How Democratic Can A Jewish State Get?

The Israeli government has insisted that Palestinian negotiators recognize Israel as a Jewish state and the Palestinians have said no. They recognize Israel, they said, but not a permanently degraded status for Israel’s Arab citizens. The elephant in the room just moved. Which is the cue for Israelis to start talking past each other.

Former education minister Shulamit Aloni knows an opening when she sees one. A long time advocate for both a peace process and reform of Israeli democracy, Aloni understands that these may be one problem. “The government of Israel, with all due respect, does not represent the Jewish people but rather the citizens of the State of Israel who elected it,” she writes; to declare Israel Jewish is tantamount to declaring “that any citizen whose mother is not Jewish or who did not convert with our strict Orthodox rabbis is a second-rate citizen, and his rights as a human being and a citizen are not ensured.”

Is it really so hard to grasp, she implies but does not quite say, that the state is not a family, or tribe, or kibbutz, or congregation? Shall we go back to class to learn the difference between a state, which establishes and enforces laws applicable to all citizens, and civil society, in which citizens, acting with state protection, pursue interests and identities in ways that are inherently voluntary—that identities await novelists, not legislators? “Let the cabinet ministers feel at home as Jews as much as they want, let them raise their voices in prayer and let them lay tefillin—but they must remember that they serve the government of Israel, which still represents itself as being democratic.”

One class to avoid might be Professor Ruth Gavison’s, the eminent legal scholar, who is often spoken of for a High Court appointment. She seems ready to fail Aloni, publicly rebuking her for fine distinctions which though obvious in Western countries might be interpreted--so she warns--as condescension toward Judaism. “The basic principle of the conflict,” she writes, “is that of self-determination of nations - the basic unit of nationality. A nation-state is not a state of all its citizens, but rather a state of the majority nation or of the national collective living within it.”

Any negotiation with Palestinians will be over establishing two nation-states, Gavison writes, where Israel is the state of the Jewish nation and Jewish religion is braided into the national life. Aloni, she adds, seeks to establish “an Israeli civic collective that lacks roots and culture.” Worse, “Aloni brings to the heart of the Jewish-Palestinian conflict the argument usually sounded in the internal-Jewish context…by Jews wishing to distance themselves from what they see as the unjustified wickedness of the Jewish religion and its institutions.” Nor, in Gavison’s view, does Aloni understand Realpolitik. She forgot that democracies have majorities, and majorities have powers. Israel, Gavison writes, does not need to “privatize all the non-civic identities of its inhabitants and assimilate them within citizenship.”

Translation: because Israel has a Jewish majority, and is thus a Jewish nation-state, it therefore has the right to turn its laws into instruments of privilege for the Jewish nation, and thus for the Jewish religion that anchors it. Who says? “International decisions”—presumably the United Nations partition resolution—“Zionism,” and, crucially, Israel’s own Arab citizens, whose leaders, it is true, have insist on being recognized formally as a national minority with rights in the region like Zionist Israel. You see, we only want what Israel’s own Arab intellectuals are demanding. Gavison did not argue here for actually granting Israeli Arabs this national status in Israel, nor is it clear that Israeli democracy should grant such things to, in effect, township-suburbs of Tel-Aviv and Haifa. But their demand presumably seals her point. This is what reasonable people, affiliated to groups, want. Too bad Israeli Arabs don’t have the power to have it but Jews, presumably, do. Aloni should not undermine this power with her democratic radicalism.

ALONI AND GAVISON are clearly speaking about two different things. Gavison agrees with Aloni that citizenship is necessarily a realm of private rights, and Aloni agrees with Gavison that nationality, unlike citizenship, suggests some common, historic group affiliation. But Aloni wants Israeli society to protect what should be voluntary and abolish legal discrimination, while Gavison wants Israeli society to have a Jewish national character, something Aloni would not reject. Is there anything the state can do to protect the necessary realms of freedom but make the Jewish character of Israel more or less mandatory?

Of course there is. Most important, it can mandate that the state’s official language is Hebrew. By teaching Hebrew, the state discriminates in favor of—actually, engenders—the Jewish nation. It is the repository (and instrument) of Jewish culture. Anyone--immigrants, minorities, our own newborn children--can learn it. Hebrew is really why most around the world, including potential Jewish immigrants, will call Israel a Jewish state, much the way France is considered a French state for privileging French. Aloni reasonably implies that there is nothing stopping Israeli Jews of whatever past, ethnicity or religious tradition from living their full lives as Jews, voluntarily, in Israeli civil society. My Israeli Arab friends unselfconsciously use phrases from the Hebrew bible, the way American Jews use phrases from the King James.

But beyond mandating Hebrew, the state must recognize what is voluntary and private. Out of consideration for the Jews’ past, etc., Israeli state law may, for example, turn holidays like Passover into legally recognized days off. It may put the Star of David on the flag. It may not prevent individuals from working, or insist that we show (or even honor) any state symbol. For national identity, like Hebrew itself, is not a finished thing. Compare the cultural laboratories of Tel-Aviv to the workers’ colonies of the old Yishuv, let alone to the religious orthodoxies of the shtetl. Indeed, the only way to think the Jewish nation as more or less finished is to see it as wedded to Halakha.

HERE IS PRECISELY where Gavison tips over into a danger zone. She refuses to clarify whether Jewish national affiliation, unlike historic Jewish peoplehood, begins in (and can be acquired by), the experience of speaking the Jews’ historic language. Does the cultural distinction of the Jewish nation not begin in the Hebrew language, which anybody can learn? Or is it a kind of exclusive religious practice and bloodline, as Halakha implies?

This is not a small elision, especially since Gavison has tried to depict Jewish nationality as rooted in Jewish religion. More important, Gavison lives in a country where the state apparatus privileges much more than the Jewish nation’s linguistic culture. It privileges individual Jews and Judaism over other people and religions—discrimination in land rights, in gaining citizenship, and ways of bending state power for rabbinic hierarchies and educational institutions. These go far beyond anything the French state might enact as a member of the European Union, and a signatory of its charter of human rights.

Indeed, such forms of discrimination are more than anything French Jews (one of whom is president, another foreign minister) would accept. So why would we expect Palestinian negotiators to accept them and show themselves cavalier about the rights of Israeli Arab citizens?

PERHAPS THIS DEBATE is over a distraction: everybody knows that the government insisted on Israel’s recognition as a Jewish state because it wanted to preempt the possibility of Palestinians demanding that their right of return be exercised within the Green Line. But if that is what the government wants, it should have just said so; Taba, the Geneva Initiative, and other understandings have already worked out a plan on refugees acceptable to the Palestinian side.

Anyway, there is something bigger going on in this debate, and its implications are unavoidable. For like so many others in Israeli professional elites--its center--Gavison is advancing a conception of Jewish statehood that cannot work with the global system Israelis otherwise excel in. In a time of renewed violence, it could lead to ethnic cleansing and repression of dissent.

Imagine, for example, that Annapolis negotiations fails and we find ourselves mired in a new Intifada. When we hear phrases like Jewish self-determination, wedded to misty ideas about nationality deriving from religion, just whose Jewish self is likely to determine national life here. A Hebron settler’s? Ronald Lauder’s? Rabbi Scheerson’s ? Probably not Kafka’s.

Which brings me to Gavison’s final elision. She is right, of course, that the United Nation’s openly designated space in Palestine for a Jewish state. What she neglects to tell us is that the same partition resolution guaranteed to all persons “equal and non-discriminatory rights in civil, political, economic and religious matters and the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of religion, language, speech and publication, education, assembly and association.” Why don’t we make endorsement of those guarantees, instead of fatuous declarations about the affiliations of groups, a condition of negotiation at Annapolis? Are we afraid that Palestinians will accept them?