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Doubts Grow About Whether Israel Can, at the Same Time, Be Both “Jewish” and “Democratic”

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
August 2010

Israeli leaders frequently refer to their state as one which is both “Jewish” and “democratic.” In the view of more and more critics, however, this may be a contradiction in terms.  
Professor Shlomo Sand of Tel Aviv University, author of the widely discussed book The Invention of the Jewish People, declares that, “In most democracies in which there are cultural and linguistic minority groups, it is advisable to include civil symbols and festivals shared by all the citizens. Not surprisingly, no such attempt has been made in the “Jewish state.” The peculiar character of Israel’s supra-identity, whose primeval code was inherent in Zionism, from the start, is what makes it doubtful that a ‘Jewish’ state can also be democratic. The Jewish nationalism that dominates Israeli society is not an open, inclusive identity that invites others to become part of it, or to coexist with it on the basis of equality and in symbiosis. On the contrary, it explicitly and culturally segregates the majority from the minority, and repeatedly states that the state belongs only to the majority ... moreover, it promises eternal proprietary rights to an even greater human mass that does not choose to live in it.”  
What, then, can such a state be called? Sand calls it an “ethnocracy” and states that, more than this, “it is a Jewish ethnocracy with liberal features — that is, a state whose main purpose is to serve not a civil-egalitarian demos but a biological-religious ethnos ... Such a state, for all its liberalism and pluralism, is committed to isolating its chosen ethnos through ideological, pedagogical and legislative means, not only from those of its own citizens who are not classified as Jews, not only from the Israeli-born children of foreign workers, but from the rest of humanity.”  
Prof. Tony Judt, director of New York University’s Remarque Institute, laments that, “The perverse insistence upon identifying a universal Jewishness with one small piece of territory is dysfunctional in many ways. It is the single most important factor in accounting for the failure to solve the Israel-Palestinian imbroglio. It is bad for Israel and, I would suggest, bad for Jews elsewhere who are identified with its actions.”  
A report issued by Haifa University sociologist Sammy Smooha indicates that Arabs are second-class citizens in Israel. It notes that the average wage of Arabs in Israel is about one-third that of their Jewish counterparts. Arabs constitute 20 percent of the population, but only 8 percent of the labor force. Arab pupils get about 40 percent less in resources from the Education Ministry than Jewish students. The Washington Times (June 23, 2010) cites these findings: “The number (of Arab citizens of Israel) who believe that ‘despite its shortcomings, the regime in Israel is a democracy for the Arab citizens as well’ has fallen from 63.1 percent to 50.5 percent ... Only 66.9 percent of Jewish Israelis support preserving the right of Arab citizens to vote.”  
Writing in The Jerusalem Report (June 7, 2010), Zuheir Bahalul, a prominent Israeli Arab broadcaster and journalist, notes that, “The inherently Jewish character of the state perpetuates a reality in which the native Arab inhabitants have become strangers in their own country, feeling threatened by the specter of mass expulsion or transfer of some of their villages to a future Palestinian state. ... Most Arabs in Israel are law-abiding citizens ... But when it comes to feelings, there is a seething lack of identification with the state, coupled with a sense of profound alienation and separateness ... As the Israeli writer Sayid Kashua asks: How can Israeli Arabs sing ‘Hatikvah’ (Israel’s national anthem) when it talks about the ‘Jewish soul’?”  
Dalya Levy, executive director of ARZENU, the umbrella organization of Reform and Progressive Zionists, declared: “No minority can be expected to be loyal to its country when its people are treated as second class citizens. I find it remarkable that so many Israeli Arabs put up with the status quo. My fear is that their patience will run out; my hope is that we will recognize what great citizens they are, and give them more opportunities to be and feel equal.” (Reform Judaism, Summer 2010).  
Professor Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University, writes in The International Jerusalem Post (June 11-18 2010): “I think we will say that it was deeply unfortunate that although the Arabs were made citizens of Jerusalem in 1967, Israel did not truly equalize the Arab and Jewish communities, giving them equal city services, equal educational benefits and so forth ... all its citizens should have been treated alike, and to the extent that they weren’t, I can understand the unhappi-ness of the Jerusalem Arabs ... To my mind, the great lesson of America is that religion thrives when religion and state are constitutionally separated. That’s really one of America’s greatest lessons to the world and why America is the most religious of all first world countries ... Israel should promote Jerusalem as a place where there is truly a free market in religion and let the market decide.” •

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© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.