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Like almost every Israeli I have agonized over the question, "Is Israel a Jewish State or a democratic state of all its citizens?." Tom Segev relates how a group of Israeli Jews and Arabs tried to solve this problem in a democratic way, acceptable to all sides, by hammering out a constitution that would guarantee equal rights.

I think that the premises of the group, and the statement of the problems on both sides were mistaken, and that the question of "Jewish State" or "State of all its citizens" is a non-question.

In every Arab-Israeli dialogue, I have seen a tremendous amount of self-serving and evasive hypocrisy about the real basic issues on both sides. Moreover, this duality of "Jewish State" versus "state of all its citizens" applies a standard of "democracy" that is applied nowhere else in the world. It assumes that the right of national self-determination of the Jewish people is somehow illegitimate, and must be submerged in an "Israeli" nationality which is something other than Jewish nationality. Since "Children of Israel" and "Jewish people" have been synonymous throughout most of Jewish history, this seems questionable. It is not clear what this nationality could be, and what characteristics it could have. Many of the Arabs who insist on equal rights with Jewish Israelis, who want Israel to be a state of all its citizens, do not want to be part of an Israeli "nationality" in the cultural sense apparently, but rather seem to insist that they are "Palestinians" and Arabs. So who will belong to this nationality, and what will characterize it? What language would the "Israelians" speak, if not Hebrew?

The waters have also been intentionally muddied by some Jewish religious advocates as well as anti-Zionists, who make believe that the "Jewish" in "Jewish State" refers to the Jewish religion. We will leave aside that question, as it should be clear that "Jewish" must refer to Jewish people and Jewish nationality. No modern state can be founded as the state of a religion. Iran and perhaps Sudan are the exceptions that prove the rule.

The real basic issues are masked by hypocritical attitudes on both sides. On the one hand, there is the unwillingness of many Israeli Jews to accept Arab citizens as equal partners. Too many Jews are unwilling either privately or in governmental capacities to foster integrated education and development for Arab as well as Jewish towns, and in fact, to eliminate in the long run, the separation into "Jewish towns" and "Arab towns," "Jewish schools" and "Arab schools" etc. that has cursed Israel from the very beginning of the first Zionist settlements. We have two societies in parallel - or more. As long as this old Middle Eastern-style segmented society is maintained, there will never ever be real democracy, regardless of what anthem we sing or what laws we make or what flag we wave. It doesn't matter how many Jews say they love their Arab fellow citizens and want equality, as long as most of them are unwilling to have Arab children in their schools or Arabs as neighbors and co-workers on an equal basis, it is all Khalam Fadi - empty words.

This issue is due in part to a failure of the Zionist movement from the start. The Jews of Palestine were largely a people apart even before the Zionists arrived. The Arabs of Palestine were likewise a people apart, but as they were the majority, it suited them. This was not "apartheid," nor was it a result of Zionist ideology. Rather, it was the way of the Mellah that was practiced in much of the Middle East. Jerusalem was always divided into "quarters." "You live there and speak your language, and I live here and speak mine. Our peoples do not mix very much. Everyone knows his or her place." A different version of this same arrangement obtains in Lebanon, with disastrous consequences. This segmented society was typical of every Middle Eastern country. However, many of the early Zionists, instead of fighting for the pluralistic democracy, adopted this ethos and turned it into a policy and an ideology.

Our ancestors did not make a serious effort to solve this problem, and to create the pluralistic society envisioned in Herzl's utopia of Altneuland. Perhaps this Western import of pluralistic democracy could not take hold in mandatory Palestine, but a much greater effort should have been made. Even today, too many of the Israeli government proclamations on equality remain mostly paper. The paper is very nice, but the dirt roads and inadequate public facilities in Arab towns attest to reality.

On the other hand, there are the Arabs of Israel who insist on equal rights in a state where they often, at the same time, insist on being a people apart. Segev relates:

One day, a few years ago, the historian Adel Manna attended the graduation ceremony of his son, who had just obtained a law degree.... Toward the end of the ceremony, the Manna family decided to leave, before the singing of "Hatikva," the national anthem. They did not want to remain seated while everyone stood and sang, nor did they want to stand.

Embarrassingly, they had not managed to reach the exit when the singing began, and people shouted at them, "What's going on here? What kind of behavior is this? You want equality, but you're not ready to respect the state?!"

Manna, who is generally a model of composure, lost his patience and responded, "Shut up, already! You go on singing your Hatikva. It's not mine. What do you want from me?"

Could you imagine a Jew doing that in Egypt, or a native American or African American in the USA? It might happen occasionally, but it could not be emblematic of an entire segment of society that expected equal treatment in fact, and not just equality under the law.

This situation exists in virtually no western country. Americans recently celebrated the holiday of Thanksgiving. It is a national holiday, that does not take note of the suffering of the natives of North America, including the Pequout Indians who were slaughtered unceremoniously by the holy pilgrim fathers. Nonetheless, Native Americans, or "American Indians," are citizens of the United States. They salute the flag, they serve with distinction and valor in the United States Armed Forces, they learn English, and they sing the Star Spangled Banner national anthem. A Jew who lives in England or Switzerland can be a member of the Jewish nation, but will nonetheless salute the flag of the country of his or her citizenship, serve in the army and learn the language of that country and its customs, if he or she wants to be an equal citizen in fact as well as in law. This is true even if, as is the case in some countries, the flag shows a cross, and the Jew is religious. The loyalty of citizens is always given even by persecuted minorities. Descendants of former African slaves in the United States served their country in every war with bravery and distinction wherever and whenever they were called upon to do so, despite the most humiliating and unjust forms of discrimination, lynchings and segregation. This was the hard path that led from the slave cabin to high office in Washington, and it took many years. It is the only hope of any minority to gain its rights - to fight within the system, but to demonstrate loyalty on every occasion.

I participated in a dialogue meeting in April 2002, when Arab and foreign media were spreading the Jenin massacre blood libel. Every Arab in that dialogue insisted they are loyal citizens of Israel and professed the desire for equality. In the intermission however, one of these earnest people began explaining to me that "you" had killed 500 people in Jenin, and that "you" don't know what is happening because "you only see your media." I could not help thinking that this man was little different from the wicked son of the Passover Seder, who looks upon all the work of preparation and worship and says "What is all this work to you?" And why should our answer to him be different from the answer to the wicked son? He has taken himself out of the generality of Israeli citizens. He refers to Israeli media as "your" media, and to the Israeli army as "your" army.

So it is not just "your Hatiqva" as Adel Manna said, that is odious to these would be citizens. It is "your" (our) media, and "your" (our) army. Then what is not odious to them, and how is this their country? Living in a country and owning land there can make you an inhabitant. It doesn't make you a citizen of the society if you reject the society and all the things for which it stands. Americans pledge allegiance to the American republic, not to some real estate.

No more egregious illustration of the problem is needed, than the visit of MK Azmi Bishara to Damascus during the Lebanon war, where he expressed solidarity with the Hezbollah, while the Hezbollah were bombing Jewish and Arab Israelis indiscriminately. How can this man lay a claim to equal citizenship and equal participation in a country that he is willing to destroy? True, there have been similar cases in other countries and at other times, but they are not usual when a country is fighting a group that wishes to destroy it. Could we imagine what would have been the consequences if, in World War II, the vast majority of German Americans had supported Hitler? General Eisenhower was of German ancestry. Can we imagine an Israeli Arab (not a Druze or Bedouin) chief of staff leading the IDF to defend our nation? More realistically, can we imagine all Israeli Arabs celebrating Israeli independence day and mourning Israeli war casualties on Independence day?

An Arab active in coexistence work wrote that he doesn't want to hear about coexistence. He wants "partnership" - shutfut. He is most welcome to be a partner. He should fight to be an equal partner and we must help him. Will he join the army? Will he pay his taxes? Can he expect to be a partner in rights without being a partner in obligations? And can we allow the state, or our fellow Jewish citizens, to deny him his legitimate rights if he fulfills his duties? Some Arab citizens, including Druze and Bedouin, already do serve the state and fulfill their obligations. Unfortunately, they too are not treated as absolute equals.

If the blessed day comes, when all the Arabs of Israel fulfill their duties as partners, and the state of Israel and the Jews of Israel guarantee the rights of Arabs and Jews, then will it really matter if the flag has an extra pair of green stripes, or Hatikva has another stanza?

Israel is by definition the national state of the "Jewish People" - the "Children of Israel." Israel can be a "Jewish state," the national homeland of the Jewish people, and a "democratic state." Israeli Arabs can and should have equal opportunity for employment and public office, based on skills, leadership ability and loyalty to the state insofar as these attributes are relevant for anyone else. What works for Azzam Azzam and Ismail Khaldi should be able to work for every Arab citizen of Israel. But we would not elect a Jewish traitor to serve in the government, and there is therefore no reason to elect an Arab who is not loyal to the state for the same office.

There is only one "right" that Israeli Arabs cannot have in Israel, and that is the right to self determination as Arabs or Palestinians. That right can only be exercised in one of the 22 Arab states or in a Palestinian state, just as Jews cannot have the right to self determination in the United States or Lebanon. Israeli Arabs can't decide that the national anthem, or the national independence day or the national flag are offensive to them because they contain or refer to Israeli (Jewish) national symbols that are not consistent with their Arab nationality. In the same way, the Jews of Switzerland cannot insist on changing the Swiss cross in the flag. The United States would not look well on a group of "tories" who refused to celebrate the American Indepence Day.

Nationality and democracy are not achieved by flags and songs and papers called constitutions. Constitutions, flags and anthems reflect the society that creates them. The Soviet constitution was a fine constitution, but it was only paper. Writing "democracy" on a bit of paper didn't make democracy, and didn't save anyone from a gulag. The same American constitution that was interpreted as supporting segregated schools at the end of the 19th century, was reinterpreted in 1954 as mandating integrated schools, because American society had changed. One school that teaches Hebrew and Arabic to Jewish and Arab children is worth a dozen paragraphs in a constitution, and an Arab hero in the IDF will do more for Arab rights in Israel than 10 Arab MKs blustering about Palestinian nationalism and the Arabic Ouma in Damascus. If we want to make a democratic state of all its citizens here, then both Arabs and Jews must create the reality first, and the paper will follow. Otherwise, "state of all its citizens" is just a catchy political slogan.

Ami Isseroff

Original content is Copyright by the author 2006. Posted at ZioNation-Zionism and Israel Web Log, http://www.zionism-israel.com/log/archives/00000299.html where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Disributed by ZNN list. Subscribe by sending a message to ZNN-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by e-mail with this notice, cite this article and link to it. Other uses by permission only.

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Replies: 5 Comments

Your analysis is very good Amy. Thank you for writing it since me too have asked myself the same question.

In reply to Shimon Klein that wrote "Perhaps, Zionism has failed as an ideology to promote coexistence between Jewish and Arab Israelis in Israel", I disagree.

We have to look at the things in context. Arab-Israelis are the descendants of the enemies of the Jewish people in Israel. There was always the fear that they are in fact a "fifth column". The feelings of Israeli Jews are not helped by the Arabs identification with Palestinians, with their sheer numbers (20%), by the Arab-initiated wars and by the propaganda of the Arab countries. Now, lately, Arab Israelis want to transform Israel into something resembling Lebanon. It won't work and it won't be accepted by the Jews. It is simply sad that the Arab leaders response was to claim solidarity with Hezbollah.

The only thing that we can do is to wait and see. There are other countries where unassimilated Muslim population is growing and becoming restless. Let's see how they grapple with the issue.

Fabian, Wednesday, December 6th

Mr. Klein:

Why are you conflating the legislated "separateness" of apartheid Republic of South Africa, where it was forbidden by law for persons of certain races to live in certain neighbourhoods or attend certain schools with the self-imposed decisions to live separate and apart by certain communities in Israel? Ami Iseroff cites the example of an Israeli Arab graduating from a university with a primarily Jewish student body. There's a world of difference between cases.

And if Zionism is to blame for failing to adequately promote coexistence, what of the other side that has actively aggitated for a Jew-free "Palestine", to the point that it produces "scholarship" denying any connection between the Jews and Israel?

Lynne T, Friday, December 1st

Bringing Arabs fully into Israeli society is likely to happen when Jewish Israelis are far more united. The left/right and religious/secular divisions must be dealt with effectively, not just patched over during times of crisis. This is certainly a huge challenge and probably would require a series of brilliant leaders willing to institute major economic and social changes.

Peter Davis
Thursday, November 30, 2006.

peter davis, Thursday, November 30th

Well done. Makes sense. The idea of equal rights entailing equal obligations would be stronger if we imposed equal military obligations on yeshiva youth.

A skeptic might paraphrase your argument and simply replace mention of the Arabs with orthodox Jews who reject Zionism too. Having siad that, the path forward
will have to be to create institutions of civil society that join Arabs and Jews and lead to stronger economic, social and cultural associations.

As I have noted from Shomernet, one of the more successful expressions of that trend has been the soccer leagues.


Eli Berniker, Wednesday, November 29th

The analysis here is very sound. Personally I have grappled with the same question. How can Israel claim to be a democratic state when Jewish and Arab citizens are segregated even if the segregation per se is not in the statute books? Segregation? This word does raise eyebrows when it is used in the Israeli context. Of course there is segregation! Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis do not attend the same schools as is mentioned in this article and do not live in the same neighborhoods. It would not be surprising that if an Arab family does decide to move into a Jewish village, there would be an outcry. This is unacceptable! What is not clear is whether the separation is written in the statute books, or whether it is an unwritten social phenomenon. If it is in the statute books then there are parallels with the Group Areas Act, Act No 41 of 1950 (Forced physical separation between races by creating different residential areas for different races. Led to forced removals of people living in "wrong" areas, for example Coloureds living in District Six in Cape Town) of apartheid South Africa. This is incompatible with democracy and makes the idea of democracy in Israel hypocritical. If this is the case, Israel cannot expect the Arab community to show any form of patriotism or loyalty towards the Jewish state if they cannot be made to feel part of Israelís society with equal rights. It is true that the Arab people (with the exception of the Druze, Bedouin and Circassian communities) do not serve in the army. This in itself is problematic as they are not part of the population that protects Israel.
In the Diaspora, the Jewish people have equal rights in most western countries. They do not suffer discrimination, they have a good lifestyle, and their status is the same as the non-Jewish majority.
Perhaps, Zionism has failed as an ideology to promote coexistence between Jewish and Arab Israelis in Israel. The failure of this is due to a flaw in the education system which did not encourage educational integration in the same schools where both Jewish and Arab children could learn each otherís languages and culture which, in the long road would create better understanding between the two communities. This would create a common patriotism where both peoples feel a sense of identification with Israel.

Shimon Z. Klein, Wednesday, November 29th

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