Israel's Democratic Party: A Thought Experiment

For a great many Israelis, particularly young Israelis, there is a depressing vacuum at the center of Israeli politics; and the most galling thing about it, as my friend Carlo Strenger suggests in his Haaretz column this past week, is that it needs to be filled with liberal democratic ideas so obvious, so unoriginal, that it's astonishing how no political party exists to advance them. So I thought: If such a party existed, what would its platform look like? Can one put things in a way that will not be, as platforms generally are, tedious? Here is the best I can do for now. I warmly invite comments and suggestions from readers of this blog.

Israel's existing parties, each in its own way, fail to confront the main chance of the new global order and the mounting dangers of our regional stalemate.

We know from everyday experience that Israel has the commercial and cultural resources to succeed brilliantly at global competition. We see it changing daily into a large, impressive city-state with a great economic potential. We see a demonstrated power to acculturate new generations of immigrants and minorities into a vibrant, Hebrew-speaking civil society.

At the same time, we know that, like all small countries networked to global realities, Israel cannot solve its diplomatic, economic, and environmental problems alone, that is, without the cooperation of other regional and global powers. Our economy cannot survive political isolation any more than our democracy can. The occupation is ruining our lives.

Internally, too, we are undergoing enormous changes. A quarter of Israel’s first graders are Arab citizens, and a quarter are ultra-Orthodox. Will either group grow up to imagine living in a state with room for the other, or for that matter, with a secular Israeli middle class that drives the economy and expects to be a part of the Western world?

IN THE FACE of this crisis, Israel’s government, and even its official opposition, have been nursing old grievances and worshiping old heroes. They argue, vaguely, that a Jewish state cannot be a state of its citizens. They insist on the region’s acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state, and routinely host Diaspora Jewish leaders as if they exercised quasi-official power, implying that Israelis and Diaspora Jews are somehow parts of the same trans-geographical nation, united by birth and commandments, and that a Jewish state must naturally favor legally Jewish individuals over other citizens; as if the state were not a social contract, but an expression of some common Jewish personality; as if the Hebrew cultural distinction of Israel were not evident to all, Arabs and Diaspora Jews alike.

The State of Israel, in other words, exists. It is time for Israelis to recognize it. It is a Hebrew-speaking society of over seven million people, whose Jewish character is hardly in doubt. That Israel can take the Hebrew language for granted is Zionism’s great triumph. Israelis need need no others. That Israelis celebrate national holidays, which draw on the traditional Jewish cycle, is a source of both joy and artistic restlessness. We do not need to legislate the identity or religion of Israeli citizens, or privilege any clergy or bloodline--on the contrary, these must grow organically, as in all modern democratic states, from the free choices of individuals and congregations.

We must, in short, stop treating the democratic principles and federal pluralism we see all over the Western world as if these amount to an implied criticism of Israel, but rather we must see them as an invitation to move to normalization. We must let Israel’s robust culture compete. We must stop violating, not only international norms, but the genius of Zionism itself.

ISRAEL URGENTLY NEEDS a new, broadly democratic party that realizes the principles of Israel’s Declaration of Independence: The state, that document says, “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.”

This party will be an organization with a clear charter. It will welcome Jews and Arabs, secular and pious, young and old, who accept the basic principles of liberty--who see tolerance enshrined in law as the great achievement of civilization. It will organize from the grassroots: in homes, on campuses, and on the web. It will offer a new social contract whose main points are as follow.

1. Peace. Members of the party will work for a two-state solution. We see two-city states, Israel and Palestine--together, after all, no bigger than greater Los Angeles--maintaining cultural distinction but continuing to integrate economically. We believe Israel has an urgent interest in cooperating with the Western powers to facilitate the rise of Palestine’s entrepreneurs and civil society; this means removing, even before a peace settlement, all the barriers of occupation to the movement of goods and talent within the Palestinian territories and between Palestine and the region. We look forward to economic cooperation, shared jurisdictions, from water to bandwidth, and a common market with Palestine and Jordan. We welcome the presence of appropriate numbers of international forces to maintain calm. We aim to create a Mediterranean Union, anchored by Israel and Turkey in partnership. We aim to achieve a bilateral defense pact with the United States.

2. Economy. We believe in the excellence engendered by market competition but, at the same time, rules imposed for the sake of the commonwealth—rules that keep competition in boundaries that promote equality, opportunity and economic security for all citizens. We see the expansion of Israel’s global, technology enterprises as the engine of economic growth. We see Israel’s intellectual capital as the seedbed for these enterprises. So we support monetary policies that keep Israel’s currency attractive for global investment, but also separate accounting treatment for investments in education. We want to open Israel to the world. We see Israel’s business community as a natural constituency to advocate for peace.

3. Education. We know that our school system, universities, healthcare and communications infrastructure must be second to none. These are not simply services to a democratic citizenry, but investments in our economy. Israel must compete on its brainpower and design innovations. Investments in our human capital will determine, for example, the vitality of our tourist industry, which can grow many times, and in many ways; Israel should be the place people from all over the world come to learn and be cured. Jerusalem hosts under two million tourists a year. Florence and Prague host four times as many.

4. Rights. We will work to enact a formal constitution and Bill of Rights consistent with the Charter of Human Rights in the European Union. We believe that the State of Israel should protect the equality and inner lives of individuals, much in the spirit of the Basic Law of Liberty and Dignity. As such, the state should not presume to legislate identity, national or religious, but should preserve the authority to designate only one national status: that of Israeli. All other “nationality” designations, including Jewish and Arab, should be purged from the Registry of Population.

5. Religion and State. We believe that all people should have the right to build religious educational institutions, but that as in any advanced democracy, these should be voluntary and financed by religious communities at their own discretion. At the same time, the state has the obligation to educate all children to the standards of civil society and inculcate the skills that will prepare children to be productive members of a global economy: a core curriculum of science, mathematics, and humanistic studies. Public schools should not privilege any religion, or any sect within any religion, and state funding for faith-based education should be gradually terminated, much as it was in Quebec a generation ago. Primary schools may be established by local communities in either Hebrew or Arabic, but regional high schools should be gradually integrated and taught primarily in Hebrew. All youth who are citizens of Israel should do two years of national service.

6. Land. We believe that the lands of Israel should be open to all citizens, without regard to origin. The Israel Lands Administration should, over a ten year period, privatize and auction off all holdings, except for those reserved for national parks. Sales should be without regard to the religion or ethnicity of the buyers.

7. Civil Society. We believe the state should regard marriage and divorce as the civil right of consenting adults. The state should create processes to constitute civil unions, no matter the religion or sexual orientation of the parties. This should be the state's only requirement to create legal commitments; rabbinic or other courts should have no jurisdiction whatever over these commitments. So far as the state is concerned, the dissolution of such unions, too, should be handled by civil courts. Burial is a civil right; the state should set aside land for secular citizens to be buried with dignity.

8. Immigration. We believe that citizenship should be earned by Jews and non-Jews alike after a reasonable process of naturalization. Israeli citizenship should in no cases be automatic: citizenship should acquired by landed immigrants in a process of naturalization over, say, five years. The Law of Return should therefore be superseded by an new immigration law—one that gives “landed immigrant” status to all appropriate immigrants, including especially refugees from anti-Semitism. Israel will remain the state of the Jewish people by historic affiliation, but Diaspora Jews will have no legal status in Israeli law. Unending debates over “who is a Jew?” should have no bearing on Israeli law.

9. Non-Governmental Agencies. We believe all institutions left over from the Zionist revolution—particularly the Jewish Agency and Jewish National Fund—should have no official status in the state apparatus whatever. Rather, these should work in Israeli civil society as self-funding NGOs; they should have no role in national planning other than the role competed for by all NGOs.

10. National Symbols. We believe that the festivals on the Jewish calendar should be accorded the status of national holidays, much as the Islamic calendar will be honored in the state of Palestine. Israel’s flag, anthem and other symbols of state should be cherished and preserved; yet we believe they may be added to in order to reflect a more inclusive standard of citizenship.

The Jewish sages said, “It is not given to you to complete the work, but neither may you refrain from doing it.” We are working for our children’s future, and that of the wider world, of which we are a part.