During the 19th century there was a widely recognized Jewish problem. From the point of view of host nations, this was that Jews were different, and not always welcome. From the point of view of the Jews, the problem was that since having lost their sovereignty nearly two millennia before, they had been minorities discriminated against and persecuted wherever they lived.
In societies in which identity and loyalty were defined largely in terms of religion, religious minorities were treated as outsiders, and at best were uneasily tolerated. Jews suffered from this situation, but so did Protestants in Catholic countries, Catholics in Protestant countries, Shiites where Sunnis were the majority, and Sunnis where Shiites dominated.
Toward the end of the 18th century and during the 19th century, the nation, often defined in ethno-linguistic terms, and often retaining a faith-based component, grew in importance. The 19th and earlier 20th centuries were an age of the nation-state. But it was also a time of two distinct kinds of nationalism.
Some states, such as Ottoman Turkey or Habsburg Austria had long been empires, and some centralized states, such as Spain, France and Great Britain had become imperial powers. They competed among themselves to dominate and exploit adjacent territories and what is often termed the third world. This was the imperialistic form of nationalism.
Within Europe there were many ethnic, linguistic and religious communities who were subjected to larger empires. Because it is, and always has been, in the nature of power-holders to exercise their power in their own interests rather than for the well-being of those subject to them, subject groups usually dislike their dependence, and strive for liberty and independence. Hence the second kind of nationalism, which aspires to self-assertion and national liberation. Zionism began as a nationalism of the oppressed.
The early Zionists did not have an easy time of it. The people for whom they spoke were not concentrated in one or two geographical regions, they did not speak a single language, and they did not all face the same sets of problems. Significant portions of the Jewish communities of Western Europe and North America felt that if a Jewish problem there was, it was best solved by assimilation. In more secularized and tolerant societies, this seemed feasible. In most of the autocracies of Eastern Europe and Russia it was less so. And little was said about, or for, the Jews of Arab lands.
Without the broad acceptance of nationalism, enacted in practical terms in the treaties that ended the Great War and the horrors of the Second World War, it is unlikely that a Jewish state would have been endorsed by the international community. True, the neighbors of the new state immediately launched a war intended to destroy it. Despite severe losses, it survived.
It is worth pointing out what kind of state Israel was at its inception. It was the embodiment of the defensive form of nationalism that saw in the nation-state a practical means of assuring the dignity, rights and survival of a persecuted people. The founders were mostly secular, many of them socialists, and having themselves and their communities experienced persecution, were fully devoted to human rights. These values are clearly reflected in the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel of 1948, which reads in part:
THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
These are high-minded values, and they reflect the outlooks of the American Declaration of Independence (not so good for people of color) or the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (inapplicable in the slave-owning colonies). They also fittingly express the outlook and values of a nationalist movement that sought to liberate and provide security for a fragmented and persecuted people.
These, then, are the founding values of the Jewish state. They are based on and are a response to millennia of Jewish history. They are a call for liberation from persecution and tyranny in the name of human rights, as conceived by the prophets of Israel and, as the Declaration of Independence does not say, by modern liberal thinkers and writers.
To abandon these principles is a betrayal of Jewish history and the vision of the founders of the State of Israel. To deny basic human and political rights to minority populations is to adopt the ideals and policies of the autocrats, clerics, bureaucrats and thugs who have so embittered Jewish experience.
Israel has had four major obstacles in trying to achieve the goals of its founders. The first of these was the presence of a large, initially hostile, Arab population within the borders of the country. For years this population did not have full and equal rights with the Jewish population. With time full rights, including the right to political representation, were achieved. It can be argued that the integration of the Arab population into the state of Israel is less than what could be desired. But it cannot be denied that there has been significant advance toward the goals of the Declaration of Independence.
The second obstacle to the achievement of a state assuring ‘the complete equality of social and political rights’ for all inhabitants of the state is a consequence of the Six Day War. Rather than negotiating the return of the west bank of the Jordan to the state of Jordan after our conquest of it in 1967, we have continued our occupation. Jews have been allowed to settle there, much of the land has been nationalized or claimed by Jewish settlers, and Arab inhabitants are without civic or political rights. It is hard to deny that the occupied west bank is run on the principles of apartheid. It is equally hard to deny that what Israelis regards as terrorism is for the Arab residents of the west bank part of a national liberation struggle.
A third factor working against realization of the ideals of Israel’s Declaration of Independence is religious fanaticism, and it is cross-denominational. Muslims who deny the legitimacy of an independent heretical presence in Daar-al-Islam, be they Palestinian, Iranian or of any other nationality, will not, and do not, accept the existence of a Jewish state in what they regard as their territory. The Hamas Covenant is quite clear on this. So how do we negotiate with what is intended as a non-negotiable position?
On the Jewish side, the present coalition contains pseudo-religious nationalists who claim a divinely ordained right to the greater land of Israel, and who happily deny civil or human rights to peoples of other faiths under their control. This is not what Herzl had in mind. Nor the founders in their Declaration of 1948.
The fourth element that opposes realization of the promise of our Declaration of Independence is early 21st-century fascism. In democracies, the flow of authority is from the people to its elected leaders, from the bottom up. The objective of democracy is the well-being and freedom of all members of the state. In part it assures this goal by some system of checks and balances that limit the abuse of power by those in office.
In fascism, the flow of authority is from the top down, as it is in business. The leaders are said to know what is best for the country, and they tend to think in terms of the greatness and glory of the state or its ethnic make-up, not the well-being and freedom of the citizenry. Typically, fascist and neo-fascist regimes favor a strongman leader with a subservient party to do his or her bidding, and tend toward dictatorship.
A good part of the problem of the State of Israel just now is that it is run by an unholy coalition of religious fanatics and neo-fascists. The present coalition achieved a solid parliamentary majority with about 48% of the popular vote. This majority assures it power. It is not an indication of legitimacy.
Like all fascist regimes, this coalition looks to eliminate any checks on its power, and aspires to uncontrolled exercise of that power, which is to say, dictatorship. It is hyper-nationalist, seeks to delegitimize opposition, and to exert full control of the media. It prides itself on saying that it wants to strengthen democracy and assure freedom, while it works energetically to do precisely the opposite.
If this unholy alliance of religious fanatics and fascists succeeds in forcing through its legislative program, it will destroy our democracy –imperfect though it is– and replace it with dictatorship. This would be a betrayal both of centuries of Jewish history, and of our Declaration of Independence.
In practical terms, the bad news here is that such regimes do not last. Given how deeply divided Israeli society is, and how hostile and dangerous the part of the world in which we live is, such a regime, and the country it has been imposed on, are unlikely to last long. Happy month of Av.