The School of Psychological Sciences

Jewish State and Democracy

These are a few exploratory ideas. They were written 2-3 years ago in reaction to a talk by Prof. Asa Kasher and some articles of Prof. Ruth Gavison. Both made me feel uneasy with regards to their view of how a democracy may treat minorities (this is probably by “outside” perspective having lived for 18 years in US and UK.)  It occurred to me that they all (and obviously the politicians) are missing a crucial point. Unfortunately, recent developments have made the issue even more relevant and urgent. I have recently read a number of excellent and more updated articles on this sensitive issue. Still this may be of some interest and I welcome constructive feedback or criticism.

The state of Israel was created to secure a place for the Jewish people, in which they can maintain a Jewish life and culture without suffering discrimination as a minority at the mercy of  other nations. Being aware, however, of the tensions between the potential exclusiveness implied by a Jewish-state and the values of democracy (see Herzel’s AltNeuland), the state founders have left its character somewhat open-ended. While Israel’s declaration of independence refers to Israel as  the national state of the Jewish people, it also clarifies that  “The state of Israel … would be based on foundations of Liberty, Justice, and Peace for ALL its citizens … would ensure social and political rights for all its residents, WITHOUT DISCRIMINATION OF RELIGION, race, or sex … would ensure freedom of religion, education, conscience, culture and language.  Over time, this has created an ambiguity that has led to various challenges. In recent years there is an increasing tendency, promoted mainly by prime-minister Netanyahu (as well as Likud members Elkin and Yariv), in conceiving of Jewishisness as the most basic characteristic — the essence —  of the state of Israel. This is expressed by Netanyahu’s insistence to require Palestinians to recognize the Jewish-State as a prerequisite for engaging in the two-state peace negotiations. Other right wing politicians (e.g., Liberman) are now demanding that Israeli Palestinians take an oath of loyalty to the Jewish state and they propose to remove Arabic as the second official language of the state.

I believe that this change is an unfortunate one, not only for Palestinians but also for Israeli Jews. What exactly is a “Jewish state”, beyond what the declaration of independence already contains? Could this not imply an obligation to obey the Jewish-law? This should obviously be a threat for the secular Israelis (especially for the “Tel-Aviv culture”). If there is no obligation to obey the Jewish law, I wonder how this is being taken by the religious orthodox who will need to accept that the Jewish-State does not see the Jewish law as part of its essence. Furthermore, if this change is a potential threat to both secular and religious Jews, who benefits from this change and why is it so popular these days?  A scary possibility is that the aim of this change is not directed at Jews at all, but rather at the non-Jewish Israeli minorities, so as to somehow curtail their place within the Israeli society and to increase their alienation (somewhat reminiscent of the Geyer party, that Herzel warned us against). An alternative possibility is that the requirement that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state is a tactic for blocking their “right-of return” demand. While I support the rejection of this demand, there are obviously better and more direct ways to achieve it (here is a recent article that discusses the danger of this strategy), without the negative effects on the Israeli minorities.

The magic formula that appears  to ease concerns about a Jewish state, inside the Jewish Israeli population, is the addendum of the term “democratic”. Accordingly, Israel is supposed to be defined as a “Jewish and democratic state”. While this formula is very popular within Israel, it is sometimes received with suspicion outside (as we know too well, undemocratic countries are the ones that feel the need to stick this term to their name), and challenges have been raised regarding its coherency. In combination with the lack of progress on the two-state negotiation (which is at least partially caused by the insistence on this formula and the continual developments of settlements in the West-Bank) the “Jewish and Democractic” new legislations raise international concerns not only about the legitimacy of the West-Bank occupation but of the Zionist project itself (a recent article about how this plays in the US). Obviously, without such a solution, the Jewish and Democratic state will need to keep controlling a big population of non-Jews who is totally deprived of legal and citizenship rights (I believe that Herzel would not have liked this at all).

To sooth those who are concerned, a number of Israeli academics (e.g., Asa Kasher, Ruth Gavison; the latter has at least opposed the new LEUM-legislation proposed by Netanyahu) have raised to the challenge of demonstrating that not only there is no contradiction between a Jewish state and democracy, but furthermore Israel as a Jewish state is a vibrant democracy of the same (or higher) standard as any encountered in other Western democracies. In the rest of this essay I wish to examine this argument and I will try to show a serious problem in its basic premisses. This philosophical discussion aims to clarify the illusory basis of such arguments, so that we can start to take steps towards reclaiming the original Zionism from the right-wing hijackers.

According to the argument in favour of the coherency of the Jewish-democratic state concept, Israel is a nation-state (medinat-leum) like France, Spain, Norway or Romania, and like these countries, it has a minority population that does not belong to the majority-nation (Algerian immigrants in France, Bascs in Spain, Lappes in Norway and Hungarians in Romania). The right of self-determination (hagdara atzmit) of every nation-state, is that which allows the majority-nation group to express its culture as a nation-state (this implies, for example, setting all national symbols, language and culture to those of the majority nation), as long as it does not infringe on the human rights of the minorities (some limitations on individual rights are accepted, but not on full fledged human rights within a democracy). Accordingly, a person who belongs to a minority has one of two options, either to live as a minority in that state, or, integrate into the majority group. Those are, for example, the choices given to an Algerian in France, or a Hungarian in Romania. As long as the nation state does not limit the freedom of the minority to maintain its culture, the limitation imposed by associating all state symbols with the majority nation does not constitute a violation of democracy.

Unlike the Algerian-French or the Basc Spanish, however, the choice of non-Jews in Israel is more limited. They lack the possibility to integrate within the majority group (i.e., to assimilate), unless they undergo religious conversion. Should the Basc wish, s/he can choose to become a proud Spaniard while maintaining any religious (or atheistic) view s/he likes. Due to the special nature of what it means to be a Jew, no such option exists for the non-Jew citizens in the Jewish state,  even if they were to serve in the army (as many Druze Israeli do) or make great personal sacrifice for the Jewish people. The only option for an Israeli non-Jew to become an integral part of the majority Jewish culture is to undergo religious conversion. For an atheist or for a person who holds a different faith this would involve another human right violation: the freedom of belief. Although Israel is not a theocracy, it does relinquish to the orthodox religious authorities the control over recognizing a person as Jew.

One may argue that the limitation of becoming part of the majority nation without having to undergo religious conversion is not important enough to qualify as a human right. This, however, critically depends on one’s concept of a human person. If a person is understood to be fully defined by innate factors, such as genes and/or faith or the culture into which  one is born, then indeed, her human rights are primarily characterized by allowing her to maintain the culture she was born into. In this case, a democratic nation state has to allow minorities a reasonable degree of cultural autonomy. If on the other hand, a person is primarily characterized by her freedom to choose and to form her identity (Existentialist approach), rather than by being determined by circumstances of birth,  then the freedom to choose her identity becomes the most basic human right. In this case, the freedom to integrate into the majority culture is a human right that a democracy has to offer to all its citizens. One argument that could be raised against this type of human right is that very few people are likely to make use of it. I believe that this is wrong on two counts:

First, factually, there are quite a number of Bascs,  or Jewish or Algerians in France, who are happily taking on the majority identity, promoting in this way their ability to live a more fulfilling life in their state, rather than being subjected to some limitations and prejudices facing the minorities. Second, even if we assume that such identity changes are very rare, the idea that they are not important is based on an actualist fallacy. Actualism is the doctrine that claims actions should be judged by their consequences and that laws are important only in virtue of their consequences. I maintain that actualism is wrong. The merit of an action is not exhausted by its consequences. The argument that if identity changers are rare they are unimportant, is similar to the argument that since most black Americans today are poor abolishing slavery is not important: even if average income of the average black American was the same as before the abolition of slavery, the value of having abolished slavery is indisputable and it is not measured only by the total of its consequences.

What this means is that within a “Jewish state”, in which the process of becoming a Jew is under the control of the Orthodox/Haredi, the non-Jew citizens have zero chance to become integrated within the majority culture and to benefit of its cultural, economic and status benefits. Moreover, this pathway is barred to them, no mater how much they wish to and no matter what effort they are willing to make. This in turn, makes the segregation of these minorities perpetual. I find this situation somewhat uncomfortable. To balance things up, it is important to recognize that Israel is not the only country that makes the integration of “outsiders” inside its national entity difficult. Examples such as Japan may come to mind. Unlike Japan, however, in Israel there is a relatively big minority which involves people who are native of the land, i.e, not  immigrants.

Another objection that may be raised here is that there are other democratic countries who have religious state symbols. In the UK, for example, the Queen is both the Head of the State and the Head of the Anglican Church. Recently, the prime minister David Cameron has created a considerable controversy by stating that the UK is a Christian state. As a Non-Christian UK citizen, I found this remark uncomfortable and I strongly prefer the statement of Nick Clegg (from the Liberal Democrats) who rejected it and suggested a reform to separate the Head of the State and of the Church of England (unfortunately, as the pols show, I am as much in minority in the UK as I am in Israel). Still I feel that the situation is not the same. I believe that when religious symbols are used by a democratic state, it is the responsibility of this state to make special efforts to demonstrate to its citizen of the other religions and/or atheists that they are equally accepted as belonging to the state as equals, as do the citizens of the majority religion. Unfortunately, the Israeli record leaves much to be desired, and the recent emphasis on Jewish state and loyalty oaths are making things worse.

Let me summarize. Israel as a Jewish state is somewhat different from France as a French state, due to the religious and ethnic aspect being a Jew. This bars non-Jewish minority individuals from becoming Jewish, even if they wished to do so, unless they convert. Shifting away from the open-ended description of Israel in the Declaration of Independence towards a more exclusive Jewish state  — removal of Arabic as official state language, suggestions for loyalty oaths,  job offers that are formally and openly restricted to Jews, etc —  could naturally push the Arab-Israeli population towards alienation from the state. While it is fashionable to complain that this population is not loyal to the State, I believe that we need to consider whether the state did enough in order to make this population feel “belonging” and not a mere tolerated minority. All this is made worse by the lack of progress on a two-state solution, without, which, Israel will keep a big population of West-Bank non-Jews devoid of legal or citizenship rights.

Nevertheless, the rationale for Zionism (Jews deserving a Nation-State, where they can develop and cherish a Jewish life without fear of discrimination) still stands. The question is what is the middle ground that could allow both this aim without infringing on the human rights (including the feeling of being part of the state) of the non-Jewish citizens. This is obvious a difficult topic. Below are few potential responses. I believe that the first 3 are unlikely to work. The 4th one is something that I believe to have a potential, and may, at least deserve a serious debate (it surely requires more work to develop).

1. Continue the right wing trend: require non-Jews to take loyalty tests (Liberman style) or introduce LEUM-legislation prepared by Netanyahu, Elkin and Yariv. I am afraid that in combination with the lack of progress on the two-states and the perpetual occupation of the West-Bank, this will make our state a non-democratic one. I certainly would feel morally uncomfortable to live in such a state, and I believe that it will loose important international support. Even besides of moral considerations, unlike Russia or China (who are superpowers), Israel can not afford this.

2. Binational-state. Given the historical records, this has low chance of success. The most likely outcome is that it will transform into another Arab state, which will treat the Jews as the other Arab states did.

3.Status quo + invent a secular stream of conversion to Judaism, based on army service, Jewish-studies, etc. I also see little chance of progress in such direction. Also after damage created by the LEUM legislation to the relations between Jewish and Palestinian Israelis, it may be difficult to “put the devil back in the bottle”…

4. Reach a two-state solution, so as reduce the number of non-Jewish minorities in Israel, and also make Israel more inclusive towards its non-Jewish minorities. One idea I was thinking is this regard is to define Israel as the “State of Jewish people and their national partners” with more inclusive state symbols. This needs a lot of work (I will put few ideas in a separate document).