Right Too Soon, Again

In the fall of 1970, a newly-minted graduate student at the University of Toronto, I was hired by the Canadian Zionist Federation to be its representative on campus. My first (actually, pretty much my only) achievement in that position was to petition the local Hillel and other campus organisations to keep Uri Avnery from speaking. The word had come down from Israel's Foreign Ministry that Avnery was a danger to Israel's good name--advocating such extremist things as a Palestinian state, maintaining contacts with writers and notables allegedly connected to the PLO--and the Canadian members of the Zionintern did what we had to do.

The first time I met Avnery in person was in the Knesset cafeteria in the fall of 1978, when Begin's government returned from Camp David with a provisional deal in hand. I was now an aspiring journalist, and he was sitting at a raucous table with then-Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, who was flanked by Avnery on one side, and the late peace activist Abie Natan on the other. I stood close by, hoping nobody would ask who I was, and listened for half an hour to what conversation sounded like when lions lay down with lambs. I also felt a little twinge of shame. (If you slid over it in the first paragraph, read Avnery's biography now, and see why my shame was warranted.)

I have had occasion to laugh with Avnery about both events, and the game of snakes and ladders peace advocates have been playing over the years, but nobody is feeling amused these days. His latest polemic could have been written in 1970, and a version of it probably was. Anybody familiar with this blog would immediately understand my sympathy for its arguments. But, in a way, Avnery's tone is even more revealing.  It is one thing to be right too soon. It is another to be proven right, again and again, and wake up like the hero of "Groundhog Day" having to start as if from scratch, but with an even more stubborn cast of characters.  Avnery was born in 1923 and time is running out for him.  Then again, I'm not sure it is not running out for those of us born in 1949.

By Uri Avnery

I AM fed up with all this nonsense about recognizing Israel as the “Jewish State." 
It is based on a collection of hollow phrases and vague definitions, devoid of any real content. It serves many different purposes, almost all of them malign. Binyamin Netanyahu uses it as a trick to obstruct the establishment of the Palestinian state. This week he declared that the conflict just has no solution. Why? Because the Palestinians do not agree to recognize etc. etc.

Four rightist Members of the Knesset have just submitted a bill empowering the government to refuse to register new NGOs and to dissolve existing ones if they “deny the Jewish character of the state." This new bill is only one of a series designed to curtail the civil rights of Arab citizens, as well as those of leftists. 
If the late Dr. Samuel Johnson were living in present-day Israel, he would phrase his famous dictum about patriotism differently: “Recognition of the Jewish Character of the state is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

IN ISRAELI parlance, denying the “Jewish Character” of the state is tantamount to the worst of all political felonies: to claim that Israel is a “State of all its Citizens.” 
To a foreigner, this may sound a bit weird. In a democracy, the state clearly belongs to all its citizens. Mention this in the United States, and you are stating the obvious. Mention this in Israel, and you are treading dangerously close to treason. (So much for our much-vaunted “common” values.”)

As a matter of fact, Israel is indeed a state of all its citizens. All adult Israeli citizens – and only they – have the right to vote for the Knesset. The Knesset appoints the government and determines the laws. It has enacted many laws declaring that Israel is a “Jewish and democratic state.” In ten or in a hundred years, the Knesset could hoist the flag of Catholicism, Buddhism or Islam. In a democracy, it is the citizens who are sovereign, not a verbal formula.

WHAT FORMULA? - one may well ask. 
The courts favor the words “Jewish and democratic state.” But that is far from being the only definition around. The most widely used is just “Jewish State.” But that is not enough for Netanyahu and Co., who speak about “the nation-state of the Jewish people,” which has a nice 19th century ring. The “state of the Jewish people” is also quite popular. 

The one thing that all these brand-names have in common is that they are perfectly imprecise. What does “Jewish” mean? A nationality, a religion, a tribe? Who are the “Jewish people”? Or, even more vague, the “Jewish nation”? Does this include the Congressmen who enact the laws of the United States? Or the cohorts of Jews who are in charge of US Middle East policy? Which country does the Jewish ambassador of the UK in Tel Aviv represent?

The courts have been wrestling with the question: where is the border between “Jewish” and “democratic”? What does “democratic” mean in this context? Can a “Jewish” state really be “democratic”, or, for that matter, can a “democratic” state really be “Jewish”? All the answers given by learned judges and renowned professors are contrived, or, as we say in Hebrew, they “stand on chickens’ legs.”

Read on (and on)...