NOTE: This essay was first published at Israel Reconsidered. It was a response to a post written by Larry Derfner defending Israel as a Jewish state. Since a number of readers have recently sharply criticized my views concerning Zionism, I thought it might be helpful to republish this here.
I do not favor a Jewish state as defined by classical Zionism, in which Jews have superior rights to other citizens of Israel. I am in favor of a state in which Judaism and Jews have all the rights guaranteed to citizens of other religions and ethnicities. In other words, Israel should be a state that respects the traditions and history of its Jewish citizens. A state which is a homeland for Jews, but also a homeland for its Palestinian citizens. It should be a state with a constitution that guarantees rights to both majority and minority groups, whether they be Jewish or Muslim. This would most emphatically not be a state which erases its Jewish character. However, it is a state which would equally celebrate its Muslim or Christian character and protect them respectively.
If Israel is exclusively a Jewish state then it cannot be a democracy. It can be an ethnocracy in which the Jewish minority has rights that trump the minority. But this is only a partial, or truncated democracy. Not a democracy as you or I know it.
There are a number of states in the world that qualify as democratic and which negotiate (some more successfully than others) complicated relationships among various ethnic groups: Canada, Switzerland, Ireland, Spain, the U.S. So it can be done. And Israel should be examining these models to secure its own future as a truly democratic state.
But there are countries which are not democratic, which have failed miserably at resolving these problems: Rwanda, Serbia, Russia, China, Syria. Does Israel want to end up like them? A basket case among multi-ethnic nations in which discrimination is rampant, in which racism and the original sin of expulsion (Nakba) are in the nation’s DNA?
In the Israel I envision, every group would have guaranteed rights so there would be no reason for Palestinian citizens to avoid military service. Why would there be the problem that Larry Derfner foresees of Israeli Palestinians being asked to shoot and kill Arab citizens of frontline states with which Israel has hostile relations? In fact, if Israel became the sort of state I envision it would go a long way to tempering hostility from all of these frontline states. It would make a large contribution toward resolving the overall conflict among Israel and its neighbors.
In fact, Jewish and Muslim citizens would have an equal stake in the nation and its welfare. What would result from all of this is a state that was not primarily Jewish (or Muslim or Christian) but Israeli. What Israel needs to highlight is not the religious character of the majority group, but an overall national character, one that can be embraced by Jews, Muslims and Christians. Personally, I think Derfner is dead wrong in claiming Israeli Palestinians can never become “truly Israeli.” In fact the very statement troubles me a great deal. In fact, every opinion poll of Israeli Palestinian opinion shows their deep loyalty to the state and their sense of investment in it. I think he is selling his fellow citizens short. Way short.
In fact, I think Derfner postulates a vague, unpersuasive, mystical sense of Arab solidarity that most Israeli Palestinians do not share. Unfortunately, it is all too common for non-Arabs to wax eloquent about the nature of this Arab brotherhood and why it renders Israel’s non-Jewish citizens forever alien from Israeliness. He postulates Israelis who believe more strongly in a vague sense of Arabness, than in the reality of their own Israeli nationality. I don’t know many people who prefer the ephemeral when they’re given a chance to grasp something real that they live with every day. Sorry Larry, I don’t buy it.
Besides, this view that Israeli Palestinians are more loyal to their Arabness than their Israeliness closely tracks the dual loyalty canard that American Jews have suffered. If we Jews can be loyal to our nation AND our religion, then there is no reason why Israeli Palestinians cannot do the same.
There are a few provisions of the current Israel that will need to be amended for it to resolve the current contradictions between being a Jewish state and a democracy. The Law of Return, granting any Jew anywhere in the world the right to instantaneously become a citizen of Israel must be changed so that Jews have a right to emigrate that is regulated as immigration is regulated by other nations. If Israel wishes to give Jews preferential treatment in offering citizenship it should do so as long as it offers similar preference to the refugees of 1948 and their immediate offspring.
Doing this will allow Israel to embrace the spirit of the Law of Return and the Right of Return, but in amended form. It would force Israeli Jews and Arabs to recognize some of their rights, while partially constraining them as well for the sake of greater good of the nation.
Anti-Semitism is a historical reality that is part of our Jewish DNA. But it is not a reason to disenfranchise 1-million Israeli citizens and deny them equal rights. Besides, Jewish suffering, should it occur again, can be relieved even by a modified Law of Return. Jews who need an emergency haven should be given it. But direct descendants of Israeli Palestinian refugees who face similar jeopardy should also receive favored treatment.
Larry, for me it just doesn’t cut it morally or, frankly Jewishly to say that the “inconvenience” suffered by the Israeli minority from Zionism is less than the suffering of Jews from European anti-Semitism. That’s a zero sum game. Israel as a country needs to be measured not by how it compares to the experience of European Jewry. It needs to be compared to how it treats all its citizens and how close it comes to realizing truly democratic values. It can never truly do that in the system you advocate.
Further, I want to take this discussion in a direction Larry didn’t. As a Diaspora Jew, I have thought long and hard about the proper relation between Israel and Diaspora. In classical Zionism, Israel is all and Diaspora nothing. The latter is little more than the source of Jews who will populate and fund the Jewish state. In the long run, Diaspora will, like the bourgeoisie in Marxist doctrine, wither and die. This is a notion I reject. Israel should play a major role in world Jewish identity. But Diaspora cannot be denied either. Zionism does this at its peril for I believe that an Israel without Diaspora is doomed, just as a Diaspora without Israel is, if not doomed, then deeply impoverished. Yes to Zionism (as I’ve reimagined it), but yes to Diasporism as well.
If Israel becomes the kind of state I propose, then it will take its rightful place as an address, but not the address, in the Jewish world. An Israel in which Jews play an important role, but a primary role, will allow world Jewry to understand that they are full partners in the Jewish experiment, and not an after thought or something to be ridiculed or denied (zilzul ha-Galut).
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.