Despite all its success in absorbing millions of immigrants and despite its efforts to remain both a Jewish and democratic state, Israel still struggles with questions of equality and civil rights for all its citizens.
Israeli Arabs regularly and rightly complain of inequitable funding, discrimination, and underrepresentation in the civil service. Ethiopian Jews have protested patronizing religious policies and bigotry in the army and the workforce.
This is not news to anybody who pays close attention to the Israeli media, or has even a casual relationship with the Jewish state. And while you might assume that such challenges are only of interest to Israel’s Left, issues of equality are of broad national and international concern. Among the Jewish and pro-Israel NGOs trying to deal with these problems is the Jewish Federations of North America — that bastion of the much-derided American-Jewish mainstream. It sponsors a Social Venture Fund for Jewish-Arab Equality and Shared Society. Its Feb. 2014 report listing Arab-Jewish coexistence programs in Israel — nonprofit and Israeli governmental initiatives — runs to 34 pages.
So when a UCLA psychology professor writes an article for the Washington Post saying Israel does not provide “equal legal and day-today treatment to all its citizens,” I respond like a character in a Geico ad: “Everybody knows that.” The author’s host for her research trip to Israel this summer was, after all, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. A few years back I went on a press trip sponsored by BGU‘s American supporters, where I learned about the university’s efforts to improve the lives of Bedouins, poor immigrants, and other disadvantaged populations. I read Greenfield’s article hoping BGU — and, by extension, Israel — would get some kudos for such efforts.
No such luck. Pretty quickly the other shoe dropped, and it could have been designed by the BDS movement. Author Patricia Marks Greenfield thinks Israel’s social problems are unsolvable as long as it remains a Jewish state. Not only must Israel become “a fully secular state,” but must make Gaza and the West Bank part of Israel, and their residents “fully equal citizens.” I’ll spare you the torturous logic by which she arrives at this idea — something to do with the dubious notion that the rest of the world is becoming “more ethnically and religiously diverse.” But any reader can foresee the logical conclusion: the end of Israel.
I have few illusions about Israel, and don’t need the Washington Post to remind me that it is far from perfect. I don’t expect columnists to sound like copywriters for the Jewish National Fund, or for reporters to refrain from telling it straight regarding Israel’s military actions or the growing intolerance on the Right. You want to offer criticism, go ahead — it’s nothing you can’t read in the Israeli media.
But I do expect Israel to be treated as, well, normal. Normal doesn’t mean faultless. It doesn’t mean ignoring its close economic or political ties with the United States. “Normal” may be relative when you are talking about a Jewish state trying to survive and thrive in a vast Arab and Muslim region.
What normal does mean is simply judging Israel as you would any other sovereign nation in similar circumstances.
Greenfield is hardly alone in treating Israel as somehow unique in its character, behavior, and fate, and deserving of a double standard.
A few years back, Post columnist Richard Cohen famously asked whether Israel was a historic “mistake.” Cohen wasn’t proposing Israel’s demise, and I think he meant “mistake” in a rhetorical, not existential, way. Nevertheless, he was guilty of what I call the “abstracting” of Israel — that is, separating it from its historical justification and demographic reality and treating it as an idea that can be debated and, if you are so inclined, debated away. Other countries are mired in conflict, but how often are we asked to justify their very existence?
Cohen took a lot of heat for his column, and in response has written a book with a similarly provocative title: Israel: Is It Good for the Jews? The book is in part an act of repentance. His research convinces Cohen that the story of Israel is “thrilling, full of aspiration and goodness, brimming with all that’s good about Judaism or being a Jew.”
Still, his is a book of journalism, not hasbara. And it is his journalism that leads him to say what is too often overlooked by his fellow pundits: “Israel is a nation like any other nation. It sins. It is sometimes wrong. It was conceived in arrogant disregard for the indigenous peoples, and it accumulated land and made space in vile yet ordinary ways. It did nothing that other nations have not done, and yet their right to exist is not challenged. Israel is not evil. It is merely human.”
We can debate “vile” and “arrogant.” But I’ll take “merely human.” For critics like Greenfield, Israel is an abstraction whose very raison d’etre can be wished away in a few pen strokes. ”Merely human,” by contrast, means you don’t treat Israel’s ethno-religious identity, especially in the Middle East, as something unprecedented or uniquely anachronistic.
It means you don’t lecture a country about its “multi-ethnic, multi-religious character” as if you were the first one to discover the ways it falls short.
“Merely human” means you don’t dismiss a country’s traumas as just so much past history and demand that it dispense with that history in the interest of delusional promises of “internal equality and external peace.”
It means, when you spend a few scant weeks in a country as a guest of one of its top universities and notice problems that are being addressed by your hosts and a wide range of other institutions, you don’t turn around and call for their country’s demise.