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To Be or Not to Be a Jewish State, That is the Question

Photograph Source: Raising of the Ink Flag, marking the end of the 1948 Arab–Israeli War – Government Press Office (Israel) – CC BY-SA 3.0

Israel’s champions owe us an explanation. First, they insist that Israel is and always must be a Jewish state, by which most of them mean not religiously Jewish but of the “Jewish People” everywhere, including Jews who are citizens of other states and not looking for a new country. To be Jewish, according to the prevailing view, it is enough to have a Jewish mother (or to have been converted by an approved Orthodox rabbi). Belief in one supreme creator of the universe, in the Torah as the word of God, and in Jewish ritual need have nothing whatever to do with Jewishness. (We ignore here the many problems with this conception, such as: how can there be a secular Judaism?)

The definition of Jew has been bitterly controversial inside and outside of Israel since its founding. The point is, as anthropologist Roselle Tekiner wrote, “When the central task of a state is to import persons of a select religious/ethnic group — and to develop the country for their benefit alone — it is crucially important to be officially recognized as a bona fide member of that group.” (This is from the anthology Anti-Zionism: Analytical Reflections, which is not online and is apparently out of print. But see Tekiner’s article, “Israel’s Two-Tiered Citizenship Law Bars Non-Jews From 93 Percent of Its Lands.”)

Second, Israel’s champions insist that Israel is a democracy — indeed, the only democracy in the Middle East. They vehemently object whenever someone demonstrates how Israel-as-the-state-of-the-Jewish-People must harm the 25 percent of Israeli citizens who are not Jewish, most of whom are Arabs.

Israeli law uniquely distinguishes citizenship from nationality. The nationality of an Israeli Arab citizen is “Arab” not Israeli, while the nationality of a Jewish citizen is “Jewish” not Israeli. Are citizens of any other country distinguished in law like that? The prohibition on marriage between Jews and non-Jews is not the result of political bargaining with religious parties but of a desire to protect the Jewish people from impurity. These contortions are required by Israel’s self-declared status as something other than the land of all its citizens. Early Zionists said they wanted Palestine to be as Jewish as Britain is British and France is French — a flagrant category mistake that has had horrific consequences for the Palestinians.

The insistence by Israel’s supporters — that Israel can be both Jewish and democratic — thus is puzzling. What does it mean for Israel to be a Jewish state if that status has no real consequences for non-Jews? If all it meant was that the Star of David was on the flag, we might hear far fewer objections to Israel. But of course it means much more.

To see what it means, one has to look beyond Israel’s Declaration of Independence, Basic Law (its de facto constitution), and specific statutes, which contain language that on its face forbids discrimination against non-Jews. We should know better than to take official documents at face value. What matters in any society is the “real constitution,” the principles that underlie commonly accepted behavior. The old Soviet Union’s constitution listed freedom of the press among the “rights” of Soviet citizens, and the U.S. Constitution says that only Congress may declare war and that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

More pertinent, the 1917 Balfour Declaration, wherein the British government “view[ed] with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” also stated that “it [was] clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.” We know how that worked out.

So what’s the story inside Israel? (I’m not talking about the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which Israel has occupied for 52 years and where Palestinians have no rights whatever.)

After doing an interview recently about my new book, Coming to Palestine, I was challenged by a listener over my statements that the Israeli government treats Arab and Jewish criminals differently depending on whether they shed “Jewish blood” or “Arab blood” (no such distinction actually exists) and that political parties can’t call for changing Israel from a Jewish state to a state of all its citizens.

Who is right?

Regarding criminal justice, Ha’aretz columnist Gideon Levy shows anecdotally that Arab Israeli citizens who kill Jews can spend more time in prison than Israeli Jewish citizens who kill Arabs. “Arab blood is cheaper in Israel,” Levy wrote in 2014, “and Jewish blood is thicker.” He says things are the same today. Over the years, many articles have been published documenting this de facto, though not de jure, disparity. Indeed, Ha’aretz reported in 2011 that

Arab Israelis who have been charged with certain types of crime are more likely than their Jewish counterparts to be convicted, and once convicted they are more likely to be sent to prison, and for a longer time. These disparities were found in a recent statistical study commissioned by Israels Courts Administration and the Israel Bar Association…. The [unpublished preliminary] study is unique in that it is the first of its kind to be commissioned and funded in part by the courts administration, and in that it sought to examine claims by attorneys that Israeli judges deal more harshly with Arab criminals than with Jews.

Note that government discrimination against non-Jews across the spectrum of issues is not usually written into the law, although it may be. Mostly flagrantly, discrimination is legally applied to the “right of return.” People defined as Jews, no matter where they were born or live, can become Israeli citizens/nationals virtually on arrival, while Arabs driven from their ancestral homes in 1947-48 and 1967 may not go back, much less become full-rights citizens/nationals. Put concretely, I, an atheist born in Philadelphia to Jewish parents born in Philadelphia (with roots likely in the vicinity of the Black Sea), can “return” [sic] to Israel and become an Israeli citizen at once, while my friend Raouf Halaby, a naturalized American citizen born to Arab Christian parents in west Jerusalem three years before Israel was founded, may not. The only difference is that my mother was Jewish, making me, a Spinozist, a Jewish national in Israel’s eyes, and Raouf’s mother was not.

Regarding restrictions on political parties, the Basic Law: The Knesset states:

A candidates’ list [party] shall not participate in elections to the Knesset, and a person shall not be a candidate for election to the Knesset, if the objects or actions of the list or the actions of the person, expressly or by implication, include…:

1. negation of the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state;…

Before proceeding, let us note a conundrum. The issue I’m raising here is whether a state be both Jewish and democratic. The root of the word democracy is demos, people. So if the raison d’être of Israel is the welfare of only some of its citizens and millions of certain others who are citizens and residents of other countries, how can Israel be a real democracy? Strictly speaking, considering that word and, the law’s language legitimizes a party that “negat[es] the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish … state” but not as a democratic state. Would the Israeli election authorities accept that distinction? I don’t think so.

In the past the Israeli Supreme Court has reversed government bans on a party’s or candidate’s inclusion in an election. Particular cases will revolve around the exact wording of a party’s mission statement or candidate’s platform, and legal language is subject to endless, unpredictable, and political interpretation. But, regardless, the government has the power to ban at its disposal, and future Supreme Courts may not be so liberal. So the threat of a ban always looms. Incidentally, a party or candidate that engages in “incitement to racism” is also ineligible to participate in elections, yet this provision has yet to be applied to Jewish parties and politicians, such as Likud and Benjamin Netanyahu, that routinely spout racist rhetoric.

Israel’s champions also deny that Arab Israelis — citizens, mind you — have grossly inferior access to land, most of which is owned by a “public” authority and the Jewish National Fund (very little is privately owned); building and village permits; public utilities; education; roads; and other government-controlled services and resources. The Israeli government has carried out programs in the Galilee and Negev, known as Judaization, from which Arab Israelis, especially Bedouins, have been cleared to make way for Jewish Israelis. Such restrictions inside Israel have the stink of apartheid.

In his book Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination, and Democracy, Ben White documents that the Israeli government allocates resources — unsurprisingly — just as one would expect, considering that Israel by its founding doctrine is not the land of all of its citizens but only of some. This doctrine was reinforced last year in the Nation-State Law, which declares that “The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”

So, as Israel’s champions say, all Israeli citizens are indeed equal. It’s just that some — those whose nationality is “Jewish” — are more equal than others — those whose nationality is “Arab” or anything else but “Jewish.”

More articles by:

Sheldon Richman, author of Coming to Palestine, keeps the blog Free Association and is a senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society, and a contributing editor at Antiwar.com.  He is also the Executive Editor of The Libertarian Institute.

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