Rebecca Bardach

Civic Zionism is the antidote to supremacist Zionism

Shuli Dichter, author of Sharing the Promised Land: In Pursuit of Equality Between Jewish and Arab Citizens in Israel.

“That home that [my father] built here still stands by virtue of force, but, ironically, that home can no longer keep us safe through force,” writes Shuli Dichter in his recently published book Sharing the Promised Land: In Pursuit of Equality Between Jewish and Arab Citizens in Israel. The current government seems bent on proving the truth of this statement, as it pursues a candid agenda of Jewish control of the Biblical Land of Israel, and domination over the Arab/Palestinian populations residing throughout, both citizens and non-citizens.

But effectively countering the appeal of Israel’s increasingly militant and nationalistic right-wing requires more than declarative negations of its exclusionary ideas and violent tactics. It requires a compelling alternative vision, ideas and policies around which to mobilize. It also requires a new approach to the relationship between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. The developing arena of Jewish-Arab shared society, which Dichter compellingly explores in this English translation of his Hebrew original, offers both. Focusing specifically on Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel, he makes the case that it’s time for Israel to shift from a Zionism of control, to a Zionism of civic partnership.

The high cost of discrimination

Intertwining his personal story as a first-generation kibbutznik and eventual social-change activist with research and analysis, Dichter shows how, since its establishment, Israel has controlled both material resources (e.g. land, budgets, decision-making power), and symbolic resources (e.g. the national anthem, the annual calendar, signage) to empower and sustain its Jewish citizens. But this has often been at the expense of its Arab citizens, (also referred to as Palestinian citizens), even if not always intentionally.

Dicther fears that “discrimination between Jews and Arabs in Israel satisfies the tribal urge for preference for Jews, but it endangers the existence of the State itself.” And indeed, the policies, practices and rhetoric of the current coalition illustrate how the natural concern for one’s tribe can be taken to mutually endangering extremes.

Comparing the Jewish and Arab communities to the two tectonic plates upon which the State and society rest, he warns that the ever-present potential for collision between them determines the measure of stability felt above ground. Structural inequality between Jews and Arabs only undermines the security and wellbeing of both.

Redress through “Civic Zionism”

Critiquing what’s wrong is easy. The particular value in this book lies in the two-fold pathway Dichter follows to address these issues. Two-fold, because making the necessary structural changes requires undergoing a psychological shift. Both are challenging.

Bringing readers along on his own emotional and intellectual journey, he shows how the Jewish existential need for the safe haven of a nation-sate has concealed legitimate needs for equality and recognition of Palestinian citizens of Israel. His personal journey offers insights into what a collective journey could entail. Dichter also offers thoughtful, even if still evolving, policy prescriptions, based on practices developed over decades of work advancing relations between Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel. (Full disclosure: it is through such efforts that I worked with and got to know Dichter).

As a self-described Zionist he believes in the Jewish right to be in this land. But he takes issue with the means by which the Zionist Jewish agenda of self-determination has often been implemented. Thus he intentionally chooses the term “Civic Zionism” as a competitive alternative to the other schools of Zionist thought which have dominated until now (e.g. Religious; Nationalistic; Military; Zionism of the land; or a Zionism of separation). Only an egalitarian philosophy regarding both material and symbolic resources will help resolve the inherent conflict that exists between these two communities. Only equality can enable a viable future for all.

This includes concrete steps such as budgetary commitments to tackle historic gaps in development of Arab towns and cities as compared to Jewish ones. On this front there has been some significant albeit still limited headway, through measures like government resolutions 922 (in 2015) and 550 (in 2021), which jointly allocated more than 40 billion NIS toward development in the Arab sector.

A change in the policy of land ownership and allocation will also, Dichter argues, be necessary. He grew up as a kibbutznik, being taught that when plowing he must be sure to toss the dirt so that it falls onto the Arab villages’ side of the kibbutz fields (which, he later realized had all been confiscated from the villages years prior). “So they know who’s in charge here,” he’s told. This was the long-used tool of “political plowing” in action, which must now be corrected by sharing land resources going forward. But it also requires compensating for past wrongs, including the possibility of land redistribution, though he confesses that even he finds this challenging, knowing that his own beloved kibbutz would have to give back land.

While this may seem extreme to some, compare it to the extremes to which the Religious Zionist party is dragging the country, with land policy at its heart. “Wherever the Jewish plow plows its last furrow is where our border will lie,” the party platform declares poetically in its less-than poetic “Settlement and Sovereignty” plank detailing their goals of Jewish domination via massive expanded settlement both within Israel (i.e. the Galilee, Negev), and in Judaea and Samaria/the West Bank.

There is a direct line connecting this political agenda; the messianic vision which MK Bezalel Smotrich promotes, rooted in the annihilation of all our enemies, à la the Book of Joshua which he frequently references; the surge in settler vigilantism; and the contradictory responses from the government and IDF, mixing condemnation, inaction and support.

An argument that has helped legitimize settlement expansion is that it is not substantively different from the methods which enabled the state’s establishment. Dichter too makes visible the line connecting past to present land policies. But his years of work in the sector have led him to the opposite conclusion: that more equality, not less, is the key to less violence and more security.

The role of the Jewish Diaspora

Notably, while the current coalition scorns the liberal values of the Jewish Diaspora, particularly of North America, it was only when living in Canada as a shaliach (emissary) on behalf of the Jewish Agency for Israel, that Dichter comprehended the deep discrepancies which exist between Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel. Intended or not, both being the case, “their citizenship is different from mine, lesser than mine.” Observing how the Jewish diaspora upholds and defends its own as a minority by continually building bridges, alliances and mutual respect within the Christian mainstream, he realized that citizenship requires “equal partnership in the institutions of governance”. Even given the differing contexts of majority-minority relations, there are still aspects of the institutions, laws, social practices and the processes of social change over time in the US and Canada, which offer valuable insights for improving Jewish-Arab relations in the Israeli context.

Thus began his own pathway of advocating for an idea of citizenship in Israel that provides all citizens with “the basic rights of a shareholder in the country,” advanced not only through rhetoric or dialogue but through state institutions, budgets, symbols and social practices. The Jewish Diaspora, as Dichter sees it, can be a critical partner in this change process: “The practical wisdom that has existed over two thousand years of experience living with other peoples can infuse the hopes of Zionism and root it in reality.”

An idea whose time has come

The disintegration of the Oslo peace process has left many apathetic and despairing, but the idea that we can endlessly maintain a limbo-like status quo is illusory. The current government coalition has leapt into this void with a vision of Jewish supremacy over Biblical Israel granted by God tempting to some, but putting us all at risk. But there is one saving grace. The agenda is explicitly clear. This makes it easier to advocate for viable alternatives.

Dichter’s approach is rooted in a deep commitment to Israel, the Jewish people and Jewish ethical heritage, which resoundingly rejects a zero-sum Jewish-Arab relationship in exchange for tested principles and practices of inclusion, equality and mutual respect. One does not have to take his recommendations wholesale to benefit from accompanying him on his journey to becoming an advocate for Jewish-Arab civic partnership. His ideas can help the start-up nation apply its prodigious problem-solving creativity to tackling these most urgent issues.

About the Author
Rebecca Bardach is a writer and practitioner in building Jewish-Arab shared society in Israel, with experience in migration, conflict and development issues, and integrating policy, practice and people-oriented perspectives. She is a Schusterman Senior Fellow and holds an MPA in Public Policy and International Development from NYU. She lives in Jerusalem with her family.
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