Center Field: To my anguished Israeli Arab friends

Nevertheless, please, read the law. I just reread it – and reject this sky-is-falling language. Democracy worked: The bill is better balanced after being repeatedly rewritten. Equality still reigns.

THE TOWN of Abu Ghosh on the road to Jerusalem. (photo credit: REUTERS)
THE TOWN of Abu Ghosh on the road to Jerusalem.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Dear Mohammad Darawshe,
My friend. Your anguished Jerusalem Post essay, lamenting the Nation-State Law, moved me. You’re right. Your pain as an Israeli-Arab feeling rejected obligates me as an Israeli Jew to respond quickly, effectively.
Before trying to reassure you analytically, I acknowledge your fears emotionally. I share your anger that this government failed us all – not just “you and your people” – by refusing to be constructively redundant and thereby symbolically sensitive. The law should have quoted the Declaration of Independence’s still legally-dominant promise to “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants,” or earlier Basic Laws’ equality vows.
Tragically, acting like a partisan demagogue not a statesman, Benjamin Netanyahu treated the law as a divisive pre-election ploy to stir his base, not-a-sacred-state document to unite the nation. It’s striking: conservatives who scoffed when Obamacare passed without Republican votes merrily endorse this, more fundamental law, despites its thin, right-tilting majority.
Something you taught me last fall holds: too many Israeli Jews still act like we’re a minority here not the majority. A mature, secure majority would have followed reasonable rightists like Bennie Begin. Begin agreed: technically Israeli law offers enough equality guarantees; the new law itself affirms Arabic’s importance. But, he proposed adding reassurances anyway; especially in Basic Law-making, the melody counts not just the words.
We, the power-wielding Jewish majority are morally compelled to ensure that citizens like you feel welcome here – especially given our advanced degrees in minority suffering. We should have affirmed Arabic as an official language too – we’ve been boasting about our linguistic generosity for years.
That failure to act magnanimously, and your resulting anguish, will stain Netanyahu’s historical reputation. And if he only addresses Druze protests, he will leave Israeli Arabs like you – and most others constituting twenty percent of Israel’s population – feeling even more abandoned.
Nevertheless, please, read the law. I just reread it – and reject this sky-is-falling language. Democracy worked: The bill is better balanced after being repeatedly rewritten. Equality still reigns. Nothing deems you inferior. Israel hasn’t turned “racist.”
DEMOCRACIES REVEL in contradictions – dictatorships try to crush them. Majority rule competes with minority rights. America’s Christianized culture – Merry Christmas! – opposes its universalist welcome. Zionism always juggled: normalcy versus exceptionalism, modernizing yet traditional, Jewish and democratic.
Overall, Israel has balanced competing realities, overwhelming challenges and complex identities magnificently, miraculously. You explain your community’s paradoxes by describing two islands: Israeli Arabs continue expanding a middle-class island of prosperity and productivity, while some live on a rocky island of poverty and despair.
Similarly, Israel has two ecosystems. A sunny, optimistic, generous one builds bridges; another is cloudy, pessimistic, pinched, with some Jews demonizing Arabs – and some Arabs demonizing Jews, and Israel.
The Nation-State bill was justified theoretically, in trying to right the Jewish side of the Jewish-democratic equation. Alas, the rhetoric surrounding it made it incomplete, insensitive and ultimately irresponsible.
The Bash-Israel-First-Last-and-Always crowd’s opposition was predictable and inevitable – shame on them; the opposition of thoughtful citizens like you was predictable but preventable – shame on us.
You get it – unlike even American Jewish postmodernists. Israel isn’t America. You wrote that you accept “the state’s Judaism” symbolically, regarding immigration laws and “as an expression of the identity of the Jewish majority in the public space.” Unlike many ideologues and haters who demonize any expressions of Jewishness, you understand Israel is the only Jewish state. Jews have equal rights to articulate our collective identity and, yes, our national self-determination through our flag, anthem and other basic symbols.
I guess you also understand the context. The right’s defensiveness is defensible (its offensiveness is not!). There’s a systematic assault on Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state. It’s sometimes fueled by Israeli-Arab demagogues, as we saw at Saturday’s rally, when radicals shouting “With blood and fire we will redeem Palestine” upstaged moderates demanding equality. And there’s this ongoing power struggle which the Knesset hoped to balance in the name of majority rule over the Supreme Court.
YOUR REDLINE and mine coincide. We need the Jewish-democratic Juggling Act to continue. Israel’s legitimate Jewish identity shouldn’t “deteriorate into preferential treatment by the state in civic, ethnic or national terms.”
Fortunately, practically, the law keeps seesawing democratically, Jewishly, Zionistically. Israel remains chaotic, dyspeptic. We’re free to renounce the law completely – or denounce parts we dislike or failures to amend it properly. In fact, its fallout has been a classically Israeli, democratic free-for-all.
Still, I understand that a cloud now hangs over that ever-improving Israeli-Arab island you proudly inhabit. I promise as a fellow citizen to do what I can to dissipate it. Many of the right ideas appeared in the wrong bill at the wrong time – foolishly appearing to slight one key idea already legally enshrined. The law needs amending not abolishing: Our Jewishness explains why Israel exists; democracy shows how we coexist together.
My friend, democracy isn’t for the feint-hearted, or for quick-to-surrender types. It presents excruciating challenges sometimes. I offer a prayer for us both, for us all. May we – and our state – continue juggling, seesawing, balancing; continue building MiddleClassadonia; continue sun-worshipping.
And may we all work harder – the majority and the minority – to chase away the clouds of demagoguery from both sides, the clouds of partisanship, of doubt, about this still thriving, still-magical, always confusing, still Jewish democratic State of Israel, the Jewish nation-state and a democracy protecting all its citizens: our shared home.
Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University, he is the author of ten books on American History, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.