This week, the Israeli cabinet was set to discuss the legal status of the children of migrant workers. There are about 1200 such children awaiting deportation. An inter-ministerial special committee has recommended that 800 of the children be allowed to stay. These children were born, educated and raised in Israel. They consider themselves to be Israelis and speak Hebrew. While I’m glad to hear that most of the children will be allowed to stay, I find that the way that many Israeli officials have been framing the issue is very disturbing, and indicative of a larger problem.
For example, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who wants the children to stay, described the issue thusly:
"We have here little children who grew up here and went to school here. They are a part of us. We are looking for ways to absorb them and take them into our hearts. However, we don't want to create an incentive. We want to preserve the Jewish democratic majority that allows us to maintain a Jewish democratic state," Netanyahu declared.
In many ways, these statements reflect the deeply problematic nature of the Jewish democracy. It is a matter of widely held belief in Israeli society that Israel is not just a democratic state, but a Jewish and democratic state. What exactly this means has bedeviled successive Israeli governments almost since the founding.
I think it is important that we recognize that these two principles, the democratic and the ethnic, are in tension. The State of Israel cannot be truly available to all of its citizens, regardless of race or creed, and simultaneously proclaim itself to be a Jewish state.
Many disagree with me, however. The Supreme Court of Israel famously ruled that “there is no contradiction whatsoever between these two things: The state is the state of the Jews, while its regime is an enlightened democratic regime that accords rights to all citizens, Jews and non-Jews.” The Court also argued that, “the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people does not negate its democratic character, as the Frenchness of France does not negate its democratic character.”
If it just used Jewish iconography in all its official symbology, or made the Hebrew language the official language of the State, I would agree with the Court that Israel’s Jewish and democratic principles are not in irreconcilable conflict with one another. The United Kingdom has its own state church, the national language of France is French, and a cross figures prominently in the flags of all Scandinavian countries. All these countries are universally respected members of the family of liberal democracies, despite their superficial lip-service to Christian or ethnic symbolism.
The premise of the liberal democracy rests on the assumption that as far as the State is concerned, your religious and ethnic origins are irrelevant. The State engages with you as an individual, and not as a member of a larger group.
The reason the aforementioned countries are excused their not-completely-neutral symbols is that everyone recognizes that these are just symbols. There is no substantive legal benefit to being an Anglican in England more than being a member of any religion, or being an atheist.
In Israel, however, being Jewish carries with it profound legal and social implications. The State defines itself as being the Homeland of the Jews, whether those Jews be within Israel (i.e. Israeli citizens) or without (i.e. foreigners). It sees as its duty the protections of Jews the world over, and sees itself as the best instrument for accomplishing that goal. Only Jews and their families may immigrate to Israel.
Israel’s official state ideology is Zionism. Zionism, by its very definition, seeks to make Israel more Jewish. It promotes Jewish settlement, use of the Jewish language and the propagation of Jewish institutions. Zionism has no place for Arabs (or any non-Jews), nor, for that matter, has it endeavored to find a place for them. Zionism demands that Israel’s non-Jewish citizens swear fealty to Israel as a Jewish state, and recognize it as the Jewish homeland. Israel’s national anthem expresses the millennia-old hope of the Jewish people to return to Eretz Yisrael, an aspiration that all Arabs are, at best, indifferent too, and more likely, actively resent. Arabs do not serve in the armed forces, do not participate in settlement of the land, and are formally forbidden from tinkering with the official Zionist ideology of the State of Israel.
In short, what separates Israel from France is that Israel has an official ideology that aggressively uses the organs of the state to favor one group of its citizens over the other. Instead of being content to rely on its already in-born demographic advantage, Israel uses government power to increase its lead. Israeli politicians, even when well-meaning, are willing to advance this notion to the point that it contradicts basic humanistic and democratic principles, as evidenced by Netanyahu’s equivocation above.
It is illiberal ideologies like Zionism that allow a government minister of a country explicitly founded as a safe haven, to argue that the country is not a safe haven, because the people seeking refuge belong to the wrong ethnicity.
I should think it obvious that using the rules to ensure that you are always in the majority, a cause Netanyahu is clearly advocating, is not real democracy. It’s stacking the deck, pulling up the ladder after you’ve already climbed it to the top, and any other metaphor that describes unfairness.
As long as Israel continues to deny its minority citizens an equal place in the country, it will continue to not be regarded as a full-fledged democracy, and rightly so.