Rabbi Donniel Hartman has written a remarkable essay in Haaretz on the nature of Israel as a Jewish state. Not only does he show extraordinary empathy toward Israel’s Arab minority in rejecting the notion that they must accept Israel’s Jewish nature; he also shows great courage as a Jewish spiritual leader in warning Israeli Jews that there must be limits to what they can expect of their Arab fellow citizens. He also reminds them that much more is expected of Jews in fully integrating Arabs into Israeli society:
If the peace process has any goal, it is to create here, between the Mediterranean and the Jordan, two national entities. It is to forego any fantasy of a single binational state and to make room for two independent nations – each with its own aspirations – that covet the same land yet represent distinct legitimate national identities. The process of peace negotiations requires that each side relinquish its claims to the whole land and be willing to live with only part of the geographical space which it claims as its own. Once a territorial compromise is in place, each of these two peoples must recognize the other as a legitimate sovereign national entity; anything less fails to fulfill the essential aspiration of the peace process.
The Israeli demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state seems therefore, at first glance, not only reasonable but also an essential part of the peace process. This demand, however, is a mistake based on a superficial understanding of the complexity of the modern State of Israel. While most Jews – but not all – clearly define Israel as a Jewish state, not every Israeli does. To ask a Muslim or Christian who is an Israeli citizen to regard himself as a citizen of a Jewish state is to expect him to declare himself a perennial outsider within his own country.
But as with any progressive debate on this issue, one quickly becomes enmeshed in a thicket of seeming contradictions as noted in this paragraph:
It is perfectly legitimate, and even crucial, that Israeli Jews define Israel as a Jewish state. In the Jewish understanding of the rebirth of the State of Israel, we have returned to the Land of Israel to create a sovereign Jewish state; in our understanding, the Jewish national narrative is of necessity the majority narrative here. But to assume non-Jews – equal citizens of the State of Israel by virtue of the democratic principles at the basis of Israel’s self-understanding – feel the same way as Jews is not only unreasonable, it is nonsensical.
If I understand Hartman correctly, he seems to contradict himself in that he embraces a majority Jewish state of Israel; but also embraces a State in which Arabs will not feel like outsiders. How do you reconcile that contradiction and still retain a single state?
To expect that a non-Jew will accept a Jewish national identity is to fail to recognize the complexity of the multicultural reality that is the modern State of Israel. We have made this mistake since 1948; while witnesses to the growth of the Palestinian minority in our midst, we have failed to come up with a category to accommodate their distinct Israeli identity. In relegating them to the status of perennial strangers in a Jewish state, we make it supremely difficult for this people to feel a duty of loyalty to Israel or any sense of equality living in it.
We Israeli Jews have to understand that Israel, as a Jewish and democratic state with both Jewish and non-Jewish citizens, must have multiple narratives that inform its national identity. There must be a Jewish narrative and a broader Israeli narrative that creates a collective space with bonds of loyalty toward citizens of the State of Israel who are either non-Jews or for whom the state’s Jewishness is not the central feature of their national self-understanding.
I find it interesting that Hartman proposes a “broader Israeli narrative” that would incorporate Arabs into a collective national space, but he isn’t willing to concede them a full-blown Israeli Arab narrative that would be comparable to the Jewish one. It seems to me that if one embraces an Israel that is a Jewish state you must also concede the possibility that for Arabs a vague “broader Israeli identity” will seem a watered down version of Israeliness.
The following passage is a very important rejoinder to Zionist Jews who cry that anything less than Jewish supremacism within Israel means the death knell for Israel as a Jewish state. In fact, this may be the most important passage in a very important essay:
The impoverished condition of the current political discussion on this issue assumes that anyone who relinquishes an exclusive claim to a Jewish narrative is a post or anti-Zionist. Many Jews fear that by surrendering the exclusivity of the Jewish claim to Israel they facilitate the destruction of the Jewish state. This, I believe, is a mistake. Multicultural states, of which Israel is but one example, require multiple national narratives to enable their different populations to participate. It does not require particular cultures to forfeit their own national self-understanding, but to give up the claim to define others’ collective identity. Only when Israel has such parallel narratives will a non-Jewish Israeli feel fully at home in this country.
But here Hartman again creates a problem for himself in insisting that Israel Arabs relinquish any national aspirations within Israel itself:
With respect to the peace negotiations now underway, it is both unnecessary and unreasonable to require the Palestinian people to accept Israel as a Jewish state. It is critical that they recognize Israel as an independent state against which they have no territorial demands or aspirations. Palestinians – both those living inside and outside Israel – must recognize that their national aspirations are fulfilled exclusively in the confines of the new state of Palestine, while Israel is the national home for Jews – and Palestinians – who want to live in the State of Israel.
I don’t see it that way. Clearly, refugees from pre-1948 Israel DO have legitimate territorial claims. They were either forcibly expelled or frightened into leaving their homes. You can’t by dictat tell them their new home is Palestine. You have to engage in a negotiation in which you attempt to resolve their claim in a way that satisfies each side at least minimally. This may mean that the claims are resolved through financial compensation.
But I believe, along with the Geneva Initiative, that there must be at least a symbolic resettlement of Israeli Arab refugees within Israeli itself. This is important not only for the refugees themselves. It is important for Israeli to accept the crime done to these former residents of Israel by allowing some of them to return.
I also believe that Hartman is giving short shrift to the Israeli Arab narrative and that it cannot be satisfied by mere lip service to an overarching Israeli narrative that transcends the Jewishness of the majority. Without creating a second nation within Israel, Arabs must somehow feel that their narrative, religion, rights, language and cultural expression are equal to those of Jews. Part of this should also entail that both sides renounce a full Right of Return for Diaspora Jews and Arab refugees. These two principles which undergird both Jewish and Palestinian nationalisms should be renegotiated so that they are no longer absolute concepts but rather ones that are tempered by reality. This new reality would be based on a compromise in which Israel embraces equally its Jewish and Arab citizens while telling them that there are limits to their national expressions.