Around Independence Day, a complaint is often heard to the effect that young Israelis (that is, young Israeli Jews) don’t appreciate sufficiently the achievements of Zionism. Native youth are suspected of taking for granted what would have been seen as a miracle in the eyes of any pre-state generation.
They don’t realize how lucky they are to live in a Jewish state and how grateful they should be for their incredible lot.
In a sense, the complaint is valid. Most young Israelis do, indeed, take the existence of the state for granted. They are used to seeing Jewish soldiers walking in the streets, to hearing Hebrew spoken by everybody around them, to seeing the Zionist flag on the roof of every school and, in the week of Independence Day, decorating most cars as well. All this is a natural part of their lives, their routine, the definition of normalcy.
But, on reflection, the complaint misses the main point of Zionism, whose purpose was to create precisely such normalcy: to turn Jews from a minority that always depended on the mercy of their host countries, and whose right to express their Jewishness in the public sphere could never be taken for granted, to a majority in their own national home in which a Jewish atmosphere would be normal and natural just like the air they breathe. This taking for granted of the Jewish state is, therefore, not a failure of Zionism, but its incredible success.
In light of this success, one can only wonder why some politicians, joined recently by the prime minister, see such urgency in anchoring the Jewishness of the state in a new basic law, Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People. To be sure, there are people and states that deny the legitimacy of Israel, but such Israel-haters would not change their mind as a result of the proposed law. If, however, the law is proposed for internal use, namely, to help preserve the Jewish nature of the state, it is redundant.
Nobody walking in the streets of Tel Aviv or of Jerusalem could have any doubt about the Jewishness of the state. For Israeli Jews, growing up as Jews is the default position: speaking Hebrew, celebrating Jewish and Zionist holidays, feeling an intimate connection to Jewish history and culture, and so on.
But even if it is not entirely necessary, what harm could be done by Israel making a clear statement about its Jewish foundation? After all, it is a Jewish state, isn’t it? In what follows, I try to explain why this law would be both a moral and a political mistake.
First, what most Israeli Jews, particularly young ones, need is not a further affirmation of their perception that the state is “theirs,” but a clear message that it is also the state of non-Jewish citizens who are entitled to full and equal rights. The broadcast of this latter message is urgent given the view held by 49 percent of Israeli Jews (and 65 percent of youth) in a 2013 survey, that Jews in Israel are entitled to more rights than Arabs. The proposed basic law would strengthen the misconception that underlies this distorted view. It would further encourage the thought that because “Judaism” is more important than democracy, the rights of Arabs may be ignored or assigned less importance.
Second, in its refusal to grant any kind of group rights to non-Jews in Israel, the proposed law undermines its fundamental assumption regarding the collective right of Jews for political self-determination. This assumption is based on the importance of culture for people, on the fact that a failure to develop one’s culture and to transmit it to further generations undermines one’s autonomy and identity. On this line of argument, Zionism is justified, because when Jews live as minorities among the nations, their lives are inauthentic and impoverished, and because they can’t express an essential aspect of who they are.
But if culture is so important to minority groups, then it is important to all of them.
That’s why one cannot support the right of Jews for self-determination without supporting a similar right for Palestinians and, of course, the other way ’round: For the same reasons that Palestinians have a right to political self-determination, the Jews have such a right as well.
This does not mean that Israeli Arabs have a right to secede and form a state of their own, a right which, in any case, almost none of them demands. But they do have a right to some recognition of their special identity, like any other national or ethnic minority, for instance, to official recognition of their language, a separate educational system, recognition of their holidays and so on.
Third, fortunately, many of these rights are already respected by the State of Israel: Arabic has some official status, the state administers and funds schools that teach in Arabic, Muslim and Christian courts are recognized by the state and so on. Assuming that nobody wishes to terminate these arrangements, what is the benefit of making a declaration to the effect that the Arabs are not really entitled to them? That could convey the message that these arrangements express charity rather than justice and would just intensify the sense of many Israeli Arabs that they are not treated as equals.
Fourth, it is a mistake to assume that if one accepts the idea of a nation-state, this implies that citizens belonging to minorities are protected only by individual rights, and not by collective ones. As in many other fields, there is no need to assume an either/or dilemma here – either a country with no national character at all, or one that acknowledges only the culture and ethnicity of the majority. There is a reasonable middle ground: A country in which the majority group realizes its right to self-determination, but in which the collective rights of the minority groups are also recognized to the extent possible.
Daniel Statman is a member of the iEngage Project at Shalom Hartman Institute and a professor of philosophy at the University of Haifa. Get more information about iEngage at iengage.org.il.