Being Jewish in America during Christmas season is a somewhat awkward experience given that the Christian holiday so heavily dominates the public square despite the First Amendment’s separation between church and state. How, for example, should we respond to well-meaning people wishing one and all a Merry Christmas? The answer to that question is a subjective one, but the existence of Jewish and other religious and ethnic minorities in the U.S. in no way diminishes America’s robust pluralistic democracy.
Nor does it in Israel, where similar to the U.S. and other countries, it celebrates and cultivates a majority culture, while remaining dedicated to preserving full equality for all of its citizens. There is no contradiction in keeping Israel’s Jewish and democratic character, even with a sizable non-Jewish minority citizenry comprised mostly of Palestinian Arabs, as distinct from Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and parts of Jerusalem who are not citizens. Israel can be — and is — both the nation state of the Jewish people and a state of all its citizens.
While addressing the challenge of rebuilding the Jewish State of Israel, the country’s Declaration of Independence calls for “complete equality of social and political rights” of all its inhabitants “irrespective of religion, race or sex,” and guarantees “freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…”
The term “Jewish State of Israel” sometimes is understood, or misunderstood, to mean that Israel is a theocracy. What this indicates in reality is that, in the public sphere, Israel may reflect its core mission of serving as the nation state of the Jewish people. For example, in the U.S., Sunday is chosen as the official day of rest because of the majority Christian population. In Israel, it is Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. At the same time, as a liberal democracy, Israel should always strive to assure equal rights for all its citizens. As with many other sets of principles in democracies, this duality of majority rule versus protection of individual rights, especially of minorities, sometimes can create tensions. In the U.S., the Bill of Rights, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, protects minority rights against the majority. Similarly in Israel, when called into question, this non-discrimination principle has been enforced over the years by Israel’s independent and highly respected judiciary.
For example, in the Ka’adan case (2000), the Supreme Court considered a situation in which an Arab citizen was denied the right to buy State-owned land after it had been transferred to the Jewish Agency and Jewish National Fund. The Court ruled that these Zionist institutions, which are geared toward development of Jewish settlement in Israel, cannot be used to get around the fundamental obligation to treat all citizens equally. Another Supreme Court ruling, after it found a disparity in allocation of state budget resources for housing projects, determined that the Arab community in Israel must be given its pro rata share of those resources.
Living as a national or ethnic minority within a majority culture is never easy. The situation of Israel’s Palestinian Arab citizens is especially challenging, both ideologically and practically. They do face de facto discrimination in the workplace and in allocation of state resources and Israel’s government should be expected to do much more to address this issue.
Nevertheless, Israel’s Arab citizens participate without hindrance in local and national elections; serve as members of Israel’s parliament (Knesset); are represented in the judiciary, including on the Supreme Court; act as Israel’s representatives abroad; and, at least in one instance, as a minister in Israel’s government [Raleb Majadele, Minister of Science, Culture and Sport in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s cabinet].
Israel is not unique in possessing this dual identity. The constitution of Slovenia, a new Eastern European democracy and member of the European Union, states –“Slovenia is a state of all its citizens and is founded on the permanent and inalienable right of the Slovenian nation to self-determination…” As in Israel, the distinction is made between the rights of citizenship and the state’s national character.
This concept found expression in a resolution adopted in 2006 by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. The Council acknowledged “that in some… member states, the concept of ‘nation’ is used to indicate citizenship… while in some other member states the same term is used in order to indicate an organic community speaking a certain language and characterized by a set of similar cultural and historic traditions, similar perceptions of its past, similar aspirations for its present and similar visions of its future.”
That said, the situation has been difficult and Israel’s Arab citizens have not always received the non-discriminatory treatment they deserve. While the inherent tension of balancing Israel’s dual identity as nation-state of the Jewish people and state of all its citizens remains, the struggle to fulfill the promise of full equality made in the Declaration of Independence is ongoing.
Do you feel a disconnect in being part of a religious/ethnic minority in Christian-dominated American culture? Are there things that could be done to make minorities feel more comfortable?
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This post is one in a series of responses to common challenges to Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish and democratic state.