Drawing the Line: Nationalism or Racism?
Once again, I find myself reacting to something Ze’ev has written in Israel Perspectives; only this time, I’m afraid that my friend and colleague has gone rather seriously off the deep end. In his latest post, Ze’ev argues against Monday's Supreme Court ruling that Israel’s system of “national priority zones” constitutes illegal discrimination against Israeli Arab communities; he feels that this decision constitutes an attack against Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.
According to Ze’ev, “The concept of Israel existing as a Jewish State” implies that “the interests and needs of the Jewish People are placed above all others” – and thus that our Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of equality in educational funding (and other government benefits to “priority zone” communities) constitutes a frontal assault on the essential nature of our country.
Upon reading his post, I left the following comment on Ze’ev’s blog:
Ze’ev, if I’m understanding you correctly, you’re saying that providing equal funding to schools in the Arab sector would destroy Israel as a Jewish state. Is this correct?
If being a Jewish state requires discriminating against non-Jews in this manner, then why bother to educate Israeli Arabs at all? If you want one fifth of our population to be second-class citizens, then why not keep them illiterate, deny them health care, and make them all dig ditches or pick cotton for a living? Oh, and you might want to keep them from voting, make them ride in the back of the bus, and set up separate water fountains for them while you’re at it.
Am I missing something here? When I made Aliyah, I didn’t think Israel was supposed to be a Middle Eastern version of Alabama-circa-1955. Maybe they changed the pamphlets they give out to potential olim... ’cause the Israel you seem to have immigrated to sure doesn’t sound like someplace I’d want to live!
The basic idea of a “Jewish and democratic state” has always posed something of a dilemma for Israel. Clearly, the State of Israel was created to benefit the Jews – a people who had lacked a sovereign national homeland for nearly two millennia, and as a result had suffered the pains of living as second-class citizens in other people’s countries. Zionism is, after all, our national-liberation movement; and I see no reason to believe that we’re any less entitled to nationhood than anyone else. But at the same time, if we aspire to be a modern democracy, we need to grant full civil rights to all Israeli citizens, Jewish or not. So far, nobody has come up with a fully successful way to arbitrate between these two conflicting demands: How can Israel exist as a state of and for the Jews while still meeting the standards of democracy?
I don’t pretend to have a precise answer to this dilemma; I’m not even sure that a precise answer is something we should seek. After all, sometimes wisdom consists in preserving some areas of ambiguity. I certainly do not advocate complete egalitarianism in such areas as immigration policy; I believe that we do need Israel to remain a Jewish state, and that we are within our rights to take reasonable and appropriate steps to keep it that way. I see no pressing need to alter our flag or our national anthem, Jewish though they be. But the approach Ze’ev advocates seems very wrong to me.
In his response to my comment, Ze’ev writes, “This is the national home of the Jewish People, the only one we have, and as such, all policies and decisions should first and foremost have the best interests of the Jewish People and State at heart. If there are those within Israel, such as the Arab population, who are uncomfortable with this setup, they have plenty of Arab/Muslim countries to choose from where they might feel more at home.” Or, in other words, we can discriminate against you all we like, and if you don’t like it, feel free to leave.
And here, I am afraid, is the nub: I don’t believe that Ze’ev’s problem is really with equal funding for Arab-sector education per se. After all, it seems apparent to me that we can mandate equality in fields like education (as we already do in health care) without in any way harming Israel’s Jewish identity. Ze’ev’s real goal – whether he realizes it or not – is to make Israel such an unpleasant place for Arabs to live that they will emigrate of their own accord, sparing us the effort and stigma of expelling them by force. While I can’t say exactly where the line is drawn between legitimate nationalism and racism, I feel very strongly that economic and social discrimination as a form of “soft ethnic cleansing” is far over that line.
Is it legitimate for Israel to have a flag with only Jewish symbols on it? Why not? How many impeccably liberal countries (many of which are now functionally “post-Christian”) have flags based on the Christian Cross? Can we have a national anthem that speaks of Jewish yearning for our homeland? Certainly! As national anthems go, Hatikva is fairly soft stuff. I see nothing wrong with maintaining Israel as the sovereign state of the Jewish people, and I see nothing wrong with expecting our non-Jewish citizens to accommodate to that situation. I would even go as far as to suggest that someone who really can’t stand living in a Jewish state – however that is defined – might well want to consider living elsewhere. But at the same time, to discriminate unnecessarily – in education, health care, access to housing and employment, and so on – is not legitimate nationalism; it’s gratuitous racism, and I, for one, want no part of it.
(This post can also be found at the Guns and Butter Blog.)