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When we think about what kind of state we want Israel to be, why do we have the same knee-jerk response all the time about democracy? You know, the whole thing about how the state can’t be both Jewish and democratic if there are too many Arabs here? The thinking goes like this: All countries today are democracies where each citizen has a single vote on every issue. Everybody knows that all fair and moral countries today are democracies, including all of the major world powers – you know, the group of “good guys” on the world stage of whom we want to be a part – America, England, France, Spain, Germany, Canada, Australia, etc. They are all democracies where each citizen gets one vote. The thinking then breaks down as follows: If Israel has too many Arabs and they all get a vote, then the state won’t be Jewish because all the Arabs will vote for it to be Muslim. This stands in contrast to, say, France. Because everybody knows that France is French and remains French because it has an overwhelming majority of French people who keep voting for it to be French. And the same in Spain, for example, where everybody knows that the reason Spain keeps being Spanish is because the overwhelming majority of Spaniards keep voting for it to stay Spanish. And because we want to be like all the other nations, we want to have the same thing. Only we don’t actually have enough Jews to have the vote go the way we want. So we have to gerrymander the borders, by carving out all the non-Jewish areas. Witness the continued efforts to jettison the West Bank, and even the hardly noticed and quickly rebuffed attempt to move three currently Israeli Arab towns into the future Palestinian state as part of the Trump plan.
The problem with this reasoning is that the situation which we so desperately want here in Israel – to be just like all the other nations – is actually not what happened in any other country. Ever.
Let’s break it down further. Does it really make sense that Spain is Spanish because at the dawn of enlightened modernity (which seems to be around the 1940s in most discussions these days) Spain held a vote, and wouldn’t you know it – the spaniards outvoted all the other minorities fair and square, and on that very day the country of Spain turned Spanish? Of course not. That’s not even close to what happened. Spain is spanish because of a long historical process of cultural amalgamation in and on their native soil, resulting in the unification of the various factions under King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in the 1400s. And much later on, when Spain finally became a democracy, it was already Spanish. In other words, every single European country is what it is first and foremost because of its history. And only later did they become democracies, easily offering one vote to each of their already French or already Spanish citizens. America is perhaps unique, in that many people from many different countries came together and decided to uniquely craft a new identity (and even that only occurred through the history of the shared experience of colonization under the rule of Empire.) The new Americans then contented themselves with whatever identity would emerge from the one citizen one vote democratic process
However, in Israel, the situation is altogether different. It is a uniquely new state. It has never happened quite the same way that a scattered people from all over the world have come back to their ancient country of origin to create a new/old country, and to do all of this while somehow incorporating whatever minorities happened to be living there at the official birth of the new country. (As opposed to, say, America, which took absolutely no account of the wishes of the native population already living there at the time. To be clear, I’m not making any comparisons about who is more indigenous; native americans, palestinian arabs, or Jews. I’m just pointing out that we have a unique opportunity to craft our state with cognizance of our minorities in a fair and ethical way, in exact contradistinction to what happened in early America.) Given this situation, it seems odd that we would lock ourselves into using the same model as all of the aforementioned European countries, when the situation in those countries when they became democracies is so very different from our own. If we are a totally new kind of country, why can’t we come up with a correspondingly new model – something which is ethical and just both to the collective aspirations of the Jewish People and to the civil liberties of all of our minorities. It seems like a lazy mental cop-out to take the political structures used by the Europeans and just assume without so much as an afterthought that those same structures should work in our situation.
We must remember that in the European countries democracy was instituted only after the nationality had already formed – not beforehand in order to determine what the nationality would or should be. The purpose of those democracies was therefore to preserve the civil liberties of all of the same-nationality citizens. There was no concept of preserving different cultural sovereignties – that wasn’t even an issue in those countries.
And it should also be noted that in the unique case of America, when they found themselves to be in a very different position than were the European countries, they found it necessary to craft a new form of government suited to their specific needs at the time. So every time someone tries to discuss an alternative approach in Israel, why are they immediately shot down with the “can’t be both democratic and Jewish” groupthink mantra? It has become a noose around our necks preventing any thoughtful discussion. If the Americans came up with something new, why can’t we?
To those reading this with shock, horror, or moral outrage, let me be clear: I’m not saying this because I’m trying to “steal someone else’s land” or because I’m looking for an excuse to “subjugate and oppress other people.” But what many people profess to want here – what many people say is so obviously the only way to do things – is simply not something that has ever actually happened anywhere, in any other country. Just like the other European countries, we want to preserve civil liberties for all the people living here, both Jews and minorities. But unlike the European countries at the time their democracies were instituted, we find ourselves in an early stage of breathing new life into an old national identity – a task which requires deliberate protection and cultivation. Is it any wonder that we find it so difficult to simply replicate the exact political structures which they used? Because if we actually were to, then we would end up exactly where the Peter Beinarts and Seth Rogans of the world are – in a situation where we transpose the same American and European constructs onto the Land of Israel, thereby allowing the project of Jewish national identity to simply evaporate. Are we really so mentally weak that we cannot find a way out of this conundrum? Have we simply become so zombified in the Euro-Amero-centric “global” world in which we live that we just can’t conceive of anything else? It shouldn’t be so hard to have a protected Jewish national project – a Jewish State – and at the same time preserve the civil liberties of all minorities.