Debating Israel's national identity: Can it remain an exclusive Jewish state?
Interesting piece in the NYT today on Noted Arab Citizens Call on Israel to Shed Jewish Identity. Here is the full text:
Instead of comments I'm pasting here I published in The American Conservative
By ISABEL KERSHNER
JERUSALEM, Feb. 7 — A group of prominent Israeli Arabs has called on Israel to stop defining itself as a Jewish state and become a “consensual democracy for both Arabs and Jews,” prompting consternation and debate across the country.
Their contention is part of “The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel,” a report published in December under the auspices of the Committee of Arab Mayors in Israel, which represents the country’s 1.3 million Arab citizens, about a fifth of the population. Some 40 well-known academics and activists took part.
They call on the state to recognize Israeli Arab citizens as an indigenous group with collective rights, saying Israel inherently discriminates against non-Jewish citizens in its symbols of state, some core laws, and budget and land allocations.
The authors propose a form of government, “consensual democracy,” akin to the Belgian model for Flemish- and French-speakers, involving proportional representation and power-sharing in a central government and autonomy for the Arab community in areas like education, culture and religious affairs.
The document does not deal with the question of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where an additional three million Palestinians live under Israeli occupation without Israeli citizenship. The aim of the declaration is to reshape the future of Israel itself.
The reaction of Jewish Israelis has ranged from some understanding to a more widespread response, indignation. Even among the center-left, where concern for civil rights is common, some have condemned the document as disturbing and harmful. On the right, Israeli Arabs have been accused of constituting a “fifth column,” a demographic and strategic threat to the survival of the state.
Rassem Khamaisi, one of the Future Vision participants and an urban planner, said: “The document reflects the Arab public’s feelings of discrimination. We should be looking for ways of partnership.”
Many Israeli Arabs say they are second-class citizens who do not get the same services and considerations as Jews and face discrimination in employment, education and state institutions.
Last month, a Muslim Arab legislator from the Labor Party, Ghaleb Majadele, was named a government minister, the first in Israel’s history. That development has been criticized as unhelpful by other Israeli Arab politicians, who mostly boycott the mainstream Zionist parties, running for Parliament on separate Arab lists and sitting in opposition.
In an interview, Mr. Majadele distanced himself from the new document, saying that pragmatic political action would help the Arab sector more than any ideological program. “The fact is that Israel is a Jewish state, a state with a Jewish majority,” he said. “Can we change that reality with words?”
Yet Mr. Majadele said that he, too, felt uncomfortable with national symbols like the flag, with a Star of David, and the anthem, which speaks of the “Jewish soul” yearning for Zion.
“These were made and meant for the Jews, and did not take the Arab minority into account,” he said. “If Israel wants to integrate us fully, then we need an anthem and flag that can do that. We and the state must think deeply if we want to take a step in that direction. But it must be by agreement, with the involvement of both sides.”
Many of the Future Vision participants are affiliated with elite Israeli academic institutions. For example, Asad Ghanem, one of the document’s principal authors, is head of the Government and Political Theory Department at Haifa University’s School of Political Science.
As such, both Jewish conservatives and liberals have been taken aback by some propositions in the document. Many are angered by its description of Israel as the outcome of a “settlement process initiated by the Zionist Jewish elite” in the West and realized by “colonial countries” in the wake of the Holocaust.
Jewish critics argue that the Future Vision report negates Israel’s legitimacy and raison d’être as the realization of Jewish self-determination; further, they say it undermines the idea of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, since that implies the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside a Jewish one.
In January, the senior fellows and board of the Israel Democracy Institute, a generally liberal independent research group that has worked on projects with some of the same Arab intellectuals, wrote a response expressing “severe anguish” over the document’s contents.
Prof. Shimon Shamir, a former Israeli ambassador to Jordan and Egypt, published a letter in Al Sinara, an Arabic weekly in Israel, stating that even among Jews who are generally sympathetic to Arab concerns, the Future Vision document “evokes a sense of threat.”
The document has exposed some raw nerves. Israel’s Declaration of Independence promises full equality in social and political rights to all inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race or sex, and Israel’s Arab citizens participate in the country’s democratic process.
Over the decades, however, Jewish-Arab relations in Israel have been marked by mutual suspicion and resentment. From 1948 until 1966 Arabs here lived under military rule. A 2003 government report acknowledged discrimination by state institutions, and a recent report on poverty published last year by Israel’s National Insurance Institute indicated that 53 percent of the impoverished families in Israel are Arabs.
And it is clear that the vast majority of Israel’s Jews consider the very essence of their state to be its Jewish identity.
Traditionally, Arab parties in the Parliament have focused on peace and equality, but the Arab public has become frustrated with the lack of results, leading to a lower voter turnout. Most Arab Israeli politicians have rejected the Future Vision document as unrealistic, exposing divisions within the Arab community.
Arab parties hold 10 seats in the 120-seat Parliament and are sometimes accused by the Jewish establishment of provocations. During last summer’s Lebanon war, some Arab legislators were perceived as sympathizing with Hezbollah.
Now there are signs of growing assertiveness and extremism on both sides. Avigdor Lieberman, head of the hard-line Yisrael Beiteinu Party, which has 11 seats in the Parliament, wants to reduce the number of Arab Muslim citizens in Israel by eventually transferring some populous Arab towns and their inhabitants to a future Palestinian state.
A few Jewish Israeli liberals have welcomed the Future Vision document. Shalom (Shuli) Dichter, co-director of Sikkuy, a Jewish-Arab organization that monitors civic equality in Israel, has hailed the effort as opening a serious dialogue about the terms for genuine Jewish-Arab co-existence though he, too, took issue with the historical narrative adopted by the authors.
In January, 30,000 copies of the document were distributed to Arab homes with weekend newspapers.
According to a poll of Arab Israelis by the Yafa Institute, commissioned by the Konrad Adenauer Program for Jewish-Arab Cooperation, only 14 percent of respondents said they thought Israel should remain a Jewish and democratic state in its current format; 25 percent wanted a Jewish and democratic state that guarantees full equality to its Arab citizens. But some 57 percent said they wanted a change in the character and definition of the state, whether to become a “state for all its citizens,” a binational state, or a consensual democracy.
Instead of comments I'm pasting here I published in The American Conservative
on July 4, 2005, titled "Israel’s Demographic Dilemma:
Can Israel Remain a Jewish State?" which includes a discussion of the new Israeli minority: Hebrew-speaking Christians.
By Leon Hadar
TEL AVIV—They are Hebrew-speaking Israeli citizens who wave the national flag bearing the six-point Star of David. They sing the national anthem that celebrates the return of the Jewish people to their historic homeland. Their kids attend Hebrew public schools and after graduation serve in the Israeli Defense Force. They are proud Israelis who seem an integral part of Hebrew culture and, unlike many Arab citizens of Israel, they don’t have any ambivalent feelings about Israeli identity. They are Israeli patriots who love their country and are willing to die for it.
But these Israeli Hebrews are not Jewish. In fact, they are observant Catholics, members of what the Vatican calls the “Hebrew-Speaking Catholic community in Israel.” Indeed, recognizing the significance of this small but growing community of Catholics, the late John Paul II announced in 2003 that he was placing beside the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Michele Sabbah, an auxiliary bishop with a special task of “the pastoral care of the Catholic faithful of Jewish expression” living Israel. Jean-Baptiste Gourion, who was ordained as the new bishop at the Catholic Church in Kiryat Ye’arim near Jerusalem, is a converted Sepharadic Jew who was born in Algeria, received baptism at the age of 24, became a Benedictine monk, and moved to Israel in 1976. Since 1990, he has been responsible for the pastoral care of the Hebrew Catholics.
The appointment of Father Gourion (“lion cub” in Hebrew) as a Hebrew-speaking Catholic bishop in Israel is certainly a milestone considering that since the middle of the second century, no Hebrew Catholic was named a Bishop of Jerusalem. The move ignited opposition among some Catholics who suspected that it is part of a strategy, backed by Israel and its allies in the Vatican to divide the Church in the Holy Land into two parts, denying its predominantly Arab character and weakening Patriarch Sabbah, an Arab who has been an ardent champion of the Palestinian cause and who resisted the idea of creating within Israel a separate Church for Israel’s Hebrew-speaking Catholics.
When John Paul II decided to create a special ecclesiastical jurisdiction for the Hebrew Catholics, displeasing Sabbah and other opponents, he was taking the side of one of the leading figures in the debate, Franciscan Father David-Maria Jaeger. Jaeger is a canon lawyer who was born to Jewish parents in Tel Aviv and after converting to Christianity became a Catholic priest. In addition to being a spokesman for the Franciscans who govern the holy sites in Jerusalem, he was a lead Vatican negotiator for the historic 1994 agreement between the Holy See and Israel.
Jaeger has been one the first Catholic figures to recognize the dramatic demographic changes that have taken place in Israeli society in recent years, during which as many as 500,000 non-Jews, most of whom are Christians, have settled in Israel. Most are immigrants from the former Soviet Union, mainly from Russia and Ukraine, while others include guest workers from countries like Poland and the Philippines.
Hence, at a time when the number of Christians has fallen sharply in the Holy Land—from 10 percent of the population in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean a century ago to less than 2 percent today (130,000 in Israel and 50,000 in Palestine)—Jaeger and other Catholic leaders have concluded that the Jewish state could become a source of Christian salvation.
Consider the irony: since 1989, more than a million Russian and Ukrainian immigrants have arrived in Israel in what Jews call aliyah, the ascent to the Promised Land, with Israeli leaders hoping that the newcomers would help balance the demographic pressure of rising Arab population on the Jewish state. Similarly, many businesses have imported close to 500,000 guest workers, from as far away as China as part of an effort to replace Palestinian workers from West Bank and Gaza. And now many of these non-Jewish New Israelis could help the Vatican and other Christian denominations to contain the demographic pressure that the growing Muslim population is placing on a shrinking Christian community in the Holy Land. God, as they say, works in mysterious ways.
One of the main reasons the Vatican is raising its profile inside Israel is the recognition that many the newcomers from Russia and Ukraine are Orthodox Christians. “This has created an unforeseen opportunity for the initiative of the Catholic Church, which has hastened to send a dozen Russian-speaking and Ukrainian-speaking priests into this new area of evangelization, right in the middle of Jewish colonies and settlements,” says Elisa Pinna, an expert on international religious issues for the Italian news agency ANSA and author of The Twilight of Christianity in Palestine. The crisis over the Greek Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which is paralyzed by a struggle [of what kind?] and economic problems, has weakened the Orthodox Church’s ability to challenge the energetic efforts of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land. Orthodox religious figures in Israel believe that there are close to 500,000 Christians who have immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union, Pinna notes, suggesting, “these new Israeli Christians are even more numerous that the Palestinian Arab Christians.”
In that context, the nomination of a bishop for the Hebrew Catholics helps the Vatican in its competition over the religious allegiance of these Christian citizens of Israel, most of whom are registered as “others” in the Population Register of Israeli government. The Catholic Church needs a voice with “Israeli civil society” and a leader who can speak for the culture in its own language, Jaeger told John Allen, the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. Noting that the Catholic Bishops of Israel are Arab-speaking and minister largely to the Palestinians, Jaeger said, “It’s as if the only bishops in Spain were Basque, or the only bishops in the United States spoke Navajo Indian.” And suggesting that the Hebrew Catholics and their Church could now become a active part in the political and social life of Israel, Jaeger added, “There are important debates going on in Israel right now over labor, over the economy, over family law, and the Church is not part of those debates because it has no voice.” Indeed, Father Gourion, in an interview with Ha’aretz announced that he was planning to “build an Israeli Christian Church” and to “open new churches where the language of worship will be in Hebrew” and train a new generation of Israeli Catholic priests who “are familiar with the Israeli culture and literature and who will be able to build-up a vibrant Israeli-Christian community.”
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is probably hoping that Bishop Gourion will emerge as a political counterbalance to the Palestinian Patriarch Sabbah. From that perspective, if the Catholic Church succeeds in evangelizing more of the “others” who reside in Israel, the existence of a community of Hebrew Christians that could conceivably number 100,000 in ten years could be victory of sorts for the “Israeli side” in terms of containing the political power of the180,000 Arab Christians in the Holy Land. But the emergence of a large and vibrant Israeli Hebrew-speaking Christian minority, reflecting the changing demographic makeup of Israel, also raises intriguing questions about the identity of Israel as a Jewish state.
Helping create the foundations of a Hebrew Christian minority in the midst of a Jewish majority was not part of the plan designed by the founders of the Zionist movement. As part of the effort to fulfill the Zionist dream of repatriating the Jewish people from the Diaspora and enable the “Ingathering of the Exiles,” the Knesset passed on July 5, 1950, the Law of Return (and related Law of Citizenship), stating that every Jew in the world has the inherent right to settle in Israel as an automatic citizen. The law did not attempt to define the term Jew. A 1970 amendment accorded the right to immigrate to Israel to non-Jews who are either children or grandchildren of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew or the spouse of a child or grandchild of a Jew. The amendment was intended to accept in Israel families where mixed marriages were abundant, thus permitting “others” to immigrate to Israel and acquire automatic citizenship.
At the same time, Palestinian refugees who wish to return to their country of birth are not permitted to do so. That means that Woody Allen and his Korean-American wife Soon Yi have the right to become Israeli citizens in a few days, while the children of an Arab-American born in Haifa could not do so.
Moreover, a recent amendment to the citizenship law has banned residents of the West Bank and Gaza who married Israeli citizens from taking up residence in Israel. While the amendment doesn’t target Arabs—it bans “residents” of the occupied territories married to “Israeli citizens” to acquire citizenship—“it constitutes hash discrimination and a violation of civil rights of Israeli Arabs, for whom the natural reservoir of possible marriage partners includes Palestinians in the territories,” while Jews hardly marry Arabs from the West Bank and Gaza, argues Amos Schocken, the publisher of Ha’aretz. The law is “a source of harsh discrimination and will exacerbate the boycotting of Israel by the Arab public,” he warns, adding, “A similar decree, if imposed on Jews in any country, would have elicited harsh Israeli reaction, and justifiably so.” The UN Human Rights Commission has condemned it as racist.
The migration of Arabs from the West Bank and Gaza into Israel, the gradual evolution of an Christian community out of more than a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and the influx of thousands of migrant workers has ignited a debate over what Israeli officials call “immigration policy.” A committee formed by Sharon is considering several changes to the immigration laws, including such proposals as limiting the ability of those who are illegally present to arrange themselves legal status in Israel and toughening the conditions required for immigration following marriage between Israeli and non-Israeli citizens.
In fact, what is taking place is a debate over the national identity of Israel and the definition of “Jewish state.” Will Israel be a Jewish state in the same way that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are Muslim or in the same way that Ireland and Poland are Catholic and Great Britain is Anglican? Would Israel be an exclusive Jewish state, customized theocracy, in which Hebrew-speaking Christians and Arab Muslims and Christians are regarded as second-class citizens, or will Israel become a “normal” Western nation-state in which a Jewish majority is able to absorb into its ranks non-Jews?
The debate is dramatizing the new “demographic threat” facing Israel. Until recently, Israelis referred to that threat when discussing Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the concern being that unless Israel withdraws from these territories, the Jews could lose their demographic majority in the area between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. But the latest statistics suggest that that may already be reality. According to the most recent official figures, the population of Israel stands at 6.8 million—5.2 million Jews, 1.3 million Arabs, and another 290,000 “others.” The Palestinian population of the Gaza Strip stands at approximately 1.4 million; in the West Bank it is about 2.4 million. There are also 237,185 Palestinians in annexed East Jerusalem. These numbers suggest that the Arab population in the entire Holy Land stands at over 5.3 million, while the Jewish population is 5.2 million. It’s not surprising therefore that most Israeli politicians, including members of Likud, are in agreement on the need to give up most of the West Bank and Gaza. That has less to do with the recognition of Palestinian national rights than the conclusion that only withdrawal could prevent Israel turning into a bi-national Jewish-Arab state.
But as Israel prepares to withdraw from Gaza, the current concern is that even after a withdrawal from the occupied territories, Israel could face a serious demographic threat. Indeed, the official figures understate the number of non-Jews living inside Israel. To the 290,000 “others” one has to add a large number of immigrants from Russia and Ukraine who have not registered with the Israeli government and some 100,000-500,000 illegal guest workers, suggesting the real number of non-Arab Christians is probably around 500,000. Add to that the 1.3 million Arab-Israeli citizens, the 230,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem who have not applied for Israeli citizenship, and the estimated 200,000 illegal Palestinian residents living inside Israel, and the number of non-Jews in Israel constitutes more than 30 percent of the population. At the same time, when the Israeli government refers to 5.2 million Jewish citizens of Israel it includes what the official lingo describes as “Israeli citizens living outside the country,” who number 400,000-800,000, most of whom hold dual citizenship.
The Israeli government projection is that by 2025, inside current Israeli borders, 30 percent of the population will be Arab, 5 percent will be “other,” and only 65 percent Jewish. Without a dramatic increase in Jewish aliyah to Israel—Sharon seems to hope that economic and political troubles for Jews in Europe and Latin American will produce a massive wave of immigrants—the actual percentage of Jews living in Israel will probably be smaller and that of “others” will probably be higher.
Some Israelis having been toying with the idea that as part of an agreement with an independent Palestinian state, Israel will offer to Palestine large Arab-populated areas inside Israel in exchange for keeping control of some of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Another proposal is to encourage the Arab citizens of Israel to become citizens of the new Palestinian state. Both ideas are considered impractical since the majority of Arab citizens of Israel reject them.
A more realistic scenario for Israel would be to try to absorb the Arab community into Israeli political, economic, and cultural life, something that has already happened in certain fields. Just recently, Abbas Suan, one of the three Arabs on Israel’s national soccer team was hailed by Israelis, Jews and Arabs, as a hero after the understudy midfielder struck a goal in the closing minutes of a World Cup qualifying match against Ireland.
While Arab towns are under-funded compared to Jewish municipalities, many Arabs have done well in business and other professional fields, and according to some figures, Arab Christians in Israel are doing better in terms of education and standard of living than the Jewish majority, and several Druze and Bedouin officers serve in top tanking positions in the Israeli military. Moreover, the diffusion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could certainly make it easier for Israeli Arabs to be integrated into Israeli society.
But even before that conflict comes to an end, Israel could take steps to make the Arabs feel like equal citizens. Bush administration officials have hailed the new Iraqi leadership’s election of a Kurd to the ceremonial job of president. Since the Arabs in Israel, like the Kurds in Iraq, constitute 20 percent of the population, why not elect an Arab to the ceremonial job of president of Israel? Similarly, while American officials and pundits celebrated the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon and the evolution of a new Lebanese nationalism that seeks to create a national identity that brings together Maronite Christians, Muslims, and Shii’tes, why not seek a similar new definition of Israeli nationalism that will permit Hebrew-speaking Jews and Christians, Arabs Muslim and Christians, and Druze to become part of an Israeli nation?
That will mean that Israel will have to move beyond the notion of a Jewish ghetto in the Eastern Mediterranean and advance into a new stage in its political and cultural development that Israeli intellectuals describe as “post-Zionism” in which Israel as a normal European nation-state defines its identity based on territory, language, and culture. Jewish religion and culture will still remain a powerful component of the Israeli identity, in the same way that Christianity is an important element of the national character of many Europeans states, and Jews around the world would maintain familial and cultural ties to Israel, not unlike many Latin Americans feel an attachment o Spain. But in the same way that Jews in North America and Europe have struggled and succeeded in becoming full citizens in the midst of Christian majorities, they shouldn’t be surprised if the Hebrew-speaking Christian community, which will probably grow in numbers in the coming years, strives to win equal rights in Israeli society.
Since—unlike Arabs citizens of Israel—no one can accuse Hebrew Christians of posing a threat to national security, there is really no reason they shouldn’t becomes as Israeli as their Jewish neighbors. Indeed, by permitting new recruits to the Israeli army to pledge allegiance on the New Testament, the government seemed to recognize that one can indeed be a proud Israeli and a observant Christian at the same time. Israel may not be ready for an Arab president, but what about a Hebrew Christian prime minister?