Something about Israel prompts even sophisticated people to make simplistic
statements. Last week’s most sophisticated simpleton was Finance Minister Yair
While pleading eloquently for Arab equality at the “Prime
Minister’s Conference on Arabs in the economy” at Tel Aviv University last
Tuesday, Lapid claimed a Jewish democratic state posed an impossible
As a columnist, Lapid’s job was to provoke controversy,
occasionally. As a statesman, Lapid should be less inflammatory and more
accurate, especially regarding his country’s character and democracy’s
Most of Lapid’s speech was courageous and constructive. True,
Israelis frequently rely on tokenism, pretending “that if there’s a successful
Arab soccer player, then we don’t have a problem.” Lapid’s admirable solutions
include implementing local policing – which would protect all citizens better –
integrating women into the labor force, national service for all, and
“education, education, education.”
He spoke movingly about Jews’ “moral
obligation” given our unhappy past as the oft-oppressed people “to always
remember what it is to be a minority... to feel alien in the land you were born
Nevertheless, Lapid stumbled when claiming Israel cannot be
democratic and Jewish because “significant parts” of the democratic idea “stand
in contradiction to Judaism.”
Addressing the Arab participants, he
reasoned: “The meaning of democracy is equality before the law. How can Israel
say that everyone is equal before that law – that you’re equal before the law –
when the law defined Judaism as the cultural, national and legislative basis for
the state?” Lapid made three fundamental mistakes. First, he offered a
reductionist, one-dimensional definition of a complicated phenomenon. Democracy
involves majority rule not just equality and minority rights. Even American
democracy is rife with contradictions.
In any democracy, a minority can
call any majority expression anti-democratic while a majority can override any
minority claim. Healthy democracies try to balance majority rule with minority
rights, popular rule with equal protection for all.
Second, Lapid has
been listening to too many reactionary rabbis. “Judaism” is not the unchanging
monolith countering democracy he described. Traditionally, rabbis described
Judaism as an “etz chaim,” a Tree of Life but also a living tree, growing
imperceptibility yet steadily.
Thus, Judaism can welcome democracy today
more than it did 3,000 years ago. In fact, many theorists root democracy in
Judaism and the Bible.
So, again, we are talking creative tension, not
Say a finance minister, using his legitimate democratic
power, imposed a harsh Value Added Tax on basic staples like vegetables. In a
healthy Jewish democracy, critics could invoke Jewish values promoting
sensitivity to the poor to challenge said minister to seek less Grinchlike
approaches in balancing the budget.
Finally, Zionist history, including
Israel’s Declaration of Independence, proves that “Judaism” is not the basis for
the state – “Jewishness” is. In Israel’s governing DNA the peoplehood aspect of
Jewish identity trumps the religious aspect.
If Judaism were just a
religion, then a Jewish state could not be democratic; it would be a theocracy.
Because the Jews are a people with a particular religion, Jews can establish a
Jewish democratic state, just like the British, the French and others have
established states expressing their particular national identity which includes
a religious heritage, while following democratic processes.
cross-laden Crown Jewels in the Tower of London. Salute the flags of Greece,
Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom – with their
Even visit the United States and Canada on Christmas Day. All
these democracies have different degrees of Christian influence woven into their
governing and social fabric.
So, yes, Minister Lapid, Israel should treat
its Arabs equitably.
But that can happen in a Jewish democratic state,
which, like all pluralistic democracies, must navigate in a complex world and
calibrate different dimensions of that miraculous messy mechanism called
Absolutist statements misreading democracy, Judaism, and
implicitly Zionism, from a government minister, make this noble work of
Lapid’s caricature is particularly problematic
because he launched it into an atmosphere already polluted by the
delegitimization of Israel.
His rhetoric reflects that noxious nexus
wherein Zionist perfectionism, Jewish self-criticism and Israeli bluntness meet
global antagonism, creating a destructive multiplier effect.
“Israel’s-an-oppressive-apartheid-state” folks will quote his inflammatory
remarks to “prove” Israel’s perfidy.
Their contempt makes most Israelis
defensive. Tragically, precisely where they need to be expansive, in dealing
with Israeli Arabs – and the Palestinians – Israeli Jews are
Especially given the Jewish history Lapid knows so well, the
attacks send most Israelis into a rigid clinch.
That is why Lapid also
erred in disputing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s demand that Palestinians
recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The Palestinians have spearheaded this
delegitimization campaign for decades, inflaming tensions. There will not be
peace until both peoples respect each other’s legitimate national
Next time, rather than making sweeping simplifications that spur
stalemates, Lapid should toast Israel’s kooky contradictions that reflect the
kind of creative tension which could help Israel’s Arabs.
supposedly “anti-democratic” ultra-Orthodox Jerusalemites vote in greater
numbers than the supposedly democratic “Zionist sector.” In Israel, the head of
the supposedly democratic Labor Party, Shelly Yacimovich, dodges her rival Isaac
Herzog’s debate challenge – and resists his demand that she open enough polling
places in development towns, kibbutzim, moshavim and Arab villages, even if they
And, in Israel, both the non-populist Supreme Court and
popularly elected Israeli governments have advanced Arab rights; not enough yet,
but much more than there was half a century ago.
In short, Israel, like
all democracies, is a constructive hypocrite – at least articulating ideals it
Israel, like all democracies, is in formation. Israel,
like all democracies, is awash in tumultuous tensions, which may look like
impossible contradictions to simpletons or enemies, but often trigger creative
and inspiring leaps forward.
The author is professor of history at McGill
University and the author, most recently, of Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight
Against Zionism as Racism, published by Oxford University Press.
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