It is so easy for a country to brand itself a democracy, to say it is committed to the human rights of its residents, and to lay claim to the high moral ground. It is much harder to live that vision because it may threaten those in power and threaten their privilege.
In 1948 Israel declared its independence announcing “THE ESTABLISHMENT OF A JEWISH STATE IN ERETZ-ISRAEL .“ At the same time, its founders declared the new nation “will be based on freedom, justice, and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions…”
For its entire lifetime, 73 years, Israel, despite its efforts to pose as a lone beacon of democracy and human rights in the Middle East, has been unable to fully reconcile being a Jewish State with its commitment to freedom, justice, and peace.
In 2018 feeling that its true objectives were unclear, it enacted the Nationality Law which made it very clear that Israel’s desire to be a Jewish State trumped its commitment to equality. In the words of then Prime Minister Netanyahu this law “enshrined…the basic principle of our existence. Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people…This is our state—the Jewish state. In recent years, there have been some who have attempted to put this in doubt, to undercut the core of our being. Today, we made it law: This is our nation, language and flag.”
During a recent controversy that spotlighted the difference between being an Israeli Jewish citizen and a Palestinian Jewish Citizen that choice became even clearer. Debating whether to continue a part of Israel’s Citizenship Law, Israel’s Knesset was considering whether to maintain a policy making it impossible for Palestinian citizens with non-citizen spouses who outside the country to reunite in Israel. The principle under debate prohibited them “from living permanently in Israel…and denies them a path to citizenship,” a restriction that is not imposed on Israel’s Jewish citizens.
If all Israeli citizens are not equal, the status of the millions of Palestinians living in territories conquered in 1967 is even more disparate. Writing recently in Haaretz, Miran Khwais and George Zeidan described the levels of inequality as marked by the various types of ID badges the Israeli government uses to define the level of freedom it will grant. “There are five colors: dark blue for Jewish-Israeli citizens; light blue for Palestinian citizens of Israel; greenish-blue for Arab residents of East Jerusalem; green for Palestinians residing in the West Bank; and dark green for Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip. There are also more familiar divides: Between Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank. Each lives under differing authorities. East Jerusalemites live under the authority of Israel, a state to which they were annexed by force and where they have no representation. Gazans are governed by Hamas. But their lives are more thoroughly defined by the devastating blockade imposed by Israel. West Bankers are further divided geographically into Areas A, B and C, some of which are nominally ruled by a de-facto dictatorship in the Palestinian Authority, though in reality Israel’s military control is pre-eminent, operating through a differing matrix of policies and practices in each area.”
Haaretz reporter Carolina Landsmann cited Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s recognition of the centrality of bias in maintaining Israel as a Jewish state at the expense of its commitments to equality in his advocacy for maintaining the Citizenship law’s bias. According to Landsmann, Lapid “admitted that he views a law that discriminates among Israelis based on ethnicity and is aimed at stymieing organic demographic processes in Israel’s Arab minority as a legitimate tool to preserve the country’s Jewish majority.”
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, also writing in Haaretz, went even further. A Jewish state is more critical than equality. “There are many Jews who desperately want to live among other Jews in a majority-Jewish state. Their eagerness is understandable, and they make no apologies for this fact. They are grateful that the State of Israel, after millennia of Jewish exile, finally enables them to do so…We Jews want a state of our own, where the Jews, a secure and confident majority, will call the shots, govern democratically, and live in peace with our neighbors. That is what Zionism is…That the State of Israel can, and must, take appropriate steps to assure that a stable Jewish majority is maintained. That taking such steps, and being honest about your intentions, need not be inconsistent with democratic principles or with the ideals of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. And that the loss of a Jewish majority means the end of Zionism and the disappearance of the State of Israel.”
The test of democracy, of freedom and equality, is the willingness of those with power to value those principles more than their own status. It is for them to trust that those who are not like them, that “others” will also value freedom and equality. But without that risk freedom and equality become just words.
To Landsmann, Israel has failed this test. “A country that strives to deny a minority any possibility of becoming a majority, whether by force of arms or through the power of the law, isn’t a democracy any more than a country that denies one of its minorities the right to vote or to be elected is. This is exactly what is meant by tyranny of the majority.”
Supporters of Israel’s righteousness,like Lapid and Yoffie, might ease their conscience with false commitments to human rights. They need to stop averting their eyes. They need to clearly look across the fences into the ghetto that is Gaza, a ghetto they maintain and own the human misery that they are causing. They need to look the families whose homes they destroy in the occupied territories in the eye and tell them that this is okay because they are not equal to their Jewish neighbors. They need to look at Israeli Palestinians whose communities have been left without the full support of their government and tell them this is all they can expect because they are not Jews. They need to own the misery of families displaced in the Sheik Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem and give them the same message.
Better they do this than continue to mouth the words of democracy.
For those who disagree with Landsmann, who think the last paragraph is hyperbolic or perhaps even anti-Semitic, I ask but one thing.
Own, as Yoffie does, as Bennett does their bias and give up the claim to being a supporter of freedom and equality. Then, at least, you will be honest with yourself and with the world.