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What's so scary about a state of all its citizens?

What sounds like a basic democratic concept is not only at odds with Israel’s founding principles, it is viewed as a direct threat.

By Asaf Calderon

People on at the Tel Aviv beach watch the military airshow on Israel's 70th Independence Day, April 19, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

People on at the Tel Aviv beach watch the military airshow on Israel’s 70th Independence Day, April 19, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Benjamin Netanyahu made waves in and outside of Israel this week when, responding to a statement by actress Rotem Sela that Israel should belong to all of its citizens, Arabs and Jews alike, he wrote “Israel is not a state of all its citizens.” While the shocked reactions should be welcomed, the indignation is also indicative of how little the world is paying attention to the mainstream discourse in Israel.

In Israel today, the prime minister saying that “Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people — alone” is analogous to an American politician stating that “our children deserve the best future,” or “our troops are heroes” — a political statement so self-evident it might as well be on the flag.

Yet what sounds like a basic democratic concept is actually at odds with Israel’s founding principles. The term “a state of all its citizens” in the Israeli context refers to a political idea that has developed in opposition to the Zionist concept of a Jewish state. It is the idea that Israel will not be defined as a Jewish state, but rather a democratic one that grants equality to all its citizens, regardless of religion or nationality.

Israel was founded as “Jewish and democratic,” or more precisely, as the nation-state of the Jewish people in which non-Jews can live and theoretically have equal civil rights. These rights are enshrined in the country’s Declaration of Independence: “[the State of Israel] will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture […]”.

Based on these principles, the Palestinian minority can enjoy equal individual but not national rights. The right of a Palestinian person to their piece of land, for example, is granted, yet the right of the Palestinian people to its land is not.

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However, civil equality was never truly granted to Palestinians inside Israel, as evidenced by discrimination and racist policies vis-a-vis issues such as land ownership, housing, infrastructure, income inequality, and police brutality, among many others. It is also important to note that these civil rights are entirely denied to the Palestinians in the occupied territories.

The inequality in national rights manifests itself most blatantly in the Law of Return, which grants any Jewish person around the world — as long as they are recognized by Israel as Jewish — the ability to immigrate to Israel. Meanwhile, the Palestinian people are denied that very same right. Millions of Palestinian refugees have no right to come back to their homeland, from which they were expelled during the Nakba in 1948.

According to Israeli logic, in order for the state to be “Jewish and democratic,” Jews must form a majority of the population. Should Jews become a minority, every justification for the Jewish character of the state and for laws that favor Jews will be rendered moot. Thus, continues the thinking, Palestinians can have “equal” rights so long as they remain a minority. To ensure their minority status, Israel ethnically cleansed them from Palestine in the 1948 war and then instituted a discriminatory immigration policy.

Palestinian children seen at the Great Return March camp, not far from the Israel-Gaza fence, near the neighborhood of Shujaiya, Gaza City, April 10, 2018. (Mohammed Zaanoun/Activestills.org)

Palestinian children seen at the Great Return March camp, not far from the Israel-Gaza fence, near the neighborhood of Shujaiya, Gaza City, April 10, 2018. (Mohammed Zaanoun/Activestills.org)

None of the Zionist parties, not even left-wing Meretz, support the idea of Israel as “a state of all it citizens.” Conversely, Palestinian parties, and particularly Balad, have proposed a number of bills to try and change the definition of Israel into a state for all.

In late 2018, Balad put forward a bill for a new Basic Law, aimed at replacing the Jewish Nation-State Law, which sought to anchor the principle of equal civil rights for every citizen, while recognizing the existence and rights of both Jews and Arabs as national groups. The Knesset chairman stopped the bill from even being submitted. Just last week, Balad was barred from running in the coming elections by the Central Election Committee. And though this decision is likely to be rescinded by the Supreme Court, the message is clear: the idea of a true democratic state is one that threatens the Israeli regime.

The Netanyahu government’s naked racism has not only formalized the marginalization of Palestinian citizens of Israel — it has made it far more visible. Yet it is important to remember that the structural discrimination existed from the very beginning. It existed before the 1967 occupation and will likely remain with us should a two-state solution ever come into existence. That is why anything less than a state for all its citizens is by definition undemocratic. It’s time to stop ignoring this fallacy.

Asaf Calderon is a Jewish-Israeli activist living in New York.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Firentis

      The Palestinian nationalists want to overturn Israel and hide behind the idea of a ‘state of all its citizens’. The goal is to make the state not-Jewish in definition, open up the flood gates to Arab immigration, turn the Jews into a tiny minority and then to push all the Jews out or leave them an oppressed minority. The quite simple reason why I say this is because the Palestinians have never accepted the legitimacy of this being the Jewish homeland or any Jewish immigration to it. The ‘state of all its citizens’ is just a phased implementation of undoing the war of 1948 and eliminating Israel.

      Best of luck finding Jews that will give up their sovereignty in order to sign up to being a minority in an Arab Muslim state (at best) or getting expelled/massacred at worst.

      Also, enjoy New York.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @Firentis: I hope you’re in for the long haul – the next 20 years are going to look like the last 20 years of apartheid. It will be constant low-intensity conflict as the 6.7 million Palestinians in Greater Israelistine fight for equal rights with the 6.7 million Jews, punctuated by short periods of high intensity conflict. When the smoke clears we’ll have a state of all its citizens. But the process to get there won’t be pretty.

        Reply to Comment
        • itshak Gordine

          You write untruths. The Arabs in Gaza are led by Hamas. The Arabs of Judea and Samaria are under the authority of Ramallah. So to say that there are 6.7 million Jews and 6.7 million Arabs is a lie. There are two million Arabs in the pre-67 lines and around 100,000 in the post-1967 lines. Nothing is worrying, especially as the Jewish birth rate explodes and that of the Arabs collapses.

          Reply to Comment
          • john

            you also write untruths, unless you claim your sephardi-mizrahi swiss-egyption non/zionist identity.

            Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        @Firentis:

        “…this being the Jewish homeland…”

        But you don’t really mean “Jewish homeland, Firentis, you mean “Jewish state,” and there is a difference.

        Why I oppose recognizing Israel as a Jewish state
        Noam Sheizaf
        https://972mag.com/why-i-oppose-recognizing-israel-as-a-jewish-state/78751/

        “…However, even if Netanyahu’s demand was genuine and not part of his (non)negotiation strategy, it should be opposed – not just by the Palestinians but also by Israelis. Because a “Jewish” state – as opposed to a state whose culture is Jewish or is “a national homeland” for Jews – will always be a racist, discriminatory state….”

        Reply to Comment
    2. Lewis from Afula

      Another New York-based armchair analyst pontificating about Likud policies.
      I wonder if he lived in Sderot, would he hold to the same opinions?

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        You sound like a Jim Crow Southerner griping about “another goddamn Yankee New York-based armchair analyst pontificating about Southern state policies. I wonder if he lived in Alabama, would he hold to the same opinions?” (Put this in Afrikaans, you’ve got the South African version.)

        Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          Gee, I never knew that Alabama was being bombarded with missiles from a neighboring country before the 1960s !
          Alternatively, this could be one of Ben’s fake analogies.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ray

            How horrible it must be, to be “bombarded” by bottle rockets that kill hardly anybody. Pity the poor settler whose port-a-potty was blown up, he must ne avenged!

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            says Ray who is sitting comfortable in New York, who has never experienced a siren telling him he has 15 seconds to get into a shelter before the rocket explodes on his vicinity.

            Reply to Comment
    3. joel

      “The inequality in national rights manifests itself most blatantly in the Law of Return, which grants any Jewish person around the world — as long as they are recognized by Israel as Jewish — the ability to immigrate to Israel.”

      “The inequality in national rights manifests itself most blatantly in the citizenship laws, which grants any American person around the world — as long as they are recognized by the US government as American — the ability to immigrate to the United States.”

      “The inequality in national rights manifests itself most blatantly in the citizenship laws, which grants any Greek person around the world — as long as they are recognized by the Greek government as Greek — the ability to immigrate to Greece.”

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @Joel: In the U.S. we used to have a race/ethnicity/religious based immigration system – at various times Chinese, Mexicans, Southern Europeans, and Catholics were considered undesirables. Farshteyn?

        You also might want to examine Adalahs Discriminatory Law Database:

        https://www.adalah.org/en/content/view/7771

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        This won’t wash. It is misleading and elides a lot of issues. In this context “Jewish” is apples and “American” and “Greek” are oranges. There is no “American ethnicity” for one thing. And neither the American nor Greek governments grant automatic right of “return” based on mere ethnicity or genetic descent, and correspondingly do not at the same time deny the right of “return” to others based on (non-Jewish or Palestinian or Arab) ethnicity. Apples and oranges. See for yourself (under “Nature of Citizenship, Greek citizenship is granted to those who” plus the link in part 2 of that):
        http://livingingreece.gr/2007/06/03/dual-citizenship-american-and-greek/

        Reply to Comment
        • Joel

          “Can stake a claim through a Greek Ancestor born in Greece (i.e. if you were born to Greek parents outside of Greece you are considered a ‘Greek national’ but do not assume you have Greek citizenship; you must have a citizenship certificate)

          Perhaps the parallel isn’t perfect- but it is pretty darn close. Maybe Jonathan apples vs. Granny Smith. The point is that this “inequality in national rights” isn’t as unusual as Asaf pretends.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            The parallel is not only not perfect it is doggedly misleading. Again, apples and oranges, and this time with baloney thrown in. An odd salad.

            Turn it around, and phrase it accurately:

            “Can stake a claim through a Jewish or Palestinian ancestor (both being native to the land, just like the Greek ancestors were native to their Greek land) born in Israel-Palestine (i.e. if you were born to Israeli Jewish, Israeli Arab or Palestinian Arab or any other Israeli/Palestinian parents outside of Israel-Palestine you are considered an ‘Israeli-Palestinian national’….” (We could clean up the messy and ambiguous hyphenating and get more specific but we can’t at present, where are the borders?)

            The idea that what follows on your phrasing is that ‘“inequality in national rights” isn’t as unusual as Asaf pretends’ is a complete non-sequitur.

            Reply to Comment
          • john

            moreover, not all israelis are born jewish, & somehow less israeli because of that.

            Reply to Comment
    4. Mikesailor

      Change the paradigm and you will be closer to the truth. Judaism is a religion and its adherents are not a separate ETHNIC group, no matter how much they lie about it. You can convert to Judaism although I never heard of anyone “converting” ethnicity. This is the lie undergirding Zionism: that somehow Jews are a separate and distinct ethnicity. It is false and should be proclaimed as false. You cannot “convert” ethnicities although that is the premise upon which Zionism is built. Jews are not a separate race. But allowing the idea of universal citizenship destroys the very premise upon which Zionism, and I might add much of Judaism, is based? Is it any wonder why the Zionists hold on to the myth? If you allow Arabs, or Muslims, or Christians et al. to be “citizens” then you will have to accept that not only Jews should be able to wield political power but the entire ideology of Zionism is suspect.

      Reply to Comment
      • Joel

        This is a common error, and quite a serious one. Judaism is the religion of a nation. The nation are the Jews, or House of Israel. Parts of the nation’s religion are tribal in nature, like food taboos and circumcision. Notice how Jews tend to stick together and look out for each other?

        The error is common in modern times, especially in the western Christian part of the world, where the parallel to Christianity, a religion with no ethnic side to it, seems attractive.

        The concept of ‘conversion” to ‘Judaism’ is simply wrong. It’s a mix of poor translation and confusion with how Christianity works. “You cannot “convert” ethnicities” – well, you’re wrong. One can join an existing tribe or nation, depending on that tribe’s rules.

        The biblical story of Ruth illustrates this:”And Ruth said: ‘Entreat me not to leave thee, and to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy G-d my G-d”

        Reply to Comment
        • john

          i’m pretty sure sephardi/mizrahi/ethopian/ashkenazi are ethnic divisions recognized under the matrilineal tradition? conversion on the other hand, especially re: aliyah, are highly political – whose judaism is questioned often gets left up to border police and the internet.

          Reply to Comment
        • john

          people’s jewishness is questioned by border police consulting internet blacklists, as well as mk’s who begrudge reform jews’ liberal view of gender integration. this politicization of judaism is a mirror process to the politicization of islam by other groups.
          but please, keep citing the bible to justify israel’s ethnocracy.

          Reply to Comment
        • john

          *torah

          Reply to Comment
    5. average american

      Sorry just have to say something here. Everyone is arguing over nothing. The die is already cast. The thing called Israel has already been unleashed into the world and is acting as it will. It is obvious the US government is compeletly bowing at its feet. Why, we don’t know. Because it is holy devined? That’s a flimsy reason. What we do know and can see daily is that you cannot say anything against The Isreal. And soon, after the Thrid Temple brings the Antichrist the Devil into or world, we will all pay tribute to The Jews and learn how wrong we have been, and follow their great educating light, and follow their seven simple little rules, all of us properly under their control.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Bruce Gould

      Just a reality check on population numbers:

      https://www.timesofisrael.com/palestinian-census-4-7-million-in-west-bank-and-gaza-strip/

      Committee members were quick to add the roughly 5 million Palestinians to the 1.5 million Arabs living in Israel and noted the implication — that the Jewish and Arab/Palestinian populations had almost reached parity and that the Jewish majority between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River is only razor-thin.

      Reply to Comment
      • itshak Gordine

        Let’s be serious: We can not mix everything. One can not include the Gaza Arabs who are under Hamas rule and those of Judea and Samaria who are ruled by the Ramallah entity to the Israeli population. And why not include those from the Hashemite Kingdom? No offense to the leftists, we are winning the bellies war. There is something incredible about the Jewish people that demographers can not explain. Unlike other peoples, the better our standard of living (and this is the case in Israel with a prosperous economy) the more children we have.
        Finally, let us remember that Israel is a democratic Jewish state where all the minorities who respect the law can live in peace. The majority of the Israeli population agrees on this point.All the rest is just blah blah of self-proclaimed intellectuals

        Reply to Comment
        • Bruce Gould

          @Itshak: You live in Israel – go out with Taayush ( https://www.taayush.org/ ) for a couple of weekends and then tell us about how the minorities in Israel can live in peace.

          Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          Halevy’s cult-like fanaticism, imperviousness to reality and to scientific reasoning, lack of education thereon, baseline neo-fascist imperatives tarted up in historico-ethno-religious finery, Jewish supremacist exceptionalism (narcissism), and proneness to cult-like sinister Orwellian euphemisms to coldly put lipstick on the pig come together seamlessly in this latest post.

          Reply to Comment
        • Tom

          Israel is not a democratic state by DEFINTION. The non jewish people of Israel may have the Israeli citizenship (not all first, only the pre67 borders palestinian israeli) but they don’t have equal rights with more than 50 descriminated laws, and above all, are NOT part of the Nation (that belongs to the jewish people according to the fundamental law).
          They have TWO kind of Citizens and only ONE (the jewish “people”) is souvereign of the nation Israel. Israel CAN’T be a democracy BY DEFINITION.

          Reply to Comment
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