Haviv Rettig Gur

As Jewish as ever, and as democratic

If you haven’t read Amir Mizroch’s latest blog post, you should. It’s a heartfelt warning that Israel is becoming, to quote the title, “not Jewish, not democratic.”

Amir Mizroch is a friend and a good journalist. I say that to put in context my next sentence.

I don’t think he could be more wrong.

I won’t speak to any of the political issues he raises because it’s not necessary to do so. It’s the facts that I want to challenge. This piece brings together in one place a lot of the present-day discourse on the left, a discourse that has the quality of an echo chamber: untested emotion-laden assertions that seem true because people keep hearing each other saying them.

Let’s start with democratic. There is no measure by which Israel is growing less democratic.

On the Palestinian question, there’s only one thing about which Jews and Arabs agree in this conflict: they don’t want to be together. Israel will hold on to the West Bank until there is a deal that fulfills some minimal needs (i.e., no Hamas rockets from the West Bank, Israel gets the Kotel, no automatic right of return into Israel, etc.). If the West Bank Palestinians look set to win an Israeli High Court petition to obtain Israeli citizenship — the doomsday scenario, we are constantly told, though no one saying this seems to have polled Palestinians about whether they would even want said citizenship — Israel will simply unilaterally withdraw from much of the West Bank.

Israelis already elected a prime minister (Ehud Olmert in 2006) on the express platform of such a unilateral withdrawal. Hamas’ takeover of Gaza and Hizbullah’s war in the North stopped that idea, but it’s already passed a public referendum of sorts.

So though the world tries to scare Israeli leaders with talk of a one-state solution (and though some Israeli leaders fundraise abroad with such talk), it’s simply not taken seriously by Israeli planners on any side of the political divide. It’s a rhetorical device, not a policy warning.

To be sure, this takes nothing away from the moral or legal argument for Palestinian civil rights. I’m only noting there isn’t a demographic one. Israeli democracy is not threatened by waiting out Palestinian intransigence.

On the Israeli Arab question: The piece mentions in an off-handed way that Israeli minorities — Muslims, Druze, Beduins, Christians, etc. — don’t have full citizenship rights as Israeli citizens. While they unquestionably face discrimination that we must tackle better, and today’s policies on equal education funding and other issues are not enough to bridge the gap, Israel’s minorities nevertheless enjoy full and complete civil rights.

But Amir hints at something else. Not that they cannot vote or don’t have access to schools — because of course they can and do — but that they cannot be fully part of the Jewish state. After all, they’re not Jewish.

This is an argument that can only really be advanced in English. In the English-speaking world (and technically also in France) there are universal democracies where the “nation” and the citizen body are identical. To be American is to be an American citizen. If you’re not a citizen, you’re not an American.

But in most democracies, including Greece, Germany, Finland, India, Ireland, Switzerland, Israel — and of course in any future Palestine — the state represents not merely its citizens, but also an ethnic identity that preexisted the state and that may include members who are not citizens. These states are usually called ethnic democracies, or sometimes simply nation-states, and their non-citizen “affinity groups” (to quote the Council of Europe) are their diasporas.

There is nothing anti-democratic about Israel being a Jewish state serving the Jewish people, including its diaspora. As long as minorities enjoy basic inalienable human and civil rights and freedoms, the state is not required to advance the minority population’s collective culture or interests as it does the majority’s. Is Spain still a democracy for being fundamentally Spanish, or do the Basques’ inability to enjoy the state’s cultural affinity mean Spain is less than democratic?

Which brings us to Jewish.

Israel will not stop being Jewish because of the corrupt haredi monopoly of state religious institutions. That’s because the word “Jewish” means something very different from what it means in South Africa, where Amir comes from, or the United States, from which my own family made aliyah.

Those secular Israelis marrying outside the rabbinate (my wife and I count among them) still say proudly and in vast numbers that we are “Jewish.” We are surrounded by Jewish history’s real and mythical geography, speak the language of the Jewish canon, stay home from work according to the Jewish calendar. Our Jewishness is an innate identity not unlike how Muslims view Islamic identity in places like the Balkans. We are born with it, and don’t really feel it’s something we can lose.

Does this mean Israeli Jewish identity doesn’t need better education to back up the ethnic bit? Of course it does. Every Jewish society needs good Jewish education, and many Israelis are woefully ignorant of their heritage. But that’s not going to make Israelis not Jewish. It’s simply not what being “Jewish” means in Israel.

As for demographics, the birthrate does not and should not worry us. For one thing, there’s something creepy about the all-too-common habit of fearing another people’s birthrate. For another, the facts are simply not as worrying as these fears suggest. Israeli minorities’ birthrates are high but declining quickly as their economic and educational situation improves. This is good for them, good for Israel’s economy and good for anyone worried about future demographic clashes. Also, the Jewish birthrate is very, very high by Western standards, and in fact rising.

As for emigration — we’ve been hearing about that spectre for a long, long time from a variety of groups: frustrated proto-Zionists, worried Zionists and triumphant post-Zionists. Thankfully, all were wrong. With the exception of the disturbingly high brain drain at the top percentiles of highly-educated Israelis, it hasn’t happened yet, and it’s hard to see anything that would make it happen. Israelis love living in Israel. They tell pollsters they are among the happiest people on Earth. They have unusually large numbers of kids (even secular Israelis) and low suicide rates. Notwithstanding the left-wing echo chamber of doom and gloom, where’s the evidence that Israeli morale is breaking?

(And please, friends, don’t confuse the above question with Israelis’ legitimate gripes with growing wage disparity and corrupt politicians. I’m asking about evidence anyone is leaving. Americans, too, think their economy stinks and their politicians stink even more. They’re not leaving.)

In conclusion, Amir sums up the theory of the left quite succinctly. Israel is growing less democratic and less Jewish, and will soon collapse under the weight of its internal contradictions. It’s a story that holds up beautifully, unless you speak to actual Israelis, test their resolve, ask them about their Jewish identities, lay out clearly their options when it comes to democratic institutions, and so forth.

Israel is as Jewish as it ever was (which is to say, very solidly so but still needs work) and as democratic (which is to say, very solidly so but still needs work). It has a wildly free public square, a parliament far too representative for its own good (it’s hard to get work done when every minute variation in the Israeli public’s mood has its own party), and a simple escape-hatch strategy for avoiding being dragged farther into the morass of Palestinian rejectionism: withdrawal. That’s not as good as a peace agreement, of course. It will be exceedingly uncomfortable to deal with rockets falling on Tel Aviv. But those rockets will be falling, as always, on a country as fully Jewish and fully democratic as a country can be.

About the Author
Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.