Israel: Jewish and Democratic—Critical to Strike the Right Balance

So much has been written about the controversy surrounding a proposed basic law codifying Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people that it is tempting just to leave the subject alone. Do I have something different and perhaps unique to contribute to this discourse? You, the reader, will decide.

As a Zionist, I enthusiastically and wholeheartedly support — indeed love — the State of Israel as the one country on this earth that serves both as the nation state of the Jewish people as well as a liberal democracy committed to the principle of full and equal rights for all its citizens, as explicitly spelled out in the Declaration of Independence. Does this dual identity create certain challenges and tensions? Of course it does. But are the components of that identity mutually exclusive? They certainly do not have to be. Indeed, if the delicate balance between the two is handled with care and sensitivity, they can be complementary.

The draft basic law approved by the Israeli cabinet in recent days is not an acceptable balancing of Israel’s dual identity. I associate myself with all of those who have spoken out against this legislation, the current president of Israel Reuven Rivlin, the former president Shimon Peres, the Attorney General, numerous political leaders including from within the government coalition itself, constitutional legal expert Professor Ruth Gavison, and many others.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu seems bent on quickly pushing a revised version of the bill through the Knesset. This would be a terrible mistake. If there was ever an issue on which the Israeli body politic and the Jewish people ought to be united around a shared vision, it is the question of how best to balance and integrate Israel’s two core identities.

Therefore, this is not a time for hasty decisions, but for thorough reflection and consultation.  The Jewish Agency’s Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI), to its credit, undertook an in-depth study of Jewish attitudes on these issues. Focus groups were convened in communities throughout North America. I wonder whether the findings were even brought before the cabinet prior to its deliberation and vote on the bill.

Without undermining Israel’s basic Jewish identity, I am strongly in favor of finding ways to make Israeli Arab citizens, who comprise 20% of the overall population, feel that this is their home too.  That will require implementation of government policies to reduce the considerable socio-economic and educational gaps and to assure equal services and resources to Jewish and Arab communities, as well as greater respect for Arab tradition, history, language and culture in the public square.

After two millennia of living an exclusively minority existence in Diaspora communities and often suffering the dire consequences thereof, we the Jewish people have a sacred obligation to treat Israel’s Arab citizens as we would have wanted to be treated.   All of these factors and values ought to find expression in any legislation that might emerge.  Given the religious and political diversity that exists in Israel and among the Jewish people, finding consensus formulations will not be easy. So, please, let us step back, take our time, and get it right.

There also is something I want to say to my friends in Israel’s Arab community. As citizens of a democracy, you are entitled to believe and say just about anything you wish — or should be.  Nobody expects you to become Zionists. You can regret the birth of the State of Israel; and you can call the events of 1948 Al-Naqba (the catastrophe). But you are making a mistake, as exemplified by the 2006 “Future Vision” document adopted by local Israeli Arab leaders, by also failing to acknowledge the reality of the Jewish historical attachment to Israel and the legitimacy of the Jewish national movement.

The same principle applies in terms of the broader dimension of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, beyond relations between Jewish and Arab citizens inside Israel. While critical of Prime Minister Netanyahu on many things, here is where I find myself in agreement with him. Recognition of Israeli and Palestinian national rights has to be mutual. There will never be true peace and reconciliation unless the Palestinians accept that Jews, as a distinct national group entitled to self-determination, also are at home between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.  The formulation of two states for two peoples means a Jewish majority state in Israel and a Palestinian majority state in the West Bank and Gaza, with final borders to be negotiated.

Zero sum politics — whether in draft basic laws or in documents like “Future Vision”– are a prescription for endless conflict. It is high time to move toward win-win scenarios. Israel’s Arab citizens have always possessed the potential to serve as a constructive bridge to the wider Palestinian nation and Arab world.  If their leadership courageously recognized the legitimacy of both the Jewish and Palestinian national movements, it could have a trans-formative effect.

In this regard, I keep thinking about the modest network of “Hand-in-Hand” schools in Israel that teach respect for both the Jewish and Palestinian narratives — to Jewish and Arab children who are equally fluent in Hebrew and Arabic. There is a valuable lesson to be learned here for the wider Jewish and Arab societies.  Sadly, at the time of this blog submission, there are reports of an apparent arson at the Jerusalem Hand-in-Hand school.

About the Author
Martin J. Raffel, until his retirement in 2014, served for 27 years as senior vice president at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), an umbrella body with 16 national member organizations and over 120 locally based organizations (JCRCs). He was JCPA’s lead professional on matters related to Israel, world Jewry and international human rights. In 2009, Raffel took the lead in organizing the Israel Action Network, a joint strategic initiative of The Jewish Federations of North America and JCPA that seeks to combat the assault on Israel’s legitimacy. He currently serves on the Board Of Democratic Jewish Outreach PA.