Israel must become the state for all its citizens - opinion

Israel's Declaration of Independence states: The State of Israel will ensure complete equality to all of its citizens regardless of religion, race or gender. 

Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion declares Israel an independent state in Tel Aviv on May 14, 1948 (photo credit: ZOLTAN KLUGER)
Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion declares Israel an independent state in Tel Aviv on May 14, 1948
(photo credit: ZOLTAN KLUGER)

I want Israel to become the state of all of its citizens. Is there anything more normal in democratic life than a state belonging to all of its citizens? Israel cannot be truly democratic if it is not the state of all of its citizens. I know of no other democratic state which determines that 20% of its citizens are not fully equal by law, and by the way that the state defines itself. Israel’s Declaration of Independence stated: The State of Israel will ensure complete equality to all of its citizens regardless of religion, race or gender. 

The declaration also states that the Land of Israel is the birthplace of the Jewish people, something that is also not completely accurate. The declaration makes clear that according to its authors, the Jewish people exist as a nation with its own religion. But how can Israel actually be the state of the Jewish people when about half of the Jewish people are not citizens of the state? 

How is it legitimate for Jews who live outside of Israel to have a larger stake and right of decision and influence than a non-Jewish citizen of the state who has been living on this land for hundreds of years? More than 20% of Israel’s citizens are Palestinian Arabs Muslims, Christians and Druze. They are citizens of the State of Israel, but Israel is not their state. 

This distorted reality was strengthened with the passing of the Nation-State law, which made it clear that Israel is not their state because they are not Jewish. A person of any religion can become French or German or Italian – it is a matter of citizenship, not religion, but a non-Jew cannot become a Jewish citizen of the State of Israel without converting their religion. There is no law in Israel that guarantees full equality for all of its citizens. By the way, the Declaration of Independence of the State of Palestine says that the Land of Palestine is the birthplace of the Palestinian people.

Both declarations refer to the same piece of land. I have always told my Palestinian friends that when the State of Palestine exists in reality and is recognized by the whole world, it must also be the state of all of its citizens – including its Jewish minority that it should welcome.

declaration of state 224 (credit: GPO)declaration of state 224 (credit: GPO)

If Israel were to become the state of all of its citizens, does that mean that there would no longer be a place where Jews can express their culture, language and religion? The answer is “no,” with some reservations. As a state of all of its citizens, we would say farewell to Jewish superiority and exclusive Jewish rights in some areas. All citizens of the state could live anywhere within the state, unlike today where there are hundreds of communities in which Palestinian Arab citizens of the state cannot live. 

The Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund would have to turn over its properties to the state’s Land Authority and cease to exist as it does today. The Jewish Agency would have no special role in the State of Israel – it could continue to exist as an agency for the Jewish people around the world and could even provide Jewish education for Jews in the State of Israel, but it would have no special status – just like all other legal, non-governmental organizations. But Israel will still have a very large Jewish population – a large majority of at least 70% if a Palestinian state is created in the West Bank and Gaza, but less than 50% if Israel continues to control all of the land between the river and the sea. 

There will always be Israeli Jewish culture; the Hebrew language ensures that Hebrew culture will continue to thrive. Most schools for Israeli Jews will remain schools where the overwhelming majority of students are Israeli Jews.

Most Arab citizens will continue to study in Arabic-speaking schools. But it would be required that all citizens of the state learn both languages at a much higher level than today. Perhaps there would be many more bilingual Hebrew-Arab schools, which is a very good thing. 

Jewish holidays will still be national holidays for Jews to celebrate, just as Muslim holidays will be national holidays for Israel’s Muslim citizens and likewise for Israeli Christians. I do believe and wish for the separation of religion and state because religion is a private matter and should not be in the hands of the state to determine how we marry, die and get buried, what we eat, and when we can or cannot travel on public transportation. 

What about the Law of Return?

What about the Law of Return for Jews who can become Israeli citizens when they arrive in Israel and express their desire to be citizens? Here, I am personally faced with a dilemma because in 1978 I immigrated to Israel and became a citizen based on the Law of Return.

But becoming a state of all of its citizens is more important to me than keeping the Law of Return, so I would offer this compromise: the State of Israel would remain open to absorb Jews who are facing danger or antisemitism in their own countries and wish to come to Israel. I would also advocate that the State of Israel have an immigration law that sets conditions for becoming a citizen, the likes of which exist in other OECD states. 

The Zionist movement achieved its ultimate goal on May 15, 1948, founding a homeland for the Jewish people who after the Holocaust had nowhere else to call home. Israel was established and now, 74 years later, Israel should fulfill its second main goal – to be a state like all other states and to be a light unto the nations. To achieve those goals Israel must become the state of all of its citizens.