Although controversial, the question that MK Bezalel Smotrich asks Arab citizens of Israel is important: If you don’t accept Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, what are you doing here?
A response might well be: “It’s not your country; it’s mine, or at least, ours,” which turns this into a conflict over national identity, or identities. The Nation-State Law passed by the Knesset in 2018 clarified the issue but was rejected by Arab MKs and Israeli Arabs. The ideological struggle persists.
Understandably, Arabs do not share Israel’s national ethos, Zionism. Unfortunately, this is a problem for some Jews as well. Is reconciliation – albeit not acceptance – possible, and if so, how? This is the answer for which Smotrich’s question searches, and one that is essential to our survival, for if Israel will no longer be a Jewish state, why should it exist? And, from the other side, what does it mean to be a “Jewish state,” and what does it mean to be a “democracy”? Taking these terms for granted leads to confusion and conflict.
While Israeli-Arab political parties enjoy the rewards of Israel’s political system, espousing anti-Israel rhetoric undermines the authority of the state and encourages disloyalty among those whom they represent. Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state is fundamental, and accepting it, or at least reconciling to it, is an obligation of every citizen and political leader. Arab citizens who refuse to make this commitment need to decide where they belong. Confronting and eventually resolving this question can help to remove barriers to integration into Israel’s socioeconomic and political system.
Arab political parties that are allied to anti-Jewish and anti-Israel groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, are simply not acceptable within our democratic political system. This is the basis for MK Smotrich’s question, and why Israeli Arabs need to find an answer. If they oppose Israel’s existence, they can remain, of course, as respectful, law-abiding citizens or, they can move to another country, or to the Palestinian Authority. But they won’t. They want the benefits of living in Israel without the cost: loyalty.
Confronting this dilemma will create new possibilities and opportunities that will strengthen their socioeconomic position and provide for a fruitful, meaningful life as Israeli citizens. It will encourage the emergence of Arab political parties that support regional alliances, such as the Abraham Accords, and that are pro-Israel and reject the PLO/Hamas-led PA. It will encourage trust and will bring greater security and freedom to everyone.
Patronizing editorials that defend Arab MKs who attack Israel as a “racist” and “apartheid” country contribute to Arab opposition and intransigence. Worse, they encourage irresponsibility. As MKs, they can say whatever they want; they have immunity. But such remarks should be condemned, especially by Arab voters. They should demand leaders who are honest and will create trust, not destroy it.
MK Smotrich does not advocate expelling or deporting innocent Arab citizens of Israel. Israeli law provides this for those convicted of serious crimes, such as terrorism and treason, but this has rarely been implemented. He is simply asking Israeli Arabs to accept the reality of a Jewish state and work with us, not against us. Is that too much to ask?
Eventually, and soon we hope, an Arab party will emerge that represents the socioeconomic interests of its constituents, not the street-gutter hatred that Joint List Islamists express; a party that accepts Israel as a Jewish state, and Eretz Yisrael as the homeland of the Jewish people. When that happens, and only then, there will be true peace. Let’s work together. As Smotrich’s question implies, it’s time to choose.
The author is a PhD historian, writer and journalist.