we love.

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            OK, here Benny pretends that Arab parents would prefer to send their kids to schools where they can mix with Jewish kids and learn Jewish history. Are you sure about that?

            A small number of Arab parents don’t mind doing that. Ditto with Jewish parents. Those kids DO go to integrated schools. The rest? They don’t wanna, on BOTH sides. You wanna know why, Benny? Because we are still in a 100 year war which your Arabs don’t want to formally end. And in such situations, both sides are suspicious of each other and no, it isn’t only the fault of Jewish Israelis. The Arabs are at least as much at fault.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            “As for whether the current situation is sustainable? Again, it is irrelevant. We are riding the tigers back and hopefully we will prevail at the end.”

            Suggested translation: “We know we can’t oppress and brutalize a whole people on their land indefinitely. When the whole thing blows up, hopefully with maximum chaos and fog of war–and we will make sure that genuine solutions that would avoid that always get strangled in the crib–then conditions will be ripe for mass population transfer–and naturally we will claim to be the victims. Because the one thing we are good at is war. And fog. So the task is to relentlessly crush any non-military, peaceful outcome. If we can keep it on a military and violent and foggy basis, we win. That’s why we loathe Abu Mazen above all. Nothing, and I mean nothing, will separate us from Judea and Samaria. If we have to take the whole world down in flames with us, so be it. No malignant narcissists worth their salt would think otherwise.”

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            BEN:”…suggested translation….”

            And here is my translation of your translation, Benny. You can build your straw-men all you like. But they will be just that… straw men.

            Now since you were complaining about me not answering YOUR points, how about you answer my point?

            Why exactly should we voluntarily agree to become a minority in a Palestinian Arab state? Don’t you know that the first things the Arabs would demand in a so called secular democratic state with “equal rights” is that we should change the immigration law? And if we would, then your wet dream would come true and we WOULD become a minority. So why exactly should we go down that path Benny? What’s in it for us, mmmmm????

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Read the article. “What matters is the temporal truth: the Jewish majority is gone in the present, not the future. The distinction between the West Bank and “Israel proper” is gone….The relevant question for the future is no longer whether the two-state solution is viable. It is whether the various territories under Israeli control will remain non-democratic – segregated and unequal – or turn to democracy…This isn’t a choice between “Jewish or democratic.” That equation has become a psycholinguistic mechanism of telling lies to ourselves. The only question is “democratic or non-democratic.”

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            BEN:”…telling lies to ourselves…”?

            Excuse me? Who the hell are you to include yourself as “ourselves”? Every word of yours oozes hatred towards us. You are clearly part of the enemy camp!

            As far as the rest of your usual silly post, I’ll reiterate what I said in my first few posts…

            …it is, what it is. We will cope with what your enemy camp throws at us. We are a resilient people. We survived much greater challanges in our history than the current challanges. We will cope with this lot too. And no, we don’t listen to chicken littles who want us to throw ourselves under the bus. And no, the Jewish majority is not gone in Israel. As for our neighbors? Yep, they always outnumbered us. We knew that when we decided to reclaim our ancestral homeland. We knew that there are millions more of them than us. And that they cannot let go even this small patch of land (Israel) which is but a tiny fraction (0.5%) of the land which they control. Yet not only did we survive but we are thriving and we will continue to do so.

            That’s what irks you people so much, doesn’t it Benny?

            Am Yisrael Chai!

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            I’m sorry I sincerely do not understand you. I quoted Dahlia Scheindlin. She is not a member of “ourselves”? Don’t you think the proper target of your anger is Scheindlin and not me and that you are simply scapegoating me by doing what you are doing?

            How do you disagree with this?:

            “the Jewish majority is gone in the present, not the future. The distinction between the West Bank and “Israel proper” is gone”

            Your own government, numerous cabinet members included, insists daily on and fights tooth and nail for the proposition that the distinction between the West Bank and “Israel proper” is gone so why do you differ with people in your own government about this? Isn’t Scheindlin just acknowledging the reality that your own right wing insists on?

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            Do you know something I don’t Benny? Was the WB annexed to Israel? How did I miss that? And if it wasn’t then why are we counting the Arab population of the WB as part of Israel and why? Because the Arabs refuse to sign a peace deal? Or in other words, they are holding their breath and hope to die so they can blame us for it? Okey dokey Benny. If you say so…

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            No I think you know what I know. Your government clearly refuses a two state solution and fights tooth and nail for the creeping annexation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Creeping annexation. Never honestly. Never like someone who actually thinks they are right. Like a thief. This is the behavior. What you add to this is one of humankind’s primitive defense mechanisms: denial. Screening off awareness of any unpleasant fact, with the tacit belief that it will go away. Israel’s political right has been expert at denial. And creeping annexation. I can quote any number of your high level officials baldly saying they have no intention of ever allowing a two state solution. I can point to a determined practice of creeping annexation over five decades. It takes extraordinary denial or dishonesty then to say “I’m not aware of any annexation are you?”

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            My government is at fault for the unwillingness of YOUR Arabs to sign a peace deal?

            You know very well Benny that they refused it not just with this government but with much more moderate governments that we had. For instance, Ehud Barak in 2000/2001 and Ehud Olmert in 2008 when they got two sets of comprehensive peace offers to which they responded with their customary violence. But you haven’t got it in you to blame them for that? Telling… very telling….

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Not that falsehood again. We’ve been over that. Nietzsche had a belief in the eternal recurrence of all things. I think it an odd idea but maybe there is something to it after all.

            Anyway, New York Times on de facto annexation:

            “Israel is moving quickly to establish facts on the ground that preclude a Palestinian state, leaving Palestinians increasingly marginalized and despairing.

            “It is starting to look like a de facto annexation,” one American official said.

            In a speech last month, Secretary of State John Kerry warned that violence, settlement-building and demolitions of Palestinian homes were “imperiling the viability of a two-state solution.” He said the number of settlers had increased by tens of thousands in five years. Thousands of Palestinian homes are said to be pending demolition.”

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            BEN:”leaving Palestinians increasingly marginalized and despairing.”

            Yet they are still unwilling to sign a peace deal with us and they are trying to dictate the terms of our surrender without even as much as amending their charter which promises their intent to destroy us?

            Do you think they may be retarded Benny? Or maybe they are just holding their breath and pretending to hope to die so that we should rush in and save them? Nah, I know, they are waiting for BDS to teach us a lesson. Okey dokey…

            Reply to Comment
        • Nathanael

          Of course, Israel’s government COULD do all that: universal, shared education to create a new culture of equality and brotherhood….

          But it won’t. Because the state of Israel is currently run by racists who support apartheid and are actually turning to fascism now. Last man in power who tried to stop them was Rabin, and he was shot dead for his trouble.

          Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            FACT: The guy who shot Rabin has been rotting in jail ever since.

            FACT: Rabin didn’t offer as much to the Palestinian Arabs as Ehud Barak did.

            Yet nothing was enough for the Palestinian Arabs. Terrorism against Israeli Jews spiked following the Oslo agreements. And in response to Barak’s better offer (than Rabin’s) we got a murderous Intifada.

            Yet according to extreme lefties, we are the villains and the Palestinian Arabs are just innocent victims. Talking about one eyed pundits who singled out Israel to be hated beyond reason…

            It used to be hatred of Jews. Nowdays it is hatred of the state of the Jewish people. Nothing new under the sun…

            Reply to Comment
    2. More precisely, the choice is surely between an inevitably non-democratic Israel and a democratic (& bilingual, bicultural, i.e. “binational”) Palestine?

      Reply to Comment
      • Gustav

        Yes that would be nice if it would be a realistic vision. But it isn’t.

        Firstly because we have 100 years of animosity to overcome. Secondly and more importantly because it isn’t part of Middle Eastern culture. Middle Eastern culture (just look around everywhere) there is one dominant ethnic group which rules over minorities who are more often than not are opressed and persecuted. We don’t want to be such a group becauseof someleftist pipe dreams.

        Reply to Comment
      • Gustav

        Yes that would be nice if it would be a realistic vision. But it isn’t.

        Firstly because we have 100 years of animosity to overcome. Secondly and more importantly because it isn’t part of Middle Eastern culture. In Middle Eastern culture (just look around everywhere) there is one dominant ethnic group which rules over minorities who more often than not are oppressed and persecuted. We don’t want to be such a group because of some leftist pipe dreams who kid themselves that unlike everywhere else, an Arab majority would be kind to Jews whom they have been fighting for 100 years. No, we don’t want to experiment with such things just to please lefties.

        Reply to Comment
    3. Average American

      Hello. Does Israel’s traditional Jewish law (halacha) really say what Mike Cantrell says? Does Israel have Rabbis in government posts using halacha law to decide civil matters? Does ‘Jewish State” mean a state run with Jewish Law (halacha)?

      Reply to Comment
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