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Letter to my Palestinian Israeli neighbors

For all the mutual ambivalence and fear, I believe a sense of shared citizenship between Jewish and Arab Israelis is both essential and possible
Israeli-Arabs cast their votes at a polling station in the Arab town of Beit Safafa, on March 17, 2015, in the Israeli general elections for the 20th parliament. (FLASH90/Miriam Alster)
Israeli-Arabs cast their votes at a polling station in the Arab town of Beit Safafa, on March 17, 2015, in the Israeli general elections for the 20th parliament. (FLASH90/Miriam Alster)

We appeal – in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months – to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the state on the basis of full and equal citizenship.
–Israel’s Declaration of Independence, May 14, 1948

Dear Neighbors,
We live in the same building at the edge of French Hill in Jerusalem, an almost equal number of Jewish Israeli and Arab Israeli families. We exchange pleasantries in the parking lot, smile at each other’s children, but never talk “politics” — a euphemism for nothing less than our future in this land.

Since the passing of the Nation-State Law, which invokes only the Jewishness of Israel and ignores its aspirations for an inclusive democratic society, and which downgrades Arabic from an official language to a vague “special” status, I have wanted to tell you: That law doesn’t represent my vision of Israel. I have wanted to reassure you that I am committed to an inclusive Israel that honors its two non-negotiable identities, Jewish and democratic, and that any attempt to upset the delicate balance between them threatens our very being. I have wanted to tell you that sharing a home – symbolically and, in our case, literally – is not only a challenge but an opportunity for us to embrace our shared indigenousness in this land.

But as neighbors who cling to gestures of civility and whose only shared language is in the safety of small talk, we lack the means to discuss urgent issues. And so, I am writing this letter to you.

My starting point in navigating the relationship between us is Israel’s Declaration of Independence. To be true to its essence, Israel must continue to see itself as a continuity of Jewish history, repository of four thousand years of Jewish civilization, and concerned for the well-being of Jews around the world. So much of Israel’s vitality and achievements comes from the country’s Jewish identity, from the motivation to turn a two-thousand-year dream into an ongoing miracle of fulfillment. Remove the Jewishness of Israel – and its heart, its passion are excised.

I need a Jewish state not only as a refuge for Jews but for Judaism. Only here can we be certain that Judaism will survive the pressures of modernity. I need one place on the planet whose public space is defined by Jewish culture and values and needs, whose holiday cycle begins on Rosh Hashana and where the radio sings in Hebrew and the history taught in schools is framed by the Jewish experience. Where Jews from around the world can recreate a people from its broken pieces.

But to be true to itself, Israel must also be the democracy the authors of the Declaration of Independence promised it would be. Failure to embrace Arab citizens in the national identity presents another kind of existential threat to Israeli society. My problem with the Nation-State Law, then, isn’t that it defines Israel as a Jewish state but that it doesn’t also define Israel as the state of all of its citizens. The law is fatally flawed not for what it says but for what it omits.

Defenders of the law insist that there is no need to explicitly define Israel as a democratic state, since there are several Basic Laws that guarantee individual rights and democratic norms. The problem, though, is that the Nation-State Law explicitly defines the nature of the state as Jewish, while there is no comparable law explicitly defining the nature of the state as democratic. If the Knesset won’t amend the Nation-State law, it needs to pass a parallel law defining Israel as being, too, a democratic state.

Defining Israel as a Jewish state isn’t “racist.” And this law isn’t “the end of Israeli democracy.” Those inflated reactions only strengthen proponents of this bill in its current form. Instead, Israel is in a prolonged and fateful struggle with itself to define the balance between its Jewish and democratic identities. The danger of this law is its emphasis of the first against the second. And the law could be used by judges as a justification for discriminatory rulings against non-Jewish citizens. With the current efforts of our Justice Minister, Ayelet Shaked, to fill the courts with judges who may be less committed than their predecessors to Israel’s democratic identity, that is a real danger.

My reading of the Declaration of Independence leads me to this conclusion about the identity of our country: Israel is a Jewish state that belongs to all Jews, whether or not they are citizens; and it is a democratic state that belongs to all of its citizens, whether or not they are Jews.

Inevitably, some are frustrated by this complicated definition of Israel, and seek a definitive resolution of our identity conflicts. Yet we are a society defined by paradox – an uneasy convergence of east and west, secular and religious, Arab and Jew. Each has a different notion of what Israel should be. Maintaining a coherent society, despite all the challenges we face, depends on our ability to balance our contradictions. Any attempt to decisively resolve them will result in irreparable schism.

To Israel’s shame, the Declaration’s promise for full equality has yet to be fulfilled. Discrimination on multiple levels persists. Yet the only instance where the Declaration itself not only permits but insists on the right of the state to discriminate in favor of Jews is in immigration. Providing refuge to homeless Jews was Israel’s founding ethos. And if and when a Palestinian state is established beside Israel – which I hope will happen – then one of the first laws it will pass will almost certainly be a right of return for Palestinians. That is not an affront to fairness but the duty of a nation with a large diaspora.

Israel’s public space must reflect not only Jewish culture but the diversity of its non-Jewish populations. The blatantly Jewish symbols of the state remain a constant irritant in our relationship as fellow citizens. But to begin the delicate process of renegotiating those symbols – for example, adding a “neutral” stanza to the national anthem that would celebrate our shared citizenship, as some have suggested – requires a level of trust between Israeli Jews and Arabs obviously missing today. And so we will continue, for the foreseeable future, to live with unavoidable conflict.

The authors of the Declaration saw no contradiction between Israel as a Jewish state and a democratic state. More: They believed that Israel’s democracy would be the inevitable result of its Jewishness. For the founders, the sources of Israel’s democratic legitimacy weren’t the Western philosophers but the prophets of Israel.

We now know that reality is more complicated. No one could have imagined that the war that began in 1948 would continue more than 70 years later, with no end in sight. No one could have imagined the repeated attempts to destroy the Jewish state, or the long-term occupation of millions of Palestinians – your family members. These and other pressures have undermined the ability of the state to fulfill its promise of equality to all its citizens, beyond the essential democratic requirements like elections and free speech. While those are no small achievements for a nation under constant threat, they are hardly sufficient measure for a democracy’s faithfulness to its own stated goals.

In imagining a shared “Israeli” neutral space that would coexist beside the explicitly Jewish space, we face overwhelming hurdles. Is it really possible for Jews and Arabs to create a shared civic identity when we can’t agree about the most basic elements of our national story – whether the very founding of Israel was a blessing or a catastrophe?

We Israeli Jews are a peculiar majority, and you Israeli Arabs are a peculiar minority. We Jews are at once a majority in our own country and a besieged minority in the region; while you are a minority in a state that has yet to embrace you but also part of a regional majority that is hostile to that state. As a result, we Jews often act like a fearful minority under threat – which is precisely the mindset that produced the Nation-State law; while many of your community’s Knesset representatives openly identify with Israel’s enemies, intensifying Jewish anxieties. Jews have the right to ask: Is your community’s goal integration or nationalist separatism? Do you see your well-being as bound to the success of the state, or do you hope for Israel’s disappearance, one way or another? Are you willing to perform some form of national service as a fulfillment of your obligations to citizenship?

And listening to the hateful incitement against you from many Jewish MKs, you have the right to ask: Will the Jewish majority ever stop seeing Arabs as a potential fifth column and finally acknowledge that, for all the difficulties and resentments, Arabs have overwhelmingly proven their good faith as peaceful citizens?

Some Jews have yet to internalize the full significance of Zionism’s paradoxical gift: a modern nation-state that protects and enhances the Jewish people but that cannot be exclusively Jewish. Not surprisingly, we Jews are still not entirely used to being a majority, just as Arabs aren’t used to being a minority. As my colleague at the Shalom Hartman Institute, Mohammed Daraoushe, has put it, Jews need to act with the self-confidence of a majority, and Arabs need to act with the caution of a minority caught between impossible contradictions.

There is no minority anywhere quite like you. Are you “Arab Israelis?” “Palestinian Israelis?” “Palestinian citizens of Israel?” “Palestinians of 1948?” The very confusion of names indicates the profound ambivalence of your situation.

The truth is, a shared Israeliness is frightening for both of us. For Jews it means risking the Jewishness of the state. And for you, it means identifying with the state that is at war with your people. Until the Palestinian tragedy is resolved, we will continue to live with the contradictions between us.

And yet, for all the mutual ambivalence and fear, I believe that a sense of shared citizenship between Israeli Jews and Arabs isn’t just essential but also possible. Polls consistently show that a majority of your community believes that Israel is a good country to live in, even though Arabs are discriminated against. Asked whether they would opt for citizenship in a future Palestinian state, the overwhelming majority say no, even if they could remain in their homes and not move across the border. More surprising, large numbers – sometimes a slight majority – say they are proud to be Israeli. What would those numbers look like under conditions of equality?

As I write, I am aware of you on the other side of the wall of my study. On the most basic level, our well-being depends on the other. If one of us feels insecure, the other will inevitably feel so too. As neighbors, we have learned the habit of civility. Can we turn that into a sense of shared citizenship, even, to some extent, of shared fate?

The Declaration’s call to the Arabs of this land to build a shared society came in the midst of war, of an attempt to destroy the Jewish hopes for national renewal, along with the flight and expulsion of over 700,000 Palestinians. If the authors of the Declaration were able, under those conditions, to dredge up the courage and the hope to reach out to your community, then surely we can do the same today. And so, neighbors, I pledge to work to strengthen Israeli democracy and to help fulfill the promise of the Declaration to your community, for my sake no less than yours.

This essay will appear in the forthcoming book, in Hebrew, The Declaration of Independence: Research, Meditations, Midrash and Literature, edited by Dov Elbaum and published by Yediot Books.
Yossi’s latest book is Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.

About the Author
Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, where he is co-director, together Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University, of the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI), and a member of the Institute's iEngage Project. His latest book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, is a New York Times bestseller. His previous book, Like Dreamers, was named the 2013 National Jewish Book Council Book of the Year.
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