Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Problem with a Jewish State

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:

"The issue touches on two things," Netanyahu said Sunday at the beginning of the weekly cabinet meeting. "One is humanity, and the other is a Jewish and Zionist state."

"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.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai has been less delicate. Back in October of 2009, when the Netanyahu Government postponed a decision on the children until the end of the school year, he reportedly informed the prime minister that if the children were granted residency or citizenship he would resign control of the Immigration Authority, and foment a coalition crisis. (As Israel has no formal legal mechanism for the absorption of non-Jewish residents, such questions are left to the discretion of the Interior Minister.) At the time, he said that allowing the children to stay in Israel:

"is liable to damage the state's Jewish identity, constitute a demographic threat and increase the danger of assimilation."

He also noted that:

"We are not a safe haven, period. We should not damage the character of the Jewish state simply out of clemency."

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.

9 comments:

Jameel @ The Muqata said...

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

Israel's situation is unique. There is no such thing as being 100% Jewish and 100% Democratic.

I like the blog name :-)

Izgad said...

In Quebec they are obsessed with maintaining the French character of the Province and there is an active policy of making outsiders not welcome, far beyond what one might expect say in regards to someone from Ohio moving to Maryland.

Vox Populi said...

>Israel's situation is unique.

Not sure what you mean by unique. Sammy Smooha identifies several other countries that arguably constitute an "ethnic democracy". These are countries that grant the same individual rights to all citizens, but use the organs of the state to advance the interests of the dominant nationality.

I think Israel is more than this, in that I think there are ways in which even individual rights are not allocated democratically.

>There is no such thing as being 100% Jewish and 100% Democratic.

Are you saying that it is impossible to be both Jewish and democratic? In which case, I agree. And would favor democracy.

Or are you saying that no democracy is a perfect democracy anyway?

Vox Populi said...

>In Quebec they are obsessed with maintaining the French character of the Province and there is an active policy of making outsiders not welcome,

I'm not saying that Israel is unique. There are a few countries and societies that possess many of these qualities.

I would argue that Quebec is not as bad as Israel, however.

Quebec nationalism does not depend on ethnicity, but speaking the language. Most Quebecois nationalists would strenuously object to characterization of their movement as ethnic. (Whether it really is, or not, of course...)

Quebec is fundamentally constrained by its confederation with the rest of Canada. A citizen of Canada is free to immigrate to Quebec at any time, and is automatically entitled to all the benefits of citizenship their, regardless of race, creed or language preference.

Quebec is also largely constrained by the larger constitutional order of the rest of Canada in most things. (There are key exceptions to this, especially in the areas of language. Canada's constitution has a singularly wacky element - the notwithstanding clause.)

In general, it's hard to compare subnational entities with sovereign states in these matters. I mean, just look at the status of Native American reservations.

Interestingly, Sammy Smooha characterized Canada, before the Quiet Revolution, as being an ethic democracy, for attempting to keep the Quebecois down.

Vox Populi said...

>I like the blog name :-)

Alas, necessity is the mother of invention. Some jerk already took Vox Populi.

Jameel @ The Muqata said...

Israel is unique in that as an ethnic democracy, it has other groups within it that would rather the state disappear (along with its Jewish residents).

Many Israeli Arabs now refer to themselves as "Israeli Palestinians" -- yet bristle at the very idea of living under PA rule.

Are you saying that it is impossible to be both Jewish and democratic? In which case, I agree. And would favor democracy.

Yes, it is impossible to be both 100% Jewish and 100% democratic at the same time, unless a version of Reform Judaism is accepted as the lowest common denominator of Judaism.

Many people often confuse secular Israelis with Reform, yet they are completely different. Reform Judaism is an theological stream within Judaism, while secularism is the rejection (or more specifically, ignoring the religion). Secular Israeli Judaism is connected to the land of Israel in a way totally different from Reform, which rejected the centrality of Israel to Judaism.

Or are you saying that no democracy is a perfect democracy anyway?

There is no perfect democracy.

While it's "not perfect", I would like to see Israel as a Jewish State, that offers citizenship to anyone who wants to live here and support and defend the country, provided they acknowledge and respect the Jewish character of the State.

Vox Populi said...

>Many Israeli Arabs now refer to themselves as "Israeli Palestinians" -- yet bristle at the very idea of living under PA rule.

A lot of this is the consequence of the screwy idea of conflating nationality with citizenship. Israeli Arabs believe they belong to some sort of Palestinian national narrative that didn't cease to exist when Israel won the war. They have familial and cultural ties with Palestinians in the Territories, Lebanon and the Diaspora. There's no reason to assume, however, that they have any affection for the relatively corrupt leadership of the Palestinian proto-state. I see myself as Jewish, but have no desire to be governed by the Jewish Agency, the Chief Rabbi, or the government of the Jewish state, for that matter.

>Israel is unique in that as an ethnic democracy, it has other groups within it that would rather the state disappear (along with its Jewish residents).

I doubt it. (I assume you're talking only about those Arabs recognized as citizens of Israel.) Competing historical narratives and land claims are not new. Israel may be the only example I can think of where you have two main ethnic groups claiming sovereignty over the same whole area, in a zero-sum fashion. But I would argue that Israeli-Arabs have long since reconciled themselves to the fact that the Jews are there to stay, and that in any peaceful settlement, the Jews will remain the majority in Israel.

I suppose you could say that deep down, in their heart of hearts, if all the Jews between the Mediterranean and the Jordan disappeared, they would be happy because then they could create their Greater Palestine. But the Jews no doubt think the same thing, mutatis mutandis.

Second, I'm sure you're right that most Israeli Arabs desire the destruction of the Jewish character of the State. But it hardly makes sense to argue that Israel must be officially Jewish because its minority citizens don't want it to be officially Jewish.

>While it's "not perfect", I would like to see Israel as a Jewish State, that offers citizenship to anyone who wants to live here and support and defend the country, provided they acknowledge and respect the Jewish character of the State.

I think it makes much more sense, and is a good deal more fair, if Israel is a state for all its citizens. If current demographic trends continue, it will remain a de facto Jewish state, anyway. I don't think the small gains you get from de jure Jewish status justify the resulting loss of democracy.

Tzipporah said...

"Israel is unique in that as an ethnic democracy, it has other groups within it that would rather the state disappear (along with its Jewish residents)."

Hey Jameel, ever heard of the Black Panthers? What about Native Americans?

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