Is Israel Jewish or Democratic?

The contradictions in the Israeli national characterization must be confronted, leading to difficult choices for the country

Yesterday, I wrote about the sad death of Tony Judt, the Jewish scholar that, among many other accomplishments, argued that because Israel’s national identity remained centered on an antiquated ethno-religious characterization, it lacked the ability to be a true democracy.  Similarly, analyses of Israel also quickly discover the impossible juxtaposition of Israel’s desire for peace and its historical dream for a Greater Israel.  Both issues (Jewish vs. democracy and peace vs. Greater Israel) are paramount in the current national Israeli dialogue and parallel strangely well with each other.  Should Israel be a peaceful, Democratic state, or should it be a Jewish state reaching for expansion?

Interestingly, this (admittedly simplistic) bifurcation of the Israeli culture can be extended into nearly all facets of Israeli society: settlers vs. citizens, Lieberman vs Livni. Jerusalem Post vs. Haaretz.  It is not surprising, therefore, that Haaretz published two opinion articles yesterday that touch exactly on this maddening internal Israeli conflict of identification.

Zvi Bar’el starts his article with an interesting (although debatable flawed) comparison of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank to the American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, saying that the lack of American colonies and settlers in Afghanistan and Iraq allows the American leadership to cease the occupation at any point (it is here that I disagree, but that is a different argument).  Israeli occupation is doomed to an everlasting presence.  Gaza demonstrated that Israel could pull out of the settler-induced quagmire, but, so the argument goes, pulling out of the West Bank is a security risk and it would bring down the government:

But it’s not the well-worn security argument that blocks Israeli withdrawal. That’s because Iran poses an existential threat, and terror threats emanate from Lebanon and Gaza. Israel has no withdrawal issue as far as these lands are concerned. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shows concerns about developments on the eastern front, he is referring to Iraq and Iran, not Ramallah, a West Bank town heaving with shopping centers and discotheques. There is no oil in the West Bank, which does not provide us with foreign workers. The West Bank has stopped serving as Israel’s economic hinterland, a role it played in the 1970s and ’80s. So no economic argument is at play here.

Nor can the danger of a collapse of the governing coalition serve as a viable excuse for not withdrawing, because even when center-left coalitions were in power and had the option of withdrawing, a pullout from the West Bank was not on the agenda. In other words, no rational argument is left to block a withdrawal.

Even the most stringent supporters of disengagement can admit that there are risks involved with leaving the West Bank, but the situation is immensely different than Gaza and holds many more long term benefits than short term risks.  So why not pull out?  The desire to expand:

Israel’s refusal to pull out is rooted in another dimension – the dream of Greater Israel has never disappeared. Two states for two peoples is a pleasing and rational slogan that appears to reflect political realism, but it’s not strong enough to eradicate a psychological complex of power and bury a dream.

[tweetmeme]  Gideon Levy wrote the second op-ed yesterday than seems to mirror Har’el’s emphasis on the harmful, subconscious, national dream for a Greater Israel.  Levy, though, seems to have taken a book straight from the late Tony Judt in arguing against the compatibility of Jewish and democratic foundations of the Israeli state.  The Jewish characterization of Israel, argues Levy, institutionalizes racism and perpetuates damning political decisions (continuing to occupy the West Bank for a Greater Israel?). Levy notes that Israel is not the only state with racist policies, but is one of the only that has such despicable behavior woven into the society:

Israel is not the only place where racism is on the rise. Europe and the United States are awash in a turbid wave of xenophobia; but in Israel, this racism is embedded in the state’s most fundamental values. There is no other state whose immigration laws are blatantly and unequivocally based on the candidates’ bloodlines. Jewish blood, whether authentic or dubious, is kosher. Other blood, from those of other creeds or nationalities, is unacceptable. No country throws its doors wide open to everyone, but while other states take social, economic and cultural considerations into account in Israel bloodline is the name of the game. How else are we to understand the fact that someone who was born here, who speaks the language, cherishes its values and even serves in the military, can be unceremoniously expelled while a member of the Bnei Menashe community in India or the grandson of a half-Jew from Kazakhstan are welcomed with open arms.

At the end of his article, Levy asks, “And how is it even possible to speak about a state being both Jewish and democratic?”  highlighting a clear problem in Israeli identity.  This question, with a few minor changes, could have easily been the endpoint for Har’el’s article as well: And how is it even possible to speak about a state dreaming of both peace and a Greater Israel?  Eventually the internal contradictions in Israeli identity will be confronted.  One can only hope that the future sees Israel falling on the moral side of the fence.

Photo from News Real Blog

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3 thoughts on “Is Israel Jewish or Democratic?

  1. Israel is one of the purest democracies in the world – you can read this in many many sources. It’s not Jewish like Saudi Arabia is Muslim where Sharia law rules. It’s Jewish because it’s run by Jews (Jewish values and principles) like Canada is run by Canadians (and since “Canadians values” do not support the death penalty, they don’t have it – just like many Israeli laws based on Jewish values, not religious law). I think it’s time for people to rethink the idea that Israel is supposed to be America #2 for the people of the earth. Becoming a citizen of any country is difficult; The quote “Other blood, from those of other creeds or nationalities, is unacceptable” is so backward that it’s a shame that it was written by anyone. How many non-Palestinians will be citizens of Palestine? Why is Israel treated so differently on this matter? In fact, it doesn’t matter because this conclusion isn’t what exists in Israel due to its vibrant multi-cultural, mulit=BLOODLINE population which cannot be compared to many countries!

    I agree, it IS a problem that more and more religious institutions and people are beginning to get control of the government; but the fact is that a MAJORITY of Israelis are center-left and non-religious. 90% of the population is secular, following few “Jewish” religious laws – it’s sad that that is a point that I must explain since if you went there you’d see it. The collapse of Palestinian rule in Gaza after the disengagement scared Israelis; trust me, it’s scary… not unfounded racism.

    But there is NOTHING here on Israel’s Supreme Court – the backbone of Israeli democracy. Few people know that hundreds of Palestinians have the right and about 300 per day do personally speak DIRECTLY to the Supreme Court justices. Most of them win their cases. Whether it is the reopening of a road in the West Bank or a call for a review of IDF activities there, they represent themselves. I’ve seen it, it is true – Palestinians line up outside in Jerusalem peacefully because of Israel’s democracy. No blood, no media. People should not judge a democracy on the perfection of that democracy but, rather, how it solves its democratic problems. And as far as I am concerned Israel’s track record is good. Have you seen the maps starting in 1948? 1967? 1973? You think Israel want’s to expand? If it kept Sinai and Gaza this long, I would agree, but clearly it has taken steps – even if ANY steps they are SOME. It’s as if once Israel does something with an impact it’s completely forgotten and obviously a non-democratic, Zionist, evil, racist state. What other country won multiple wars and gave back the land that it rightfully won? And I even AGREE that Palestine should exist in the West Bank, but not through this rationale! It’s because of Israel’s democracy that Palestine will one day exist.

    It’s really hard to talk about Israeli society when I doubt you’ve lived in it, especially if you are writing this. What flags were the refugee Jews flying when they “colonized” Palestine? The Polish flag? The German flag? I don’t think so. They left those way back in the countries that never accepted them…The idea of “Greater Israel” may be found by some 10% but in all practicality, no it’s not there. But, Muslim conquest comes to mind.

    This statement, “The Jewish characterization of Israel, argues Levy, institutionalizes racism and perpetuates damning political decisions” is probably one of the most unfounded things I have ever read. 20% of Israeli citizens are Arab – that’s larger than the largest minority in the U.S. There is no support for this “racist” idea in 62 years of democracy, albeit imperfect democracy (but where isn’t it?). But, since this is yet another way to delegitimize Israel, it makes good blog. I just read each article tagged and this one and didn’t see anything that convinced me of the impossibility of Israel as a democracy. This whole thing is so one sided.

    As a liberal Jew, it’s easy for me to be pro-Palestine and pro-Israel. I wish others could link onto this idea and instead of bashing Israel’s every move (and obviously every one that it makes is shown as evil here), and glorifying Arab moves, call for real criticism of both sides – certainly you do not believe this blog is unbiased. Maybe it should be “PerspectivE” on the Middle East instead of “PerspectiveS.” If Israel bashing continues, liberal Jews will be silenced and the last attempt at peace will be utterly lost because there is only so much we can take before blind criticism deafens our ears.

    1. Citizen,

      I appreciate the comment, though I feel our opinions differ on several points. First off, I would like to say that I am in no way denying that there are democratic institutions in Israel. You’re example of the supreme court and the ability of Arab-Israelis to challenge rulings is a perfect example of how Israel is struggling with its identity. The ability of the people to question the law is a perfect example of democracy, however I would strongly dispute the numbers you provided. Most win their cases? Please give some proof of that statement.

      I would like to specifically challenge some of your points:

      1) “Have you seen the maps starting in 1948? 1967? 1973? You think Israel want’s to expand? If it kept Sinai and Gaza this long, I would agree, but clearly it has taken steps – even if ANY steps they are SOME.” First, if you are too look at maps since 1948 it is very clear that Israel has expanded. I am not saying thing with any judgement, it is a simple fact. To use a comparison of maps from those years to show how Israel has not expanded is foolish. Secondly, while there is religious and historical attachments of the Jewish people to Gaza and the Sinai, they pale in comparison to the cultural significance of sites in the West Bank. Comparing the historical Greater Israel ideals of Gaza, the Sinai and the West Bank is equally as foolish.

      2) I don’t think that Israel must be ‘America 2,’ but I think that if it is to be considered a democracy, it should be help to certain standards. I refuse to compare Saudi Arabia with Israel because Saudi never claims to be democratic. Furthermore, nowhere did I claim that the laws of Israel are religious in the way sharia law is religious. A quick look at the Israeli only roads throughout the West Bank, the division of Arab/Israeli buses in Jerusalem, the process for building permits…. (the list goes on) it is fairly obviously that Israeli law is favorable for Jewish people. This is fine for a Jewish state, but not for a democratic state.

      3) You say that you doubt that I have lived in Israeli society. This is true (though I have spent time in Israel), but I have lived in the society occupied by Israel. Living in the West Bank is certainly different than living in Israel proper. But because Israel is the occupying force, they are required by international law to provide for the Palestinians living in the West Bank. If you were to visit, Qalqilya or Hebron or even go into East Jerusalem the physical evidence of the institutionalized racism is prevalent everywhere. I find it hard to believe that the same democratic rights that are given to Jewish Israelis are given to Arab Israelis, and they are certainly not given to Palestinians in the West Bank!

      I do agree that Arabs in Israel have more rights than in the West Bank, but that is hardly an excuse for how West Bank Palestinians are discriminated against.

      Finally, I would like to say that I agree full-heartedly with you when you say that Israeli democracy will create the Palestinian state. Currently, the secular peace-loving 90% of the Israeli population that does not support the continuing colonization of the West Bank is too quiet. Sure it is starting to change (ex. the growing Israeli presence in anti-occupation rallies), but until Israel elects leaders that are serious about peace, Palestine will continued to be occupied – something that, I believe, is dangerous for Israel.

      In many respects, Israel is a great country. And in Israel proper, there are many examples of the potential for a vibrant Israeli democracy – something I hope to see soon. While there is a lot of ‘blind criticism’ of Israel, it is an informed and thoughtful position to say that a discriminatory occupational force (with little hope of changing in the near future) cannot be truly democratic. However, if you are going to defend the Israeli ‘democracy’ you must take into account the discriminatory laws that disrupt the lives of Palestinians. I can only hope that you and other liberal Jews can stand up for what is right and realize that while Israel is great in many ways, it is not perfect.

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