A Jewish Democratic State

By Gadi Taub


The idea of a Jewish state was born in Europe. Today, it is no longer popular there. In the eyes of some, it is not even legitimate. A Jewish state, the argument goes, is inherently undemocratic, because it is a state that belongs to one portion of its citizenry – the Jews – rather than to all Israelis. The remedy should then be an Israeli, rather than a Jewish state, where the national identity will be shared by all citizens, and all citizens will feel equally at home. Israel would thus become truly democratic, a “state of all its citizens”.

The great advantage of this scheme is that it flatters European ears. Its disadvantage is that it has precious little to do with the actual relations and needs of Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel. The Arab minority, especially, has good reason to be alarmed if such an idea were ever to be adopted. Why so?

The idea of an “Israeli” national identity to be shared by both Arabs and Jews has its clearest model in the French form of republicanism, where national identity is, at least formally, defined by citizenship. By becoming a French citizen you become, ipso facto, a member of the French nation.

It is the identification of citizenship with national identity, however, that makes France so inhospitable to national minorities: it forbids recognising them. Because if you are a French citizen, your national identity is also French, and by definition – as well as by deliberate policy – you cannot have, let alone publicly cultivate, another national identity. It is no coincidence that France refused to commit to the European Union’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities guidelines, and, when it finally did, excluded the application of key elements. It is also not surprising that France is uniquely aggressive in asserting a uniform French identity, which is, of course, the majority’s identity: language, cultural heritage, republican ideology, a French canon of texts and iconic figures, an inheritance of a Catholic ethos, and much else.

Applying the French model to the case of Israel and imposing an Israeli identity would be bad news for the large minority which does not want to give up its Arab and Palestinian identity. It would mean one national identity for all, and this, in a democracy, would be, as it is in France, the identity of the majority: a single language would be that of the majority (Hebrew); a single culture would be that of the majority; the calendar and holidays would be those of the majority; even the name “Israeli” is a biblical synonym of “Jewish”.

Certainly, as things stand now, the Jewish state has a Jewish character: its symbols, its holidays, and much else, are all drawn, as they are in France, from the cultural heritage of the majority. But it is precisely by separating Israeli citizenship from the national Jewish identity that the minority can preserve its own identity without infringing on its citizenship. Israel allows for a state-sponsored Arab-language school system, a state-sponsored system of Muslim courts for marriage and personal status, and Arabic is a second official language of the state. All these are unthinkable in France. The discrimination and hardships that befall Israel’s Arab minority are not to be excused. But they do not stem from Israel’s legal structure as a Jewish state. They stem from a bleeding conflict between Israel and the rest of the Palestinian nation, much of which is still under occupation. The conflict creates mutual suspicion and at times outright hostility.

The occupation must end, first because it violates the personal and collective rights of Palestinians in the territories, but also because it cannot be reconciled with Israel’s legal structure as a national democracy. This, not changing that legal structure along the lines of the French model, is the key to improving the status of Israel’s Arab citizens.

A detailed comparison of Israel to other states, such as the one drawn up in Alexander Yakobson and Amnon Rubinstein’s book, Israel and the Family of Nations, has shown, quite clearly, how very much Israel is like most nation states. Few states are like France. Italy or Spain, Poland or Denmark, Germany or Hungary are all national states, in the same sense that Israel is: the identity of the nation, which constitutes the majority of the state’s citizens, is manifested in the state’s symbols, language, culture, calendar and heritage. All have national minorities which, like Israel’s Palestinian minority, want to preserve their separate identities and protect themselves from forced cultural integration.

The sizes of the minorities, the depth of difference, the distance from past conflicts make all these cases different in practice, but in theory they are of the same class. Italy is Italian and democratic, and the fact that there is a minority which sees itself as Austrian on the Italian side of Tyrol does not, in principle, make “Italian” exclude “democratic”.

But the idea that a Jewish identity can be replaced with an Israeli identity is also uniquely appealing to the British. Because the British think they have accomplished exactly that without the problems the French model creates: the UK is, formally, a British, not an English, state. Britain, the argument goes, has created an identity that encompasses all its components. Suspiciously, however, this is an achievement most heralded by the English majority. Close to half of the Scots, for example, not only appreciate it less, but actually prefer breaking from the UK.

This means that here, too, the common encompassing identity is not exactly neutral between the different sub-identities, but rather, by virtue of the democratic mechanism, an expression of the majority’s identity. The language of the union is English; Britain’s head of state is the Queen of England; and the Queen of England is also, incidentally, the head of the Anglican Church. No one seriously thinks that a Protestant Irish minister, or a rabbi, or a King of Scotland can replace the House of Windsor as the symbol of the state.

This is by no means a terrible thing. It only means that Britain is much more like other nation states than the English like to think, and that here, too, by virtue of the democratic mechanism, the national identity of the state takes its colors and content from the majority’s culture. Britain is English because it is democratic, in much the same sense that Israel is Jewish by virtue of its democratic mechanism, as Spain is Spanish, Germany is German, and so on.

Given this basic condition, the question is how does the nation state treat those who wish to preserve a separate identity, and to what extent should the state tolerate, even protect, that identity? And it behooves the majority to accommodate not only the personal rights of individual members of the minority, but also its identity as a group if the group seeks to preserve it. Israel’s Declaration of Independence, for example, guarantees a good deal of cultural autonomy for groups, not only persons.

But to implement such measures, we need to know the actual wishes of the minority, how it perceives its own identity, etc. One such important condition, when it comes to minorities which see themselves in strict national terms, may have to do with another state. When a national minority sees itself as a diaspora of an existing state, in which the nation realizes its right to self-determination, the case is different than, say, the Scots in the UK. The Austrian minority in the Italian part of Tyrol will probably not demand an independent state in Tyrol, because the state that expresses their national identity is already in existence. It is Austria. So some Austrian-Italians may wish to have Tyrol annexed to Austria, but not to strike out on their own.

In the case of Israeli Arabs, most of whom see themselves as Palestinians, there is not yet a state in which that national identity had achieved self-determination. The majority of Israeli Arabs certainly wish there was. But like Tyrol’s Austrian-Italians, they do not wish to strike out on their own in a state separate from their brethren in the West Bank and Gaza. Interestingly, however, they also do not wish to be annexed to the Palestinian state when it is created — as they made clear when Avigdor Lieberman, head of the radical right-wing Israeli party, Yisrael Beitenu, suggested that borders be redrawn in such a way that areas with large Arab populations, which are currently within Israel, will be annexed to a Palestinian state.

This is, first and foremost, a pragmatic consideration. The future Palestine, they reason, may be politically unstable, less mindful of civil liberties, and economically less promising. But it also says much about how they perceive their identity: they wish to remain Israeli by citizenship but to resist becoming Israeli by national identity. They refer to themselves as Palestinian citizens of Israel. This is both legitimate and common, since there are many such diasporas around the world. Members of a nation may be sympathetic, even zealous, about the right of their people to self-determination, without themselves wishing to be part of their nation’s state. What it means, however, is that it matters little if Israel’s national identity is called “Jewish”, “Israeli”, “Cana’anite”, or “British” – no matter what, the country’s Arabs would wish to stay separate from it.

But what about an American model of multiculturalism within a nation state? Americans like to think, according to the fashionable paradigm of multiculturalism, that under a single nation state many identities can flourish. This is true to an extent, but the extent to which it is true depends on the willingness of minorities to share the umbrella identity, which remains common. That identity in the case of America is, in fact, a very strong one. The assimilating powers of American society, though softer than those of France, are not weaker. America may be less aggressively American than France is French, but it is no less American than Britain is English. After a single generation, Italian-Americans are far more American than they are Italian. This is not something done to them against their wishes: most groups in America (though not all) chose to immigrate, and most of them wish to assimilate. Again, the model is not applicable to a national minority which seeks to preserve itself apart from the common identity, and which resists assimilation.

Lastly, there is the model of a state which is neutral between sub-identities, and does not demand a strong common identity: Belgium, Canada, or Switzerland. But such a state can be maintained only by the willingness of all parties to share a political apparatus, and is dependent on their giving up the desire for independence. Within Israel proper it would require the Jews to give up national self-determination altogether. But it would make little sense to demand, on the basis of a universal right to self-determination, that the Palestinians have a national state, and next to it, the Jews will not.

On the other hand, applying the formula so as to include the occupied territories, creating a Switzerland on the full territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, would require both peoples, not one, to renounce that right. Neither the Palestinians, nor the Jews of Israel, are likely to opt freely for such a solution in the foreseeable future. Attempting to impose it on them will, at best, look like the former Yugoslavia, if not Lebanon. This option, then, like the other alternatives, rests on the paradoxical assumption that a democracy (of an abstract non-national type) can be created against the will of practically all its citizens. A political apparatus maintained by force cannot, by definition, be a democracy. Given the fact that the different factions within Palestinian societies are unable to reach any form of agreement without resort to arms, it is hardly very likely that adding a Jewish faction would produce a peaceful liberal democracy.

What, then, makes these solutions so popular in Europe? It seems that European polite society is finding it hard to let go of its old colonial instincts. The various plans now circulating in Europe are not based on inquiring what the natives (Jews and Arabs) want or need, but on what the West knows they should want. In other words, Europe is once again ready to shoulder the White Man’s Burden, and teach the natives what the right form of self-determination should be. It would be a good idea to remember that the price of this pedagogical enterprise, if implemented, is likely to be a chronic civil war. And it may also be wise to recall that the colonial presumption to know better than the natives what is good for them has repeatedly fallen short of success.

(First published in the Jewish Chronicle (UK), October 19, 2007.)

Those interested in the topic may also want to read this piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education.