The Future of Israel as Nation State

“I DON’T care about the principles! All that I want is that my wife can live with me and that we can raise a family!” cried out the engaging young man on the TV talk show.

Sammy is an Arab citizen from Acre, studying for a doctor’s degree at Haifa University. Something terrible happened to him: he fell in love with the wrong woman – a Palestinian from Jenin in the occupied territories. He had met her by accident in Ramallah, obtained for her (on false pretences, he admits) a permit to stay in Israel for one day and married her. Since then he can visit her only once every few weeks in Jenin.

She cannot come to live with him in Acre, because the Knesset has enacted a “temporary” law that forbids categorically, without any exceptions, Palestinian women in the occupied territories from joining their husbands in Israel. (That applies equally, of course, to the Palestinian husbands in the occupied territories of Israeli Arab women.)

The freedom of love and marriage is one of the basic human rights. Its denial to 1.4 million Israeli citizens, solely because they are Arab, is a severe violation of the international Bill of Rights that has been signed by Israel. It also attacks the roots of Israeli democracy.

The pretext – what else could it be? – is “security”. Among the 105,000 Palestinian women from the occupied territories who, in the course of the years, have married Israeli citizens, 25 have taken part in terrorist acts. 25 (twenty-five!) as against 104,975 (one hundred and four thousand nine hundred and seventy-five!)

But, as usual with us, “security” is serving here as camouflage for the real reason. Behind the prohibition lurks the demographic demon, a demon with a sinister power over the brains of Israelis, that can twist their thoughts, extinguish the last spark of decency and morality and turn quite normal human beings into monsters.

His emissaries scour the world for Jews, real or imagined. They have discovered (and brought to Israel!) Indians who claim to be descended from the tribe of Manasseh, one of the ten tribes that were exiled by the Assyrians – according to the Bible – from Palestine some 2720 years ago. In New Mexico they have discovered families whose ancestors were supposedly Jews baptized 500 years ago under the threat of the Spanish Inquisition. They bring Russian Christians, who have a tenuous connection with Jewish families, and the Falashmura from Ethiopia, whose Judaism is rather dubious. All of these are dragged to Israel and obtain immediate citizenship and a generous “absorption subsidy”. But a young woman from Jenin, whose family has lived in this country for centuries, is not allowed to live here with her husband, whose forefathers have lived in Acre for generations. All because of that fearful demon.

* * *

A HUNDRED and twenty years ago Asher Ginsburg, known as Ahad Haam (“One of the People”), a great Jewish thinker, visited Palestine and was horrified by the way the Jewish settlers treated the native Arabs. Since then, many pretexts for pushing Arabs out have been invented. Almost every year the pretext in vogue has changed. Now a new one has become fashionable: “the Nation State”. Tsipi Livni was perhaps the first to use it.

Israel is a “Nation state” of the Jews, and therefore it has the right to do anything that serves Jews and harms non-Jews, even when they are Israeli citizens. “The good of the individual has to give way to the common good!” a respected professor said about the case of Sammy, “and the common good forbids allowing the Palestinian wife of Sammy to enter Israel, which is the Jewish Nation State.”

That sounds simple and logical. The Nation State exists for the nation. But it is not simple at all. It raises several intractable questions. For example:

What is the nation in question? A world-wide Jewish nation? An Israeli-Jewish nation? Or just an Israeli nation?

And what kind of nation state are we talking about? The French nation state at the end of the 18th century? The Polish nation state that came into being at the end of World War I? Or the American nation state as it exists today? All these are models of a nation state – but very different from each other.

* * *

ANYONE WHO argues that Israel is the state of the world-wide Jewish nation is emptying the word “nation” of all content. This would mean that our state belongs to a community most of whose members do not live in Israel, are not Israeli citizens, do not pay Israeli taxes and have no vote in Israeli elections. American Jews like Henry Kissinger, Paul Wolfowitz and Thomas Friedman, while committed body and soul to Israel, would vigorously deny that they belong to the Jewish “nation” rather that to the American.

Years ago, the Knesset enacted a law that denies anyone the right to run for elections without publicly accepting that Israel is “the state of the Jewish people”. However, it is Israeli citizenship alone that decides who can vote.

So perhaps our nation-state really belongs to a Jewish-Israeli nation? Is Israel the nation state of its Jewish citizens only? Many Israelis may feel that way. But that is contrary to Israeli legislation, which says that all citizens are equal before the law. According to the Supreme Court and official doctrine, Israel is a “Jewish and democratic state”. A sort of square circle or round square.

Israeli identity cards record the holder’s “nation”. Cards belonging to Jews say: “Nation: Jewish”. Years ago, the Supreme Court rejected the petition of a citizen for the entry “Nation: Israeli”. Now the court is dealing with another petition of dozens of citizens (myself included) who want the item in their cards to read “Nation: Israeli”.

Is this country really an Israeli nation state? If so, does the Israeli nation include all Israeli citizens, much as the American nation includes all US citizens? In particular – does this nation include the 1.4 million Palestinian-Arab citizens, about a fifth of the state’s population?

* * *

ISRAEL’S ARAB citizens suffer discrimination in almost all spheres of life. The list, which is no secret, would fill several pages. Just as examples: the education system spends on an Arab child one fifth of what it spends on a Jewish one. The health system spends on an Arab citizen much less than on a Jew. Almost all Arab local councils are bankrupt, one of the reasons being that the government pays them per capita much less than Jewish councils. An Arab citizen cannot get land from the Land Authority, which holds almost all the land in Israel. Not to mention the built-in official discrimination of the Law of Return and the Law of citizenship.

Twice Israeli soldiers and policemen have shot at Arab demonstrators who are Israeli citizens, killing several of them – once in 1976 (“Land Day”), the other time in 2000 (“the October Events”). They never shot Jewish demonstrators in Israel. (Once the police shot a Jewish demonstrator who was shooting at them from the roof of his home.)

Now everybody understands that a confrontation with the problem cannot be evaded anymore.

At the end of the 1948 war, in which the state of Israel was founded, only a small number of Palestinian-Arabs remained. Most of their compatriots had fled or been driven out. The cultural, social and political elite left at the beginning of the war. The pitiful remnant that was left was subjected for 18 years to a regime of intimidation and oppression called “military government”. But the second generation mustered up the courage to raise its head.

Now a third generation has grown up. Many of its members, both male and female, have attended universities and become entrepreneurs, professors, lawyers and physicians. Recently, their representatives published a “vision” which demands not only the elimination of all forms of discrimination, but also religious, cultural and educational autonomy.

That is a revolutionary message, and several similar documents are also on their way. Today the Arab citizens are a self-confident community with their own (unrecognized) institutions and political parties. This community is now more than twice the size of the Jewish community that founded the State of Israel in 1948.

The existence of a national minority of this size cannot be ignored. It cannot be pretended anymore that the problem does not exist, or that it can be solved (and dismissed) by some millions of shekels more. Israel is facing a fateful decision, which will not only determine the character of its relations with its Arab citizens, but also the very character of the state itself.

* * *

THERE IS no sense in arguing with those who hope publicly or secretly for ethnic cleansing and the removal of all the Arabs from the state, and indeed from the whole country between the sea and the Jordan River. Neither is there much sense in arguing with those who want to keep the Israeli Arabs as second-class citizens, estranged from the state and deprived of influence. That is a time bomb.

Israeli democracy is faced with a choice between two alternatives:

(a) A citizen’s state, in which all the citizens are equal, irrespective of ethnic origin, nation, religion, language and gender. In Israeli political jargon, that is called “a state of all its citizens” – an absurd appellation, for how can a democratic state not belong to all its citizens?

Such a state is not concerned with ethnic origin and religious faith. Every group of parents can decide how to educate their children (in the framework of certain parameters fixed by the state). There will be no difference between a Jewish, Arab or Polynesian citizen. Relations between the individual and the state will be based solely on citizenship. Example: the United States, where every person automatically becomes part of the American nation upon receiving citizenship.

(b) A national state, in which a Jewish-Israeli majority exists side by side with a Palestinian-Israeli minority. In such a state, the majority has its national institutions, but the minority, too, is recognized as a national entity, with clearly defined national rights in certain spheres, such as culture, religion, education etc. (These rights were defined by the right-wing Zionist leader Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky as early as a hundred years ago, when he drew up the “Helsingfors Plan” demanding rights for the Jews in Russia.) Example: the status of the Catalans in Spain.

Some days ago, the researcher Yossi Amitay drew my attention to an article written by Pinhas Lavon one month (!) after the founding of the State of Israel. Lavon (who later served as Minister of Defense and was implicated in the infamous “Lavon Affair’) analysed the problem of the Arab minority after the war. He suggested a choice between an “autonomist” approach which would allow the minority to form its own autonomous institutions in a state dominated by the majority belonging to another nation, and a “state-values” state, in which all citizens would be treated according to universal and egalitarian standards.

Lavon preferred the second alternative (a state belonging to all its citizens), and so do I.

* * *

NOT LONG ago, Avigdor Liberman presented a plan of his own: to give up the so-called “triangle” region (on the Israeli side of the Green Line) together with the dense Arab population living there, in exchange for the annexation of Palestinian territories in which Jewish settlers are living. The principle: Jews to Israel, Arabs to Palestine.

Liberman, the racist who immigrated from the former Soviet Union, has learned from Stalin that whole communities can be treated like chess figures. Only very few people took this plan seriously. It is well known that Liberman advocates the (so-called “voluntary”) ethnic cleansing of all the Arabs from the state and from the occupied territories. His “plan” is quite unrealistic anyhow, because most of Israel’s Arab citizens live in Galilee and the Negev, far from the Green Line, and Liberman does not suggest giving up those.

The interesting part of the ploy was not the “plan” itself, but the reaction of the Arab citizens to it. Not one single Arab voice was raised in favor of the idea. The Arab citizens are determined to remain citizens of Israel, even when a Palestinian state comes into being next to it.

This community wants to integrate itself in the life of Israel, its economy, democratic institutions and social fabric. It has succeeded in doing as much as it has been allowed to. It wholeheartedly supports the creation of a State of Palestine in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but intends to remain a national minority in Israel – much as most American Jews supported the creation of the State of Israel but themselves preferred to remain as a minority in the US.

Israel, for its part, cannot give up 1.4 million hard-working inhabitants who pay taxes and contribute their share to the national product. History shows that a country that drives out whole communities always loses. Spain has not recovered from the expulsion of the Jews and Muslims 500 years ago. France was grievously hit be the expulsion of the Huegenots. Germany still suffers from the expulsion (and worse) of the Jews.

* * *

I AM an Israeli. I certainly want to live in a State of Israel where the majority speaks Hebrew and the Hebrew identity, the Hebrew culture and the Hebrew tradition can be developed. That does not restrain me at all from striving for a situation in which the Palestinian citizens of the state are free to develop their own national identity, culture and tradition.

The nation-state took form some centuries ago on the ruins of the feudal and dynastic state, in response to the needs of the era. The economic, technological, military and cultural developments of the time demanded the organization of larger territorial-political units, like France, Britain and Germany. In order to consolidate such a state, every nation invented for itself a unifying national history (more or less “imagined”, as the scholar Benedict Andersen termed it) and imposed it on conquered or voluntarily incorporated peoples (Corsicans, Scots, Bavarians, Basques and many others).

This kind of nation-state has now become obsolete. Reality has changed. The United States created a giant federal state spanning half a continent, and later Germany and France have created the European Union and turned over to it economic, military and even political functions that used to be exercised by the nation-states.

The nation-state as such remains in existence, because it fulfils a deep-seated human need to belong to a group. But it is gradually turning into a multi-cultural, open and liberal state, that absorbs (although not painlessly) millions of foreigners, because it cannot exist without them. The USA was the first to take this course, and now this is happening even in the small countries of Eastern Europe – the very countries where many of the early Zionists were infected with their narrow and fanatical kind of nationalism.

If the State of Israel does not want to explode from within, it must sooner or later become such a state – an Israeli state in which Sammy from Acre can live in dignity, together with his wife Lola from Jenin.

URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is one of the writers featured in The Other Israel: Voices of Dissent and Refusal. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s hot new book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.



URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is a contributor to CounterPunch’s book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.