Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Jewish State & Its Arabs

From Commentary magazine, January 2009, by Hillel Halkin:

...The fact that Israel’s Arab citizens also belong to a Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim world with which Israel has fought bloody wars and remains embroiled in conflict has complicated their situation enormously. ...the greater conflict has caused Israeli Jews to regard them as an actual or potential fifth column and increased prejudice against them. ...[and] it has not only led them in many cases to identify more with Israel’s enemies than with Israel, it has encouraged them to think that, although a minority in Israel, being part of an overwhelming majority in the Middle East precludes their accepting minority status. Increasingly, therefore, their demand has been, not to be a more fairly treated minority, which is something a Jewish state indeed owes them, but not to be treated as a minority at all.

This demand is expressed programmatically in four different statements that emerged from the Israeli Arab community in the years 2006-2007:
  • A Future Vision for the Palestinian Arabs in Israel, issued by the National Committee of Arab Mayors;
  • A Democratic Constitution, released by the Adallah Legal Center for the Rights of the Arab Minority in Israel;
  • The Haifa Declaration, the work of the Mada al-Karmel Center for Applied Social Research; and
  • An Egalitarian Constitution for All, written by the Arab Israeli jurist Yusef Jabarin.

As the four documents are remarkably alike in their contents, and the first three were composed by joint teams of Israeli Arab politicians, academics, and intellectuals, they can be justifiably viewed as representing the thinking of the Arab elite in Israel today.

This thinking can only be chilling to most Jews, for—although calling for Arab-Jewish dialogue and reconciliation—it insists on the dismantlement of Israel as a Jewish state. As put by A Future Vision for the Palestinian Arabs in Israel, “Israel [as envisioned by the document’s authors] will cease to carry out all policies and programs that are tainted by favoring the majority, and will act to remove all privileging of one national group over another, especially on the practical, structural, legal, and symbolic levels.”

In effect, as A Future Vision and its companion documents make clear, this would mean revising practically every aspect of Israeli existence, starting, on the “symbolic” level, with the name “Israel” itself, the Israeli national anthem Hatikvah, and the Israeli flag with its star of David, and ending, on the “practical” level, with the return of Arabs to villages deserted by their families in 1948 and the restitution of lands expropriated for Jewish use. Israel’s Jews would also have to apologize for their “responsibility for the Palestinian nakba [catastrophe] of 1948 and its horrendous consequences for the Palestinians in general and those living in the [to-be-renamed] state in particular.”

Among the “structural” and “legal” changes demanded by A Future Vision, A Democratic Constitution, The Haifa Declaration, and An Egalitarian Constitution are:

• The abolition of all government and government-supported institutions, such as the Jewish Agency and the Israel Lands Authority, which have been used in the past to channel budgets, activities, programs, and property to specifically Jewish causes, organizations, or individuals.

• The repeal of the Law of Return, which grants all Diaspora Jews the right to immigrate to Israel.

• The demotion of Hebrew from the official language of Israel to an official one alongside Arabic, so that Arab schoolchildren would study no more Hebrew than Jewish schoolchildren study Arabic and Arabic-language universities would be established for Arab students who do not wish to continue their higher educations in Hebrew.

• Self-rule for Israeli Arabs in such areas as religion, culture, and education, in which they would have autonomous control over their own institutions and the budgets allotted them.

• Arab veto power over all legislation pertaining to the internal affairs of the Arab community or affecting Arab-Jewish relations. A Democratic Constitution suggests two possible ways of doing this. One would be a special Knesset committee, half its members belonging to political parties “defined and characterized as Arab or [mixed] Arab-Jewish,” whose approval of new laws would be necessary. The other would allow Arab parties in the Knesset to block measures opposed by 75 percent of their members.

Thus, despite the frequently voiced insistence of Israel’s Arab leadership on Israel’s becoming a “state of all its citizens,” this state would not be, like France or the United States, a unitary one in which everyone is equal before the law within the framework of a single dominant national culture and majority-rule political system. Rather, it would be a formally bi-national polity or “consensual democracy” in which all citizens would be assigned to either its Jewish or Arab sector, each of which would administer its own internal affairs and promote its own identity. How the two would be collaborate in formulating and implementing policies in such supra-sectoral realms as economic affairs, foreign relations, national defense, and so forth, is left deliberately vague in all four documents.

The campaign of Israeli Arabs for full equality has often been compared to the civil-rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s in the United States. And yet the demands of A Future Vision, A Democratic Constitution, The Haifa Declaration, and An Egalitarian Constitution are the very opposite of that movement’s. They seek not the integration of Israeli Arabs into Israel’s life but their isolation from it. “Separate but equal,” the principle struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in its landmark 1954 desegregation decision, could be their motto. The possible “Israelification” of Israel’s Arabs, far from being desirable, is viewed by them as a threat. Rather, they are for the de-Israelification of Israel’s Jews.

Indeed, one of the most striking things about these four documents is their demonstrative lack of sympathy for Jewish national experience and feeling. While repeatedly calling on Israeli Jews to make room for the “Palestinian narrative,” they have no room of their own for the Jewish narrative. Zionism is for them, in the words of The Haifa Declaration, no more than “a colonialist settlement movement in Palestine,” which, “with the collaboration of world colonialism and reactionary Arab powers,” successfully achieved “its goal of conquering our homeland.” Although this conquest is now a fact to be acknowledged, and the right of Israel’s Jews to self-determination cannot be denied....

.... For the most part, Zionist leaders, counting on the immigration to Palestine of Europe’s millions of still unmurdered Jews, had never doubted a Jewish state’s capacity to absorb a large Arab minority while giving it full political equality. Even Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the head of the sometimes stridently nationalist Revisionist party, was adamant on this point. Any Jewish state that came into being, he insisted, would be a democracy for its Arab citizens as well. No other arrangement would be acceptable.

But can a state be both Jewish and democratic? Israel’s Arab leadership says it cannot be, and many Western intellectuals and political commentators now agree. How, they ask, can a country, even if it operates on a one-man, one-vote basis, be democratic for its minority when its official symbols, holidays, heroes, and religion are those of the majority that this minority feels dispossessed by; when the minority must learn the majority’s language to get along but not the other way around; when the majority is linked to a diaspora any member of which can join it for the asking, while the diaspora to which the minority is linked is denied this privilege; when there are state-supported institutions that work for the benefit of the majority only; and when the majority has the political power to pass whatever laws, and conduct whatever policies, it deems to be in its own interest without taking the interests of the minority into account? A Jewish democracy, it is argued, is a contradiction in terms. A country can be by contemporary international standards either Jewish or democratic, but not both.

Not so, argue Alexander Yakobson, a historian at the Hebrew University, and Amnon Rubinstein, a professor of constitutional law and former Israeli minister of education, in a new book entitled Israel and the Family of Nations.2 Not only, the two maintain, is the supposed contradiction between Israel’s Jewishness and its democratic nature a false one, it is also not true that Israel is an anomaly in today’s world, the only purportedly democratic country in which the religious and ethnic identity of a majority is given preferred status. The same is true of many other democracies, too, and while one can debate its desirability, it is clearly not incompatible with democracy itself. And yet, although the constitutions and political systems of numerous countries in Europe and elsewhere have ethnocratic features, these are never criticized in the same terms as they are when found in Israel.

Here are a few of the many examples that Yakobson and Rubinstein give:

• Greece, which has Albanian- and Turkish-speaking Muslim minorities, adopted a constitution in 1975 that designates the “Eastern Orthodox Church of Christ” as the country’s “prevailing religion” and Greek Orthodox priests, unlike other clergy, receive state salaries. Moreover, descendants of Greek families that have lived abroad for generations can apply immediately for citizenship upon establishing residence in Greece, whereas other would-be immigrants must wait eight years. (In the 1990’s, 200,000 ethnic Greeks received citizenship immediately upon arriving from the ex-Soviet Union.)

Other countries favoring immigrants who are ethnic compatriots of the majority are Germany, Finland, Ireland, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Croatia, and Armenia. The German Federal Republic, for example, has laws extending automatic citizenship to all Volksdeutsche (ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe and the ex-Soviet Union), even though many of them, as Yakobson and Rubinstein write, “lived in those areas for hundreds of years, without any civic or geographic connection with the modern German state.” In contrast to which, one might add, it was only in the year 2000 that the millions of children of foreign workers born in Germany, mostly from Turkey, were given citizenship, which until then had been denied even to third-generation German Turks.

• The constitution of Spain refers to Castilian as “the official Spanish language of the state,” which “all Spaniards have the duty to know.” Catalan and Basque, on the other hand, are included among “the other languages of Spain” and are official only in their own regions. Hindi is, alongside English, one of the two official languages of India, even though it is spoken by only a third of the population. Canada has permitted Quebec to declare French its sole official language, although 20 percent of the province’s inhabitants are English-speakers. Quebec’s laws mandate the use of French but not English for all public and commercial notices and require non-English-speaking immigrants to send their children to French schools. Most other democratic states and nations also relegate minority languages to a secondary status.

• Numerous democratic countries, among them Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland, retain the Christian cross on their flags even though they have non-Christian populations, including large numbers of Muslim immigrants. Other countries have national anthems that might be considered offensive to minorities. Italy’s, for example, glorifies the Italians’ war of independence against Austria, even though northern Italy has a German-speaking population that is ethnically Austrian in origin.

...And that is Yakobson and Rubinstein’s point—namely, that the privileging of a majority and its identity need not be harmful to a country’s democratic functioning as long as members of minority groups are dealt with on an equal basis as individuals, even if their corporate or collective rights fall short of the majority’s. But can what works fairly well in Spain be made to work in Israel, too? Or has Israel, demographically and politically, already missed that train, which can now no longer be boarded?

Precisely because they could have been better, Jewish-Arab relations in Israel proper are more tragic than Jewish-Arab relations in the occupied territories. In the latter, head-on conflict was unavoidable once the Arab states refused to negotiate a peace settlement with Israel following the 1967 war, thus paving the way for Israeli settlements. But the case of the Arabs who remained in Israel in 1948 was a different one. Had they been dealt with more generously, and had Israel taken the same interest in their welfare as it took in that of its Jews, their attitude toward the country they live in might have been different today, too.

But Israel’s Arabs cannot be absolved of their share of responsibility, either. As a sizable minority, their potential political power has always been great. Yet this potential has been wasted—in the early years of Israel’s history through its successful cooptation by Israel’s Jewish parties, and more recently by the radicalization of Arab politics to the point that demagogic Israel-bashing and blind support for the Palestinian cause in the occupied territories has taken precedence over all attempts to work constructively with the Jewish political establishment for the practical improvement of Israeli Arab life. All three of the Arab parties currently represented in the 120-member Knesset—the United Arab List with four seats, the Democratic Front with three, and the National Alliance with three—are considered, with good reason, beyond the pale by the Jewish parties, with whom they are thus unable to form coalitions and alliances. As a result, their political utility is nil.

Is it too late for a new direction? To judge by A Future Vision, A Democratic Constitution, The Haifa Declaration, and An Egalitarian Constitution, it is. The positions taken by them would put Israel’s Arab minority on a collision course with its Jewish majority that could only lead to catastrophe.

But these are the positions, as I have said, of an elite. A poll has shown that only 30 percent of ordinary Israeli Arabs have even heard of the four documents. Like people everywhere, these Arab citizens of Israel are less interested in collective rights than in the betterment of their own lives. Might it not be still possible to strike a grand bargain with them—one whereby Israel’s governments would undertake to carry out a wide range of anti-discrimination and affirmative-action programs to make up for years of indifference, and Israeli Arabs, for their part, would choose leaders willing to accept minority status and work within its framework rather than seek to overthrow it?

One cannot expect Israeli Arabs, under present circumstances, to be Israeli patriots. But they can be expected to show the same understanding for Jewish experience as they expect Jews to show for theirs, and to realize that life in a Jewish state, even if not all its freedom and openness can be enjoyed by them, has its advantages for them too, and that they would not necessarily be better off in the slums of Cairo or in Arab police states like Syria and Jordan. Indeed, one suspects that they do realize this more than they publicly care to admit. How else explain the fact that every time an Israeli politician has broached the idea of a territorial swap with the Palestinian Authority in which Israeli Arab towns in the Wadi Ara area, on the Israeli side of the 1967 border, would be exchanged for Jewish settlements on the West Bank, these towns’ inhabitants have reacted with indignation and alarm?

The sociological and political changes that Israel’s Arab community has been undergoing are not simple. Israeli Arabs have indeed been radicalized, but they have also, paradoxically, become more Israeli in the process. Israeli culture has changed who they are. They have begun—at least when not in the grip of Islamist ideologies—to act more like Israelis, think more like Israelis, talk more like Israelis. (Anyone overhearing an Arabic conversation in Israel these days cannot but be struck by the amount of Hebrew words, phrases, and even entire sentences in it.) For all their sense of solidarity with their fellow Palestinians in the territories, and with Arabs and Muslims in other places, they know they are different. This knowledge is troubling and has produced the fear of Israelification reflected in the four documents; but it is also something that can be appealed to.

Israel’s Arabs do not need a “separate but equal” corporate existence. They need fair-employment laws, fair-housing laws, better schools, better infrastructure in their towns and cities, more self-owned businesses, larger government budgets, better and more effective political representation, and fuller integration in Israeli society. They need many of the same things that American blacks needed, demanded, and eventually got in the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s...

...Fortunately, there is good news in this regard. The evidence from all over the world is that birthrates come down as economic well-being goes up. The pill is only the material cause of fewer children. The efficient causes are modernization, secularization, higher standards of living and health care, more years of education, a higher percentage of working mothers, greater individualism, an ethos of self-fulfillment and self-advancement. The more Israelified and the better becomes Arab life in Israel, the smaller Israeli Arab families will be. Politically incorrect or not, this is the Jewish-Arab problem’s best hope. One would have to be short-sighted not to act on it

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