Rafi Gassel

Israel is a Multinational State

In Israel, all public signage; street signs, exits, etc. are in Hebrew, Arabic & English (photo by Diane Hutcheson)
In Israel, all public signage; street signs, exits, etc. are in Hebrew, Arabic & English (photo by Diane Hutcheson)

The discourse regarding the future of the state of Israel or the region of Israel-Palestine in relation to a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict often presents a dichotomy of two main options, the two state solution or the Binational State. I would argue that the State of Israel even without taking into consideration the West Bank and Gaza is already a Binational State and that there is nothing wrong with this situation. That actually acknowledging this reality will significantly improve the relationship between the Jews and Arabs within the State of Israel and even help us make significant strides towards reconciliation and peace with our Palestinian neighbors. 

Israel for example has many hallmarks of a Binational or Multinational State (as they are more often called, the term Binational state is usually only applied to the Israel-Palestine discourse). Israel for example has a public school system available in Arabic, by law official documents are required to be translated to Arabic, all food packaging and road signs must also be written in Arabic. Arabic is also considered a legitimate language for use in the Knesset, although this is rarely used. Even though with the passing of the 2018 “Nation State Law”, where the status of Arabic was changed from ‘co-official’ to ‘auxiliary’ language of the state of Israel, no practical applications of this have affected the requirements listed above that would qualify Israel as a multinational or at least multilingual state. Israel even has a population registry where citizens are listed by ‘nationality’ which is effectively used as a description of one’s ethnicity and then one becomes defined as either Jewish-Israeli or Arab-Israeli or Druze-Israeli, not unlike ethnic identifiers are used in the United States such as African-American or Jewish-American. 

These features are very similar to those found in Canada with the option for Public Education in the French language and requirements for all official documents to be in both English and French as well as road signs and food labels. Israel is even a bit ahead of Canada as the Canadian government has yet to formally recognize the Québécois people as a nation within Canada and the decision to consider oneself French Canadian verses Québécois is still a personal one.

Some examples of Multinational States include Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Spain, Norway in addition to more obvious ones that we are all familiar with such as Switzerland and Belgium. In fact this list of Multinational states includes many that a lot of Israelis would expect to be wealthier than Israel and offer a higher standard of living. So how can it be that actual multinational states often look like places that Israelis would love to live in and yet also the multinational state is often portrayed as the nightmare scenario for the State of Israel that we need to avoid at all costs?

I would say that the reason for this is a result of the conflict we have been having with the Arab population of Israel-Palestine over the past 100 years, the fear that if we give in at all then we will lose everything as well as the idea that Israel must be a “Jewish State”. This is often interpreted to mean a ‘nation state’, even though a national state is supposed to be a state with an overwhelming majority of one population group to the point that basically everyone in that country is a member of that one nation and that is not how nationality is defined in Israel. In the State of Israel at least 20% of the population defined ‘nationally’ as being Arab and around 75% of the population being defined as nationally Jewish and a remaining roughly 5% of the population being defined as having no national status, generally these people are of Jewish ancestry but not Jewish under religious law. 

The way that Israel formally defines itself in law is as a “Jewish and Democratic State ” and cannot give any Arab national foothold into our state in terms of ‘national identity’ of the state. Of course we say the democratic part of that definition means that we have full equality for all citizens including those that are nationally Arab and Arabs here are more happy and integrated into Israel than any other place in the middle east. At least that is what we tell ourselves the democratic part of that phrase is all about. 

It is clearly a contradictory set of principles that we live by. We convince ourselves that using this formula is for the best. Given our conditions and all other considerations. I would argue that it is in fact not healthy for us and not helping us in developing a holistic and positive relationship with the Arab population that makes up over 20% of the State of Israel. Certainly it is not helping us in resolving the conflict with the Arab-Palestinians that make up in fact about 50% of the population of the entire ‘Greater Israel’ or Israel-Palestine. My option is that the solution here is to start thinking in terms of collective rights, and recognition of those rights and needs as opposed to the outdated concept of the ‘nation-State’, which is only leading us towards a situation of self-contractions and unnecessary conflicts. 

There are those on the other side of the spectrum that say that what Israel needs is one civic nationalism like that of the USA, where there is considered one American nationality even though there are many ethnicities. This goes along the lines with the idea of E Pluribus Unum ‘From Many One’ which is a motto of the United States with the idea that Americans are coming together from all around the world to make a new nation of Americans together. While the word Ethnos is of Greek origin, originally meaning ‘Nation’, in modern English usage it is used as less than nationality and more of a relationship of origin while in the concept of a ‘Nation State’ citizenship and Nationality are one and the same. 

The issue is that if one wants to join the Nation of Israel, in the traditional sense, one needs to talk to their local orthodox Rabbi, as opposed to approaching their local Israeli Embassy. This is because membership among the people of Israel is more similar to joining an indigenous people, like the Navajo or Cherokee Nations than in becoming a citizen of the United States.

National identity therefore in Israel tends to work more like it does in some European and other Multinational States, like Belgium or Norway, where nationality and citizenship are two separate things, as opposed to how it works in the USA. This is because in the USA, aside from the Native Americans who make up about 1% of the population, everyone else descends from Immigrants from only the last few hundred years. Israel, like some European and other Multinational States, have various people groups with thousands of years of history in the region and their sense of Nationality is more strongly associated with ethnic background than with their modern civic state that they live in and that is OK. 

Not every country needs to be like the USA in that sense, Nationality and Citizenship do not have to be one and the same, as long as you have equality both on an individual as well as on a collective level between the collective ‘National Groups’ which each ‘Nation’ that resides within the state is equal to all the other included Nations. 

I would say that what we Jewish Israelis are really looking for is something along the lines of ‘collective rights’. The challenge here is that in International Law, the law of states, not people groups, nothing like this concept really exists. The only thing that comes close is the concept of ‘Indigenous Rights’.  

The concept of collective rights emerged because individual human rights do not guarantee adequate protection for indigenous peoples like the Native Americans or Aboriginal Australians living as a small minority on their native lands in what is now a large modern democratic country as well as other minorities exhibiting collective characteristics. These groups face unique threats to their livelihoods, to their environments, to their health and to their security. No one worries about the Collective Rights of the German people in Germany, because the country is called Germany.

While in the modern state of Israel Jews are the majority, historically the Jews had been persecuted in many countries throughout the world after being violently displaced from our homeland in a series of events of ethnic cleansing that occurred over many centuries. In modern activist circles Zionism is often described as the Indigenous Rights Movement of the Jewish People. But now that we have achieved the goal of reconstituting ourselves as a people in our native homeland we need to show sensitivity to the Indigenous rights of our Arab cousins who now reside as a minority in the State of Israel.

I think that one way to view the path to reconciliation with the Arab population of Israel-Palestine is to begin to acknowledge and respect the collective rights of the Arab minority in the State of Israel and then turn to the Palestinians and ask them to respect the collective rights of the Jewish minority living in the West Bank. If we can do this we can move from being enemies to being partners in preserving the traditions and cultures of one and other in connection to this land as fellow indigenous peoples. The first step is for Israeli Jews to see the culture and traditions of the Arab population of Israel as being valuable and worthy of preservation as part of the beautiful mosaic that is our homeland. 

What the Jews should be looking for, is collective rights that are not necessarily exclusive, the Palestinian citizens of Israel can have those same collective rights. So instead of saying things like ‘Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people’, other people can have ‘civil rights’ and only we can have ‘national rights’. We could just say that we both have ‘collective rights’ or ‘indigenous rights’, since we are both collectives, which also happens to be indigenous. What is important to us as Jewish-Israelis and Arab-Israelis/Palestinians is what we want in practice, the right to preserve our cultures, our languages, historical connections to our land, our rights to sacred places, our institutions and our traditions. 

We can borrow this concept of collective rights and use it here to describe the collective rights of the Jewish and Palestinian peoples in a modern Democratic state of Israel or even possibly in the future an all inclusive Federal Union of Israel-Palestine.

So, now that we are going to embark on our new Binational state outlook for the State of Israel, without assuming the sky will soon be falling, what are some practical policy proposals that could embody this new outlook? Let’s start with some simple ones and then move onto some more challenging ones. For starters, we can return the status of Arabic to its former status of co-official language. We should be offering learning spoken Arabic to primary school students in all Israeli schools. The next thing would be some kind of recognition of status, let’s say a law that recognizes the Jewish people and Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel as co-native peoples of the land and recognizes the obligation of preservation of both Jewish and Arab-Palestinian culture as a national priority.

How about a Palestinian flag law? Currently Israel is in the process of passing a law banning the use of the Palestinian flag at any public institution or one that receives public funding. Since the first intifada when Israel banned the use of any national symbols of Palestinian heritage Israel has been fighting a loosing battle against these symbols particularly the flag. Ultimately they gave up on denying the right for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to fly the Palestinian flag and will similarly loose the war on flag in Israel proper as well. 

I suggest instead of this meaningless fight over a piece of cloth hung on a poll, Israel should instead make a law protecting the right for Arab citizens of Israel to fly the flag as much as they want as a cultural symbol, much the way that if the Druze minority has a march and waves the Druze flag no Israeli would care. It’s not a provocation if you don’t let it provoke you. This law could also apply to government offices and universities where we might want to require that they fly the Palestinian flag along side the Israeli one. 

Another way to make Israel a more highly functional Binational state would be to decentralize the system of government. We should have some form of regional based government, ideally a Federal System. While Israel does have regional divisions to government offices and courts, it doesn’t have any regional elected governments and the regional authorities don’t have any real power and no tax base. 

What should be done is to federalize the State of Israel, even without the West Bank and Gaza, you can divide the State of Israel into somewhere between 10 and 15 regions. These regions would include some (maybe 2 or 3) which have an Arab majority, such as in the Western Galilee, the Arab Triangle or the Eastern Negev region (where the Bedouin live).

Each region can have some level of local autonomy like cantons in Switzerland or provinces in Canada or Belgium. Then you can add a second body to the Knesset and have a Bicameral Parliament. Where you would have the lower house, which would be made of what is the Knesset now, distribute members of parliament proportional to each region by population and then have an upper house with an even number of representatives per region. Laws would be required to be approved by a majority in both houses.

This Bicameral system is used by most countries, such as the United States, Canada or the United Kingdom, with only a few countries in the world that only have a single body parliament, such as Syria, North Korea and Israel. A full Federal System like what I am describing is used in many countries including the USA, Canada, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Malaysia and many more.  

Once you federate the State of Israel within its internationally recognized borders, one in theory could propose to invite the West Bank and Gaza to join as well if we really wanted to. However, just to be clear, in order for this to be legal within the framework of international law, the Palestinians would actually have to agree to join us and unify the two states, we can’t just do this unilaterally. But there is a good chance that if we can implement the ideas expressed in this article in Israel proper that the Palestinians may genuinely consider joining us in our Binational State that has accepted its own identity.

This could also help us get to a viable two state solution, where you could have two states based on the pre 1967 borders with minor adjustments, a shared capital in Jerusalem, open borders, an economic union, mutual defense and secure the minority rights for the small Jewish minority that would be left in the State of Palestine in such an arrangement. Obviously to me this sounds a bit like a federal or confederal relationship anyways, but I think that the most important principle here is that the treatment of the Jewish minority in Palestine will be a reflection of the treatment of the Arab-Palestinian minority in the State of Israel. 

The next two issues are the big ones and trying to come up with some kind of answer to them will challenge how we see ourselves here, but my opinion is that you cannot ignore the elephants in the room, these are the right of return for both Jews and Arabs as well as the issue of compensation for losses during the Jewish-Arab war of 1948.

First, in terms of the immigration policy of Israel, the vast majority of Israelis support the current policy of allowing any Jew the right to immigrate if they want to, not only for reasons of protecting Jews from persecution for being Jewish, which thank G-d these days is very rare, but also for reasons that we see the land of Israel as the center of Jewish culture and part of the heritage of every Jew. If 80% of the population (roughly the portion of the Israeli population that is Jewish or of Jewish ancestry) were asked to democratically support an immigration policy, the one we have would be it. 

The elephant in the room here is the fact that there are also millions of Palestinians in the world who have roots in what is now the State of Israel and the 20% of the population that is Arab would support their right to immigrate as well if they had the choice. The Collective rights concept would say here that some kind of compromise on immigration is needed, including one that respects the minority collective rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel. Were we to just get rid of Jewish immigration alone, if it were even possible, that itself would not solve the problem, what is needed is some kind of compromise on a reasonable amount of Jewish and Arab immigration on an annual basis. 

A fair policy here I would say would be to start with saying that since Arabs are about 20% of the population that 20% of new immigrants to the State of Israel can be of Palestinian-Arab origin. This may amount to about 7,500 Palestinians a year, taking into account an average rate of about 35,000 Jewish immigrants per year. This would have no real effect on the overall demographic ratio, but it would be very symbolically meaningful and a big step towards reconciliation. Now if you were talking about including the West Bank and Gaza into our Binational State here, I would suggest a similar number of Jews and Palestinian-Arabs being allowed to immigrate on an annual basis and similarly that would not change the relative demographics. But again, before we get ahead of ourselves and try to resolve the world’s most intractable conflict, let’s just see if we can turn the State of Israel in its internationally recognized boundaries into a functioning Binational State. 

The other elephant in the room is that following the Jewish-Arab war of 1948 the State of Israel confiscated around 5 million dunams of land that they ceased from private Palestinian land owners who fled or where expelled during the course of the war. The vast majority of this land is still uninhabited and being held as ‘State Land’. 

The state of Israel should start making some kind of compensation payments to the families who owned this property. Much in the same way that we expect Germany and Poland and maybe at some point in the future Iraq, Syria and others to make payments to Jewish families who lost land as a result of conflict. We should also start making some kind of reasonable payments. Instead of holding this clearly just compensation as a bargaining chip for some future negotiations with the Palestinians, simply just start doing the right thing and then we are on the side of justice and this would help our cases for compensation for Jewish losses as well as being a huge step towards reconciliation with the Arab-Palestinian people and the Arab world at large.

Also, in my work promoting Federalism as a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict it has been suggested to me by Palestinian friends of mine that a reasonable way to deal with the several hundred sites of villages that where destroyed following the war of 1948 would be to at least put up some kind of memorial at each site to remember the lost community with respect. This would allow many Arab-Palestinians to have a place to go and honor the losses of what they call the Nakba and feel that their pain has been acknowledged. In addition, obviously a handful of village sites in certain places should be rebuilt as a symbol of reconciliation. 

My opinion is that real reconciliation doesn’t mean dismantling the state, but it does mean that we try to start dealing with the reality of the past here, we need to acknowledge the elephants in the room and start to make steps in the direction of at least partial justice within the constraints of reality. We don’t need to start denying Jews collective rights just to justify why we don’t give those same rights to the Arab-Palestinian population, we should instead just start treating them like we treat ourselves. 

Recognizing that Israel is already a Binational State and just working on making steps towards collective rights for both people groups will be a huge step forward to normalizing life here, reducing the possibility of violence and even resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, all without reducing the quality of life for your average Israeli in any practical way. 

About the Author
Rafi is a biotechnology professional living in Jerusalem with his wife and three children. Rafi immigrated to Israel from the USA. He now manages a biotechnology business in the field of genetic sequencing located in Jerusalem. Rafi is also a peace activist in the Israel-Palestine space promoting federalism and collective rights.
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