Tuesday, February 28, 2006

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.)


At Wed Mar 01, 04:39:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger westbankmama said...

Don - I haven't read Ze'ev's post, so I am not commenting about what he wrote. I haven't really thought about this topic too much, but off the top of my head I think that the government, if it provides for the basic needs of its citizens without discriminating (public school for all children, in this example) then it has the right to offer additional perks to certain sectors. It does this already by providing subsidies to soldiers (and those girls who do national service)for higher education. This, in fact, discriminates against Arabs and the Ultra-Orthodox, who do not do army service, and are not eligible for this perk.

I also have a very big problem with the court deciding that it can curtail the power of the Knesset. In a country without a system of checks and balances I find this alarming.

At Wed Mar 01, 05:41:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger Don Radlauer said...

Who defines what is "basic" and what is a "perk"? It would seem to me that if one sector gets a "perk", you can't say that other sectors received "their basic needs without discriminating". For example, are computers in school a "perk"? Most people nowadays would say that they are a necessity. The only fair way to treat schoolchildren is to ensure that they all receive the same budgetary support - in other words, an Israeli Arab child deserves just as good an education as a Haredi child, who deserves just as good an education as a secular or traditional child.

Granting extra benefits for those who have done army service is somewhat problematic as well. In the case of Haredim, they have the option of serving - and so if they don't, it's their decision and no injustice has been done (as long as the IDF makes it possible for them to serve - providing mehadrin kosher food and so on - or other appropriate national service options are available). In the case of Israeli Arabs, they should clearly be allowed to perform some kind of national service so that they have the option of receiving the same benefits as Jewish citizens.

At Wed Mar 01, 09:43:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger lisoosh said...

I have to agree. I can't see any reason why treating minorities in a fair and equitable manner in any way endagers the Jewishness of the state, in fact it places the state on a higher moral plane and thus enhances its Jewishness. I would also like to see Arabs perform some type of national service. While I understand the wish not to have them in the army at this time, some form of community service would be very beneficial, it would allow them to feel more a part of the country and would give Jews greater exposure to the minority in their midst.

At Wed Mar 01, 11:11:00 PM GMT+2, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I should note that Israel Arabs do have the right to serve in the IDF, though not many avail themselves of that option. The Bedouin are the most well-known example, but not the only one. For example, I remember reading an interview with an Arab-Christian officer in Bamahane some years ago (she was considered noteworthy because she was the first female Arab officer).

At Thu Mar 02, 04:31:00 AM GMT+2, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a new reader to your blog and live in the US (NC to be exact!). You might find this book, "The Other Side of Israel: My Journey Across the Jewish/Arab Divide", to be thought provoking. Since our newspaper and television media leave a lot to be desired in my opinion, I've been trying to read other sources for understanding of the Israel/Palestinian situation.

You make mention of equating Israel to Alabama, circa 1955, while the author of the above book compares Israel to South Africa in the time of apartheid.

If you are familiar with the book it would be great to read what you think of it.


At Sun Mar 05, 06:47:00 AM GMT+2, Blogger ikeyPikey said...

Why would anyone think that poverty, deprivation, and a generally second-class life will cause the cousins of the stiff-necked people to emigrate?

Like 'transfer', the obstacle to making the lives of our Arab citizens so miserable that they will move to places that they are better-off lacks the one thing needed to make it happen: Jews willing to do it.

And Thank G-d for *that*, nu?

Lastly, if we *were* to pursue such a strategy, which Arabs would leave, and which Arabs would stay? Do we really want to apply a filter to the local Arab population that drives out the middle class, the educated, the skilled, and leaves us with the rest?

Yeah, right.

At Sun Mar 05, 12:00:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger tafka PP said...

Amen, Don. Couldn't have said it better myself.

At Wed Mar 08, 10:24:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger Yazan said...

I have to say that I agree with most of ur post, but something like...
"....to discriminate unnecessarily..."???
is a bit disturbing..

I mean, how do u exactly "necessarily discriminate"? ;)

This goes far beyond a Jewish-Palestinian conflict Don.
I'm not saying the world is turning into the belief of a single "Humanity", I'm just saying that we need to persue any effort in order to get to that. ;)

At Wed Mar 08, 10:47:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger Don Radlauer said...

Hi Yazan!

The idea of a single "Humanity" is an attractive one, in some ways. Certainly I can see the obvious advantage of not having people in constant conflict with one another! On the other hand, there is also a downside to the whole "melting pot" concept: the thought of the whole world becoming some kind of homogenous, bland clone of the United States is hugely depressing. When I visit Latakia (which I'd very much like to do one day) I really don't want to eat at McDonald's!

Whether we like the "single Humanity" concept or not, the problem is that it isn't something that we can accomplish in the near future. We Jews, in particular, have to deal with the fact that we're a very small minority in the world, caught between two unattractive alternatives when we live as a minority in other people's countries: Either we suffer discrimination (up to and including genocide), or else (in countries like the United States) we are slowly dissolved in the melting pot and gradually disappear. Having Israel as a Jewish state provides some hope of avoiding the discrimination of living in countries that are hostile to Jews, while also avoiding disappearing through assimilation. But that also means that we had to create Israel and that we still have to maintain it - and maintaining any nation-state requires a certain amount of discrimination. Even "enlightened" countries like Sweden and Australia don't just give out passports like candy, after all!

As I see it, it's legitimate enough to do what's necessary to maintain Israel as a Jewish nation-state, just as Syria, France, and all the rest maintain themselves as nation-states. But beyond doing what we must for our own survival, we shouldn't be depriving any of our citizens of good education, health care (which, unlike education, is distributed fairly in Israel), or other government services.

At Thu Mar 09, 08:46:00 AM GMT+2, Blogger Yazan said...


I never said anything about a Single "American" Humanity. I know this goes even further into the "Wonderlands of Alice", but, you see, u need to dream sometimes in order to be Human. ;)
My thought is definitley not Depriving Humanity from its most important advantage "Diversity", but to embrace that on a global aspect. what I mean is that when dealing with life, u forget a BASIC fact, that u have SO many more in common with every other human being on this earth, than there's to divide u.I'm not calling for a SINGLE Identity. THE EXACT OPPOSITE.. I'm calling for the most complex and diversified Identity, which starts with "I'm Human" and then continues to whatever... "..... with a left toe that's bigger than the right one"... Individuality but as HUMANS, not Jews, Arabs or muslems...
When u visit Latakia, u will eat Falafel, Showerma, Kenafeh... but u will feel that these r a part of UR identity too, they're after all the inventions of a fellow Human Being? rn't they?

This is why, I CAN NOT, in any way accept discrimination. It's not a solution. NEVER a solution.
I CAN NOT in anyway accept, let's say a Nuclear Iran, cuz it's a danger to Humanity, just like a Nuclear Israel... I know I drifted, but u get my point now.

It might be just the thoughts of a 19year old frustrated young man... but I think it is still worth mentioning.

Those citizens that you feel okay to discriminate "a bit" against them, maybe "emotional discrimination". they've been Israelis just as long as U [or even ur parents] HAVE, right?? They've been Israelis since 1948. They're growing in numbers, and the bigger they get, the more discrimination u will need to keep them leashed. Do u wanna see a new South Africa? That's not a solution.


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