Current public discourse in Israel reflects an increasing belief that Zionist nationalism is incompatible with a commitment to liberalism, democracy, freedom, and equality. But the writings of of Ze’ev Jabotinsky – soldier in the Jewish Legion in WWI, ideologue, and leader of the nationalist, pre-state Revisionist Zionist movement – attest that no such contradiction exists.
Jabotinsky’s commitment to equality was total and complete. In particular, his attitude toward the Arab minority in the Land of Israel and his vision for the Jewish State stand in stark contrast to the philosophy underpinning recent attempts to introduce illiberal legislation in the Knesset.
A new booklet entitled Ze’ev Jabotinsky on Democracy, Equality, and Individual Rights, edited by the Israel Democracy Institute’s Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer and this author, makes clear that, although Jabotinsky was the leader of the nationalist camp, which advanced the idea of the Jewish state with all its might, he declared over and over again that Arabs must be granted absolute equal rights within that state.
Jabotinsky based his beliefs on the principle that “every man is a king” – hence no man is superior to another.
The first consequence of ‘every man is a king’ is, obviously, universal equality: the essence of your or my royalty is that there cannot be anyone above you or me in dignity or status.
Moreover, Jabotinsky explained that equal rights are not an abstract idea, but a value that must be anchored in reality: complete equality before the law for individuals, groups, and languages.
Democracy means freedom. Even a government of majority rule can negate freedom; and where there are no guarantees for freedom of the individual, there can be no democracy. These contradictions will have to be prevented. The Jewish State will have to be such, ensuring that the minority will not be rendered defenseless.
Jabotinsky clarified that if Arabs in Israel do not enjoy a political, cultural, and economic existence that is honorable, the whole country will suffer:
[Even] after the formation of a Jewish majority, a considerable Arab population will always remain in Palestine. If things fare badly for this group of inhabitants then things will fare badly for the entire country. The political, economic and cultural welfare of the Arabs will thus always remain one of the main conditions for the well-being of the Land of Israel.
In the draft constitution presented in his book “The Jewish War Front,” Jabotinsky conferred equal status on both Hebrew and Arabic, provided for cultural autonomy for the Arabs, and mandated that land be distributed without consideration of nationality and without discrimination.
Is today’s reality in Israel in line with Jabotinsky’s vision? His uncompromising notion of equality was never realized. Nonetheless, for decades, a delicate balance has existed between Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people (which justifies the Law of Return, use of Jewish symbols, etc.) and Israel as a democratic state committed to equality for all its citizens.
In recent years, this balance has been disturbed.
The previous Knesset passed several troubling laws, including the Admission Committees Law. This law, which was designed to block Arabs from being accepted into small communities, places a question mark on the state’s commitment to equality. Many other legislative proposals – which were thankfully shelved – were liable to disrupt this balance as well.
One such bill, “Basic Law: Israel – Nation-State of the Jewish People,” now resurfacing in the current Knesset, is diametrically opposed to Jabotinsky’s worldview. This bill gives clear precedence to the Jewish nature of Israel over its democratic character. It differentiates between the treatment of Jews and Arabs in areas such as the allocation of cultural resources and land distribution. It goes as far as to state that Arabic is not an official language of Israel. Most significantly, it does this in the context of a Basic Law, which carries constitutional import.
To those who would assert that such legislation is necessary to preserve the Jewish nature of the state, Jabotinsky responded years before the state was established:
I do not believe that the constitution of any state ought to include special paragraphs explicitly guaranteeing its “national” character. Rather, I believe that it would be better for the constitution if there were fewer of those kinds of paragraphs. The best and most natural way is for the “national” character of the state to be guaranteed by the fact of its having a certain majority.
Read the full the booklet, “Ze’ev Jabotinsky on Democracy, Equality, and Individual Rights.”