In pursuit of civic Zionism

The bill did not infringe on the individual rights of Israel’s Arab citizens and merely reaffirmed the Jewish national characteristics of the state that were already in place.

July 28, 2018 22:42
4 minute read.
In pursuit of civic Zionism

The Knesset votes on the nation-state bill, July 19, 2018. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)


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The passage of the Jewish nation-state bill has put Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state into serious question, but not in the way one might think.

The bill did not infringe on the individual rights of Israel’s Arab citizens and merely reaffirmed the Jewish national characteristics of the state that were already in place.

The bill was mostly symbolic and will likely have minimal practical effect. However, by only and exclusively acknowledging the national rights of its Jewish citizens, Israel may headed down a dangerous path toward becoming more of an ethnic nation state (with many democratic characteristics) rather than a genuine civic nation state.

The controversy over the nation state bill was not necessarily because it declared the state as the homeland of the Jewish people, as Israel’s Jewish national characteristics are not unique compared to other democratic nation states. There are several countries that declare themselves as a homeland for a specific national group and express that through state symbols and national rights. For instance, similar to how Israel has a Magen David on its flag, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Greece, Slovakia, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark bear crosses on their flags. Moreover, similar to Israel’s aliya policy, Germany, Ireland, Finland, Greece, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, and the Czech Republic uphold preferential immigration laws for a particular national group. In fact, not only are many of these nation states considered to be liberal democracies, but some of them, such as Denmark and Finland, are seen as the models for social justice and often find themselves as the top ranked countries in equality on the OECD index.

Granted, Israel tends to find itself on the other side of the spectrum on the OECD’s index, indicating mass inequalities between its Jewish and Arab citizens. This may be because, unlike some of the nation states mentioned above, Israel has not officially recognized its Arab citizens as a national minority.

Many of the democratic nation states have embraced a more ethical form of nationalism known as “civic nationalism,” where they continue to express a collective national identity, but also grant special minority rights and protections to those who cannot identify with the ethnic identity of the state. For instance, in their book Israel’s Palestinians, Ilan Peleg and Dov Waxman point out how other liberal democracies have granted their minorities national rights and special statuses, such as the Maoris in New Zealand and the Swedish minority in Finland, which may be part of the reason why they have upheld relatively high standards of equality.

Of course, Israel has also made significant and impressive progress in integrating its Arab citizens since uplifting martial law in 1966.

Arab literacy rates and living standards in Israel have significantly improved, more of them are participating in Israel’s hi-tech industry, and they have a vibrant civil society that gives them the ability to make change. On the other hand, however, Israeli-Arabs are still relatively socially segregated and under-subsidized compared to the Jewish communities in Israel and do not get much say in national decision making.

There have also been disturbingly high levels of support for treating Israeli-Arabs as second-class citizens and or expelling them. For example, in a 2016 Pew Research poll, 79% of Israeli Jews stated that they believe Jewish citizens should receive preferential treatment from the state and 48% said they believe Arabs should be transferred from Israel. These sentiments may also be explained by the non-recognition of Israeli-Arabs as an official national minority group, as it implies that they are a not a national community and should therefore only receive individual rights. Much like how some Israelis perceive the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel’s Arab citizens may be seen as just another Arab group that already have 22 other states.

Through that perspective, allowing the Arabs to live in the one Jewish state sounds like a privilege and they should thus not be treated equally to their Jewish counterparts.

This is of course a deeply flawed mentality. Israeli-Arabs do not necessarily identify themselves with the 22 Arab states or see them as their home. They did not immigrate to Israel, they lived there before the State of Israel was established. Israel is their home too. Israel’s Arab citizens are not an immigrant minority, but an indigenous one and are thus entitled to the special national minority rights as other democratic nation states have issued to their respective national minorities.

In conclusion, the problem with the nation state bill was not what it included, but rather what it lacked. Israel is indeed the homeland of the Jewish people, but it is also the homeland of its Arab inhabitants. In order for Israel to find a genuine balance between its Jewishness and its democratic character, it must pursue a more ethical form of nationalism in “civic Zionism” and acknowledge the national minority rights of its Arab citizens. Doing so may lead to a more inclusive environment where the Arabs are further integrated into Israeli society and help the Jewish state reach its full potential.

The author is a contributing author for the Israel Policy Forum and double-majored in Psychology and Middle Eastern Studies at Clark University.

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