The new Nationality Law proposed in the Israeli parliament has drawn—rightly so—vehement condemnation from liberal Jewish pundits. The law, if passed, will no doubt lead to further discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel.
However, it is pure fallacy to believe that before this bill was introduced, Israeli democracy had been serving all of its citizens equally. It hadn’t been—and unless Israel sheds its singularly Jewish character, it will never be able to guarantee equal rights for its non-Jewish citizens. Simply put: Israel can either be a liberal democracy or a Jewish democracy; it can’t be both.
In its most meaningful form, Israeli national identity is reserved strictly for Jewish Israelis. The national flag has a Star of David. The national anthem, HaTikvah, talks of a “Jewish soul” and of Jews returning to their homeland after 2,000 years in the Diaspora. If you turn on Galgalatz, Israel’s most popular music station, you hear Kobi Aflalo or Yuval Banai. Not a single Arab musician appears on the station’s current playlist. In government-controlled Arab and Jewish schools—not to mention within the collective Israeli consciousness—the 1948 War is viewed as the War for Independence, a miraculous victory won by plucky Jewish fighters who were outmanned and outgunned by well-trained legions of seven—seven!—Arab armies bent on obliterating the nascent Jewish state. Despite academic scholarship—much of it written by Israeli academics—that debunks many Israeli myths of 1948, the Israeli version of the war continues unchallenged in public schools, while public commemoration of the Nakba—an immensely significant part of Palestinian identity—is illegal. (I have met Arab teachers who fear losing their teaching jobs if they dare mention the Nakba in their classrooms.)
But what does the Jewish identity of Israel have to do with democracy and equality? Some will argue that Palestinian citizens of Israel, or Arab Israelis as they are often called, have the right to vote in elections just the same as Jewish Israelis, and they enjoy equal access to education, healthcare, jobs, and housing. Therefore, so the argument goes, they are equal citizens. (For the record: Arabs don’t enjoy equal access to jobs, housing, etc. I made the previous point purely for hypothetical purposes.) However, to think equality and freedom are guaranteed solely through the provision of procedural, democratic rights is a mistake; complete equality and freedom—the cornerstones of any morally justifiable democracy—are about much more than whether someone can vote in a national election or attend a public university, or even attain a high-paying job.
Equality and freedom are about living in a country where one’s nationality (Palestinian) doesn’t clash—or in this case, engage in war—with one’s citizenship (Israeli). Equality and freedom are about living in a country that incorporates into its social fabric and celebrates—not disparages—your language, your music, your religion, your history. That’s the essence of self-determination—a citizen who sees part of his particular identity integrated within the broader collective identity of his country. (Consider an American citizen of Puerto Rican descent watching throngs of New Yorkers celebrate her heritage in the streets of Manhattan for the annual Puerto Rican Day Parade, which is also viewed by millions on national television.)
Israel’s failure to incorporate elements of Palestinian culture into the collective Israeli identity leads to two negative outcomes: first, it renders citizenship for its Palestinian minority “hollow,” a term coined by Tel Aviv University professor of political science Amal Jamal. For most Palestinians, being “Israeli” has little or no personal significance. Secondly, a Palestinian-less Israeli national identity sends a clear message to Jewish Israelis that Palestinians are not really part of the Israeli collective. At best, they are to be respected and tolerated; at worst, they are to be feared as the enemy from within, a fifth column always ready to strap a suicide vest to their chests. The exclusion of Palestinians from the Israeli national identity, and the resultant, negative way in which many Israelis perceive Palestinians, in no small measure contribute to the very real and pervasive discrimination and bigotry that Palestinians citizens of Israel encounter all too frequently.
Israeli political philosopher Joseph Raz wrote in his book The Morality of Freedom (1986) that “the role of the State is to enable all persons to express their nature and pursue their own autonomously conceived conception of the good.” For Palestinians in Israel to be truly equal citizens, they must be guaranteed the option to express their cultural identity in public—speak Arabic audibly on an Egged bus, let’s say—without fear of derision or exclusion, and perhaps even a bit of pride. (Imagine for a moment if there were a state-sponsored Palestinian heritage week!) Sure, if this new law passes, things will become worse for the Palestinian minority within in Israel. However, the underlying systematic flaws of Israeli democracy, which are intrinsic to all nation states that exist to primarily further the interests of just one of its identity groups, have always—and will always—leave Palestinians as second-class citizens in Israel.