Thursday, December 22, 2005

On the limits of democracy in the Jewish State - A Dialogue

A few days ago, I wrote a post on Azmi Bishara, a vocally-anti-Zionist Arab Knesset Member who, of late, hass been calling for the destruction of the Jewish State. After detailing a few of Bishara’s more choice expressions, I asked:
Why is it that in the Jewish State of Israel, that we must suffer the indignity of having people like Azmi Bishara sit in the Knesset and have a say shaping the policies and character of the Jewish State?

In response, Don from On the Contrary wrote the following comment (quoted with his permission):
Let’s say that we throw Azmi Bishara out of the Knesset, prosecute him, throw him in jail, whatever. What happens next? The same people who voted for him will elect someone else who’s just as anti-Israel, if not worse.

What are you going to do? Take away their right to vote? Take away their citizenship? Throw them out of the country? Kill them? So much for democracy.

The problem isn’t Azmi Bishara - not that I have any particular love for the man. The problem is that in 57 years since independence, we have largely failed to give Israeli Arabs a reason to feel Israeli rather than Palestinian. Of course the failure hasn’t been total, or we’d have more Azmi Bisharas in the Knesset than we do. But we need to accept that Azmi Bishara was elected by people who really do feel the way he does about the State of Israel, and by their own lights have every right to feel this way.

I’m not sure how to solve this problem. Creating a less discriminatory society might help, but it would be painful and expensive, would take a long time, and certainly wouldn’t be 100% effective. All I can say for sure is that focusing on Azmi Bishara as the villain of the story is exactly the wrong thing to do – it won’t do a thing to solve the underlying problem.

I replied to Don (by e-mail) with the following:
Don, very simple. If I had my way, Azmi Bishara and other Israeli Arabs would not be in the Knesset. I am not in favor of the idea of non-Jews shaping the national character and policy of the Jewish State.

I am prepared to provide all those non-Jews who are willing to swear loyalty to the Jewish State and forfeit any national claims [with] basic civil rights and communal autonomy – just the inability to vote in the Knesset.

I agree with you that Israeli Arabs have every right to feel the way they do towards Israel, but I also believe that the Jewish People have the right to ensure the continued existence of the Jewish State.

I do not believe that we need to provide non-Jews with the ability to peacefully and democratically do away with the Jewish State or to incite against it.

The underlying issue is not a lack of equality or acceptance, but the belief that we can buy the loyalty of the Arabs and make them forget their national aspiration for a bowl of lentil soup... which is racist and condescending, if you ask me.

Finally (for now), Don answered my e-mail with the following thoughts:
If we take away the right to vote and serve in the Knesset from Israeli Arabs, how long will it be before we start doing the same thing to Israeli Jews who aren't “the right kind of Jew”?

My concerns in this regard are not entirely unrealistic. I am already partially disenfranchised: I am a non-Orthodox Jew, and yet a portion of my taxes goes to support a purely Orthodox (and the most inflexible kind of Orthodox) rabbinical establishment which holds tremendous power. I have to pay for the Rabbanut, yet I get no say in who runs it. Streams of Judaism to which I would be more sympathetic get little or no state funding, and have no right to perform weddings, funerals, or conversions here.

In fact, my wife and I can’t even get married in Israel, because the Rabbanut has a problem with her conversion (Orthodox rabbi/Conservative witnesses) 22 years ago in Texas, and there is no alternative here to a Rabbanut wedding. So much for equal rights!

* * *

The argument you’re making is fundamentally flawed. As soon as we start discriminating against Arabs in the way you discuss, we’ve crossed the line: we are no longer a democratic state. We’ve established that we can take civil rights (and the right to vote and be represented is a very fundamental civil right!) away from people simply because they hold views we don’t like. Once we’ve done that, there’s no stopping. It’s like the old story:
First they came for the communists and I said nothing because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they locked up the Social Democrats, and I said nothing; after all, I was not a Social Democrat.

When they arrested the trade unionists, I said nothing; after all, I was not a trade unionist.

They came for the Jews, and I said nothing because I wasn’t a Jew.

And then they came for me, and there was no-one left to say anything for me.

If the vote were taken away from Israeli Arabs, before too long the vote would be taken away from Israeli Jews – and that would mean the end of the State of Israel.

As far as I’m concerned, today’s Arab is tomorrow’s non-Orthodox Jew. After all, I too hold views (on many subjects, including, for example, Jerusalem) that you probably consider inimical to your concept of the Jewish State.

That’s as far as our discussion has progressed so far. As the issues involved are important ones, We decided to open it up to all of our readers and allow them to express their thoughts on the matter.

So, what are your thoughts on the balance between Israel existing as both a Jewish & democratic state?


That's a tough one and I think Don has a point. I am familiar with cases like his where people who feel strong commitment to Israel as a democratic and a "comfortable" Jewish state (read: where they can be comfortable Jews - comfortable with what religion they practice without being criticized for that). Those people may not be Jewish by halacha (I have friends in Israel who are like that), but they serve in the army with dedication, and support your views about the Arabs 100% - and maybe even more. Yet, the argument Don presents is valid. Once you start removing citizenship from Arabs (even if you give them a "green card") - other non-Jews will be next, and you'll have many Jews who will oppose that even more. In my opinion, the problem is close to being unsolvable.

By Blogger GregoryT, at Thu Dec 22, 04:51:00 PM GMT+2  

Don's point isn't as valid as he may think.

If you offer Azmi Bashara, (or for that matter ANY Israeli Arab) an option of living in the PA controlled areas instead of Israel, they'll say never in a million years. The Disengagement which forcebly transferred Jews from Gaza was nothing compared to the refusal you would have if trying to do the same trick to Israeli Arabs.

Or "worse" -- imagine if Israel would "Disengage" from the "triangle" area in Israel, leaving the Israeli Arabs there. They would be in an uproar over it.

Like it or not, they have it better here than anywhere else. (and they know it!)

By Blogger Jameel @ The Muqata, at Thu Dec 22, 06:04:00 PM GMT+2  

Jameel, the fact that Israeli Arabs don't want to be expelled from Israel to become citizens of an Arab state of Palestine in no way invalidates my point.

I'm well aware that many Israeli Arabs (and I can't say how many, but a lot) have become (A) used to a higher standard of living, a higher level of government services, better medical care, and so on, than they could possibly expect as citizens of Palestine; and (B) have in many cases become Westernized (or, dare I say, "Israelified") to the extent that they'd never be able to fit in in an Arab State of Palestine (although they might fit in as citizens of Dubai). The fact remains that many (not all, and perhaps not most) Israeli Arabs are bitter about the "naqba"; that Israeli Arabs face considerable discrimination (for example, in land allocation) relative to Israeli Jews; and that Israeli Arabs are constantly having their nose rubbed in the fact that while they may "have it better here than anywhere else", they are still second-class citizens of Israel in many ways. Nobody (speaking of ethnic groups here, not individuals) in history has been quiet and contented for very long as second-class citizens of someone else's country; even we Jews got sick of it eventually.

Frankly, the whole attitude of "Israeli Arabs have it better here than anywhere else, and thus should be quiet and happy" is patronizing, racist, and rather repulsive. It sounds to me like what an "enlightened" plantation owner might say about his slaves: "They're better off here than they were in the jungle!"

By Blogger Don Radlauer, at Fri Dec 23, 12:29:00 AM GMT+2  

Don, but isnt that the point - in a Jewish State, the Arabswill always be 2nd class, they will never be fully equal, b/c once they are, that means that they have the power to change israel from a Jewish State to a bi-national one - and I am not willing to give them that right / power.

I put Israel as a Jewish State before I do democracy. There is no way to get around this issue - either you give them full equality with everything that goes along with it, or you protect Israel as a Jewish State.

To believe that if we give them more equality and rights they will come to love us and accept israel as a Jewish State is absurd and racist.

By Blogger Ze'ev, at Fri Dec 23, 08:45:00 AM GMT+2  

Don - There is clear evidence that the first intifada was funded by Israeli Arabs - and that the "council of Arab communities" is functionining as a fifth column, abetting violent enemies of Israel.

OTOH a blanket denial of civil rights to an entire sector of the population will do irreperable damage to Israeli democracy - which is none too healthy as it is.

I think there should be a policy of "repatriation" for those Arabs who openly espouse the destruction of Israel, coupled with policies that bolster the idea of Israelihood (such as mandatory national service for Arabs instead of army, and a crack down on tax evasion in the Arab/bedouin communities). Call it a carrot and stick, call it forcing the issue - it is necessary in the short term to curtail the free speech of people like Bishara, and to project a very clear message of "you're either with us, or against us".

Regarding Don's fear that "the wrong sort of Jew" will be discriminated against - that has already happened. Kahanists and now settlers have been demonized, and the entire notion of settlement - which was once a thoroughly mainstream and even patriotic idea - has been marginalized.

The idea that these voices can be hounded off the public stage, but Bishara's must be protected - sorry, that doesn't withstand scrutiny or common sense.

By Blogger westbankmama, at Sun Dec 25, 03:14:00 PM GMT+2  

Or, wait for it - 200 years after Western Europe thought about the idea, we could actually emancipate the Arab population of Israel and integrate them into society! Unbelievable idea - but it could happen - just as England did to the Jews - and then they could assimilate into the Jewish-Israeli public and all the factors which affected Jewish identity in exile after emancipation will also affect the Palestinian population of Israel.

Just because the Orthodox population of Israel have a racist understanding of what it means to be Jewish based on Rabbinic understanding, it does not mean that the whole country needs to accept that definition. In the last Jewish commonwealth of the Hasmoneans, there was no matrilineal descent, and not even any clear evidence of a solely geneolgical link to identity. Why cannot a Palestinian become a Jew, just as the Jews of America have become Americans? Or the Falash Mura community became Jews?

There is no paradox between being a Jewish and a Democratic state - only if one has the racist rabbinic definition of what it means to be Jewish.


By Anonymous H, at Mon Dec 26, 03:28:00 PM GMT+2  

Haim they all can become Jews - they just need to convert with their local Orthodox rabbi.

Unless you believe sprinkling magic water o ntheir heads will make all of the Arabs Jews?

By Blogger Ze'ev, at Mon Dec 26, 04:42:00 PM GMT+2  

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