Doubts growing about whether Israel can simultaneously be Jewish and Democratic

Israeli leaders frequently refer to their state as one which is both "Jewish" and "democratic." In the eyes of more and more observers, however, this may be a contradiction in terms.

A whole generation of Palestinian intellectuals has pointed out that the state of Israel into which they were born, in which they constitute 20 percent of the population–”compared to the 13 percent of U.S. citizens who are African American–”and of which they formally are full citizens, was not really their state but belonged to a different people, Europeans, most of whom remained abroad.

An early figure in this protest against Jewish exclusivity was the writer and translator Anton Shammas. A bilingual intellectual and author of the novel Arabesque, which deals with his divided national identity, he issued a challenge to Israeli society: "Let us all be multicultural Israelis, and create a common national identity that will not erase our identities of origin but aim for an Israeli symbiosis between its Jewish and Arab citizens."

But such an idea found little support among Israeli Jews, even those on the Zionist left. A.B. Yehoshua, one of Israel’s leading writers, rejected the proposal, declaring that "Israel must remain the state of the dispersed Jewish people, and must not become the state of all its citizens. The Law of Return is the moral basis of Zionism."

Today many thoughtful Jewish voices–”in Israel and elsewhere–”are challenging this exclusivist idea. Declares Prof. Shlomo Sand of Tel Aviv University, author of the widely discussed book The Invention of the Jewish People (available from the AET Book Club): "The peculiar character of Israel’s supra-identity, whose primeval code was inherent in Zionism, from the start, is what makes it doubtful that a ‘Jewish’ state can also be democratic. The Jewish nationalism that dominates Israeli society is not an open, inclusive identity that invites others to become part of it, or to coexist with it on the basis of equality and in symbiosis. On the contrary, it explicitly and culturally segregates the majority from the minority, and repeatedly states that the state belongs only to the majority…moreover, it promises eternal proprietary rights to an even greater human mass that does not choose to live in it."

What, then, can such a state be called? Sand calls it an "ethnocracy" and states that, more than this, "it is a Jewish ethnocracy with liberal features–”that is, a state whose main purpose is to serve not a civil-egalitarian demos but a biological-religious ethnos that is wholly fictitious historically, but dynamic, exclusive, and discriminatory in its political manifestation. Such a state, for all its liberalism and pluralism, is committed to isolating its chosen ethnos through ideological, pedagogical and legislative means, not only from those of its own citizens who are not classified as Jews, not only from the Israeli-born children of foreign workers, but from the rest of humanity."

In 1990 sociologist and Haifa University Prof. Sammy Smooha borrowed the term "ethnic democracy" from Juan Jose Linz, a political sociologist at Yale University, and applied it to Israel. Over the years, Smooha developed and perfected an analysis that placed Israel very low in the hierarchy of democratic governments. Comparing it with liberal, republican, consociational and multicultural democracies, he concluded that Israel did not fit into any of these categories. Instead, along with states like Estonia, Latvia and Slovakia, it could be classified as an "incomplete" or "low-grade democracy."

Liberal democracy traditionally represents the whole society that exists within a country’s boundaries, with complete equality between all citizens, irrespective of their origins or cultural affiliations. In Smooha’s view, Israel cannot be included in the above categories. While a kind of democracy does exist within the pre-l967 boundaries, the absence of basic civil and political equality sets it apart from Western democracies.

As Professor Sand points out: "Britain is the state of all its citizens–”English, Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish, Muslims who immigrated and became citizens, even Orthodox Jews who acknowledge only the divine sovereign. In the eyes of the law, they are all Britons, and the kingdom belongs to all its citizens. Were England to declare that Britain is the state of English, as Israel is of the Jews, then before the children of Pakistani immigrants began to protest, the Scots and the Welsh would break up the United Kingdom. Furthermore, Britain is a multicultural country, and its principal minorities have long enjoyed considerable autonomy."

For many younger American Jews, the very idea of a state calling itself "Jewish" is antithetical. Writing in the June 18 Forward, Max Strasser, a freelance journalist now living in Cairo, Egypt, notes that, "Liberal young American Jews are growing increasingly distant from Israel….I have a strong Jewish identity…I attend services (albeit sporadically), fast on Yom Kippur and keep kosher for Passover. I fully intend to raise my children Jewish. Yet…identification with the state of Israel is not an important part of my identity, and I feel comfortable criticizing Israel when I see its injustices."

Beyond this, continues Strasser, "…there’s something else, and I’m afraid this is going to be a hard pill for the older generation to swallow: the idea of a state that is officially defined as ‘Jewish’ is in conflict with the worldviews of many in my generation. Americans my age are a globalized group…Most college students I know spent at least a semester studying abroad. The Internet allows us to access global perspectives…The public schools I attended celebrated diversity. ‘All people are equal’ was drilled into our heads…A state that is predicated on ethnic nationalism, a state that privileges one group of citizens over another because of ethnic identity, as Israel does through its policies on housing, immigration and a number of other issues, is not a state that will be wholeheartedly embraced by young American Jews like me."

A study by social scientists Ari Kelman and Steven M. Cohen found that, among American Jews, each new generation is more alienated from Israel than the one before it. Among those born after 1980, only 54 percent feel "comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state." The reason, Cohen later explained, is an aversion to "hard group boundaries" and to the notion "that there is a distinction between Jews and everybody else."

A Growing Concern

Even among strong supporters of Israel, the fact that Arab citizens are not treated equally is evincing growing concern. Brandeis University Prof. Jonathan Sarna, writing in the June 11-17 edition of The International Jerusalem Post, noted that, "I think we will say that it was deeply unfortunate that although the Arabs were made citizens of Jerusalem in 1967, Israel did not truly equalize the Arab and Jewish communities, giving them equal city services, equal educational benefits and so forth…Once Jerusalem became part of Israel, all its citizens should have been treated alike, and to the extent that they weren’t, I can understand the unhappiness of the Jerusalem Arabs."

There can be little doubt that Arabs are second-class citizens in Israel’s "Jewish" and "democratic" society. The average wage of Arabs in Israel is about one-third that of their Jewish counterparts. Arabs constitute 20 percent of the population, but only 8 percent of the labor force. The Education Ministry allocates 40 percent less to Arab pupils than to Jewish students.

Writing in the June 7 Jerusalem Report, prominent Israeli Arab broadcaster and journalist Zuheir Bahalul noted that "Discriminatory laws are being enacted in this Knesset with such alarming alacrity that Arabs in Israel are beginning to feel that the Knesset’s sole purpose, as far as they are concerned, is to deprive them further of their remaining civil rights…One of the proposed laws even tries to suppress their historical narrative, threatening to punish organizations which mark Israel’s day of independence as their day of catastrophe, or Nakba."

In Bahalul’s view, "The inherently Jewish character of the state perpetuates a reality in which the native Arab inhabitants have become strangers in their own country, feeling threatened by the specter of mass expulsion or transfer of some of their villages to a future Palestinian state. To them, their very existence as a distinct national minority in Israel seems to be under threat…Most Arabs in Israel are law-abiding citizens…But when it comes to feelings, there is a seething lack of identification with the state, coupled with a sense of profound alienation and separateness…As the Israeli writer Sayid Kashua asks: How can Israeli Arabs sing Hatikvah (Israel’s national anthem) when it talks about the ‘Jewish soul’?"

"No minority can be expected to be loyal to its country when its people are treated as second class citizens," declared Dalya Levy, executive director of ARZENU, the umbrella organization for Reform and Progressive Zionists, in the Summer 2010 issue of Reform Judaism. "I find it remarkable that so many Israeli Arabs put up with the status quo. My fear is that their patience will run out; my hope is that we will recognize what great citizens they are and give them more opportunities to be and feel equal."

According to Haifa University’s recent annual "Index of Arab-Jewish Relations," the number of Arab citizens of Israel who believe that Israel is a democracy for them "has fallen from 63.l percent to 50.5 percent." It also found that only 66.9 percent of Jewish Israelis support preserving the right of Arab citizens to vote.

"This is, for us, the worst Knesset since the establishment of the state of Israel," said Jafar Farah, director of the Mossawa Center, one of many Israeli nongovernmental organizations that advocate for Israeli Arabs. "Twenty-three laws have been submitted in one year by Knesset members that further the discrimination against our community."