Beyond the needless hurt it has caused Israel’s Arab-Palestinian citizens (one in five Israelis) and the harmful setback to building a more cohesive society, the recently legislated Nation-State Law has made an already tough-to-win Zionist argument tougher still. From a number of conversations over the past few weeks, it is clear that it has, quite predictably, eroded the legitimacy of Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people, even among some committed Zionists.
This legitimacy rests on the belief (which I still hold to be true) that Israel, as the national homeland of the Jewish people, has the potential — as must every democratic state — to become ever fairer to all its citizens. This argument has always been a difficult one to make to Arab-Palestinian Israelis and many fair-minded observers in the international community for four reasons; historical, practical, symbolic, and theoretical.
Historically: While the establishment of the State of Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people was, from my Zionist perspective, entirely justifiable, it was undeniably accompanied by fracture and loss for all Palestinians, including those who remained in Israel and became citizens.
Practically: Given that – and this by the admission of successive governments – Israel’s Arab-Palestinian citizens have always faced economic and material discrimination, they have, unsurprisingly, come to associate this inequality with Israel’s particular definition.
Symbolically: The exclusion of Muslim, Christian, and Druze symbols from the symbols of Israeli statehood (specifically the flag and the menorah) and much of public discourse has always made Israel’s Arab-Palestinian citizens fear that their state might never entirely become their home.
Theoretically: It makes intuitive sense, albeit mistakenly, that there is a pre-determined connection between particular definitions of statehood – those that “prefer” a specific national, religious, or ethnic group – and the potential fairness of any given state to all of its citizens. The truth is, however, that, while counter-intuitive, the potential fairness of a state towards all its citizens is not an inevitable consequence of any particular definition of statehood or even of symbols.
Two prominent examples are worth consideration.
The United Kingdom has a particular Christian identity and symbols which formally favor the veteran Anglican majority. Nonetheless, British Jews have grown increasingly comfortable with the Union Jack flag — an amalgam of Christian symbols. Despite current serious concerns due to expressions of antisemitism in the Labor party, British Jews have come to feel increasingly welcome, secure, and British. But while British Jews, who are formally excluded from the state’s symbols, have been enjoying great success as British citizens, many working-class Anglicans, who have been British for generations longer, sadly find themselves dis-proportionally disadvantaged in the geographical and social peripheries.
Conversely, The United States, whose founding ethos, definition, and symbols make it the classic “state for all its citizens,” has unfortunately been systematically unfair to particular groups of citizens from its very establishment, most prominently, Native Americans and African Americans.
So, while it is true that particular state definitions and symbols do create a constant discriminatory pull, they do not determine it. An unfair sense of entitlement and exclusionary pressures can be offset by the promotion of an inclusive civic vision, appropriate sensitivities, and fair policies.
Israel’s particular identity, therefore, need not prevent the development of a more meaningful sense of shared citizenship and a fairer shared future for all Israelis. The Nation-State Law, however, has made this prospect harder to believe and to achieve.
Revealingly, some sincere and fair-minded supporters of the law have argued that it is “merely” symbolic and has no practical implications. Setting aside the fact that there do seem to be practical implications (it has already been cited in one court ruling), this argument, by confusing formal civic “being” with substantive civic “belonging”, misses the critical point.
The promotion of a more cohesive society – an existential priority according to a large majority of Israel’s security leadership – requires the provision not only of fairer economic and material belonging to all of Israel’s citizens (Jewish and Arab-Palestinian alike) but also a sense of substantive symbolic belonging.
To be clear, as a committed Zionist, I am not advocating for changing Israel’s particular Jewish definition or material symbols. Rather, through the promotion of a fairer shared future, I am calling for an evolutionary change to the meaning of those symbols in order to protect them. With that, in my recent book, A Place for Us All – Social Cohesion and the Future of Israel, I proposed adding an inclusive verse to the Hatikvah, our national anthem. After 70 years and countless achievements, Israel, the national homeland of the Jewish people, is more than strong enough to dignify its 20% of Muslim, Christian and Druze citizens with such an inclusive gesture, acknowledging the basic truth that not every citizen of the State of Israel possesses a “Jewish soul.”
So while this government and all economists unanimously agree that greater economic and material opportunities for Israel’s Arab-Palestinian citizens are critical for Israel’s future prosperity and security, this is not enough. Symbolic belonging is equally important and the Nation-State Law, whatever the intentions of its legislators, can only undermine this and, with it, Israel’s legitimacy and security as the national homeland of the Jewish people.
Thus, for no substantive Zionist benefit, an already tough-to-win Zionist argument just got tougher… Too bad!