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An Israel for all its citizens rather than an Israel for all Jews

May 2, 2010 – 8:32 pm29 Comments

by Larry Stillman

“In recent years, Israeli groups have put forward several constitutions for the state of Israel. However, these proposals…have been preoccupied with the question of, ‘Who is a Jew?’ and have neglected the primary constitutional question of, ‘Who is a citizen?'” Quotation from the preface to the ‘Democratic Constitution’ proposed by Adalah, 2007.

The position taken by Adalah, the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, intrigues me because it argues for the transformation of Israel within 1967 borders.  Adalah is an organization that has been funded by the New Israel Fund and the fact that it has produced such a document has been used to bash the NIF but here I want to address the Adalah proposal, rather than re-hashing issues with the NIF. The proposal comes from sober-minded, well-educated, middle class Palestinian Israelis, different to the stereotypes that many have about Palestinians.

To reject Adalah’s proposal and to say that it is a cover for a  ‘Greater Arab State of Palestine’, endangering Jews, or naïve ultra leftist solutions for ‘secular democratic Palestine), is a simplistic rhetorical scare. It ignores the very sober nature of the proposal, which is about the nature of citizenship in a country for all its citizens founded on “distributive justice” rather than specific ethnic rights.

The proposal is thus far from a call for a dhimmi (traditional, second-class) status for Jews in an Arab country but it also confronts the notion of the special (legal) Jewish character of Israel, preferring a constitution in which all communities are equal in a legal sense. It can be seen as an important positional document for a practical way forward.  I interpret the document as supporting a ‘two state’ solution, though others, in the current environment, may see it as a ‘one state’ answer. I am more focussed in this article on ‘Israel’ than whether there are one or two states.

It is interesting that a number of Israelis on the  left including Meron Benvenisti in a recent Haaretz essay, and now Yehuda Shenhav in a new book (not yet in English),  have been suggesting similar proposals for a new, democratic state to break the current  impasse,  though these seen as highly controversial, being tagged as anti-Zionist, a form of suicide and so on, but it is clear that the issue is going to re-enter the discussion-sphere in Israel, as it has abroad.  I also understand that even some in the settler movement are considering the possibility of citizenship in a Palestine as a quid pro quo for continuing settlements.

Adalah sees no justice to the fact that the actual rights of Arab/Palestinian Israelis are for all practical purposes, like those in the pre-civil rights USA for African Americans, theoretically equal but practically, separate and unequal. Despite the many exceptions, e.g. members of the Knesset, Israeli Palestinians do not get their civil or taxpayer’s worth of benefits (see this) and legal discrimination is endemic.

Notwithstanding arguments over legal philosophy, the proposal also needs to be taken seriously for other, practical reasons:

  • Arabs within the 1967 boundaries constitute at least 20% of the population with a rapid rate of natural increase.
  • If the proposal would be widely supported by the different Arab communities in Israel (and surveys show they do mostly identify with the country), then it represents a ‘coming to terms’ with the existence of a State called Israel with a Jewish majority, and a desire for the end of belligerence.
  • If the proposal was accepted by Israeli Arabs, then there would be strong pressure for Arab countries to accept it, and this of course, would pull the rug from under rejectionists—those who oppose Israel in any shape or form, including some elements of the western left.

In addition, the massive subsidies provided to Israel will eventually end, or be seriously reduced and the country will have to stand on its own two feet.  While this may cause heartache to Diaspora Zionist organizations who would lose much face, the ontological needs of American and Australian Zionists, should not alone determine the status of Israel.

While according to the proposal, the ‘Jewish community’ would lose its politically privileged position, cultural rights for self-determination of Jews (a key principle of Zionism), would not be abrogated.   As an example, the Adalah document speaks of the preservation of Jewish and Arab school systems, religious and cultural institutions and so on.

A new bi- or multi-cultural Israel would be able to engage economically with its neighbours, but at the same time, it would mean the end of the ‘special relationship’ with the USA, something which only began after 1973 when the country became increasingly important to US global strategy (and which may be changing, see my blog piece).

The potential is for a return the kind of Zionism espoused in the 1920s by Judah Magnes, who supported “a binational state in which the two peoples will enjoy equal rights as befits the two elements shaping the country’s destiny, irrespective of which of the two is numerically superior at any given time”.

Of course, this picture of the future has some enormous challenges. The democratic constitution is the death knell for the Law of Return of 1950, and by implication, the end of the legal, rather than cultural connection, between Jews in Israel and Jews in the diaspora. Instead, like other countries, immigration quotas would be set. Jews could not expect dual citizenship automatically.

There also is the danger of a multi-party ‘confessional’ or ‘consociationalist’ society, strongly linked to guaranteed representation for ethno-religious blocs, which is inherently unstable (Lebanon, Belgium, Quebec). Thus, Adalah proposes a veto vote for Arab parties on issues affecting Arab rights.

Other than an outright rejection of anything which limits Zionist (and for the other side, Palestinian nationalist) ideals, fear of violence and terror is probably the strongest reason why many people will oppose the New Constitution. Because of militant Islam and nationalism in many parts in the world, the task of building trust will be enormous.

Given that the past 60 years have presented such traumatic experiences for both communities, is it time to consider a Democratic Constitution seriously? Perhaps for the sake of the security of Jews in Israel, the health of its relationship with Jews  abroad, and a new form of Zionism.

Larry Stillman is a member of the Australian Jewish Democratic Society Executive, but is expressing his own and not anyone else’s opinion.

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  • frosh says:


    What do you think about trying to unify the former Yugoslavia?

  • larry Stillman says:

    Anthony, I see you are trying to make a rhetorical point here–referring to the falling apart of an artifical construction–and the impossibility of putting humpy together again.
    But in this case, there is the opportunity to prevent the current state falling apart if both sides are prepared to compromise and engage in acts of reconciliation–for which there are models (flawed, yet successful such as in South Africa). For neither side is ethnic cleansing a valid solution–or at least one they could get away with as members of the international community.
    I  realise my article was edited down so it would not get too tedious, but that article does take up the the need for Palestinian and Arab acts of reconciliation, so it is not a one way street. Please see the full version which provides more detail. Additionally, there are other Palestinian organizations such as the  American Task force on Palestine who argue quite strongly (and have been denounced for it) for a real appreciation of Jewish concerns in the reconciliation process.
    It is thus important to recognize that on the  Palestinian side there are pragmatists and realists with whom a democratic accommodation can be reached.   If leadership in this area is provided, backed by the US (and a head of steam is building up), change will be inevitable. Land-linked Zionism may be a thing of the past, and the return-linked Palestinian credo will be greatly modified, but both modifications require mutuality and backdowns.
    This is in contrast to some of arguments presented by, for example, Philip Mendes in a recent article, who cannot see any binational state working,  or others, taking a more extreme position who appear to believe in population transfer aka ethnic cleansing.

  • Reality Check says:

    Interest idea, Larry. I for one like it, but what does Hamas and their friends think of it?

  • Ari says:

    Magnes and his friends said what they said prior to 1939.  There were those who continued with it until the declaration of the State but by that point who cared.  I need assurances – something a small group of intellectuals, a minority among a sea of extremists cannot give me.  Especially a pacifist minority facing the likes of  the moderate Yassir Arafat and his friends.

  • bataween says:

    Of course Stillman is proposing a ‘dhimmi’ state – the first thing Arabs will do is open the doors of Israel to  the Palestinian ‘refugees’. In no time there will be an Arab-majority state. Been there, done that, Jews driven out of the Arab world remember what it was like. The justice system was skewed against them, the police and the law failed to protect them, there were quotas on Jewish education and corruption on a huge scale. Sorry mate, Jews who have fought for their rights in their own country are not going to succumb that easily to this bi-national nonsense: remember, Arabs have 21 states ‘ethnically cleansed’ of their Jewish citizens, why can’t Jews have one state where they are sovereign?
    Of course Stillman might be advocating another  Lebanon, a weak state coveted by Syria where politics are manipulated and government is paralysed. It has undergone civil war and  tens of thousands of people have disappeared without trace. A militia in the pay of  a foreign state rules the south. For all the weaknesses of the Israeli system, at least its democracy is stable and representative and politicians are called to account for corruption.

  • Jason says:

    Why don’t we all convert to Islam?
    But then there won’t be any Jews left to convert as Larry would be as “happy as Larry” for all of us to assimilate.
    New form of zionism?

  • frosh says:

    Larry, your plan might just work if both countries had a rich history of robust democracy. Sadly, this is the case for urthermore, given that Israel is the only country in the entire Middle East that could be described as such, there is little cause to have faith that an Arab majority state would retain the democratic values that make the State of Israel unique in the region.

    I write this having recently come back from travelling both in Israel, as well as a ‘moderate’ Arab country that could best be described as a benevolent oligarchic dictatorship. Only one of these countries permitted freedom of political expression – Larry, can you guess which one it was?

  • Sol Salbe says:

    For the most intellectually rigorous analysis  of the Adalah document I recommend Jeremy Kenner’s article in the AJDS Newsletter.
    Newsletter March 2007 pp6-7.
    I recommend people read it and actually discuss the Adallah proposal and not some highly creative interpretation of it.
    [Disclosure I’m the editor and Jeremy Kenner is a friend]

  • ariel says:

    a) I glean from frosh’s original question the stupidity and naivete of Larry’s and Adala’s proposal: Whilst the rest of the world divides into smaller and smaller ethnically unique nation states (eg the former Yugoslavia, East Timor, the Baltics, etc. As well as the strong movement in Belgium to split into separate French and Flemish republics), these chachamim think it’s possible to unite Jews and Arabs in a bi-national state. It will never happen, because it can never work!

    b) Israel has no reason to exist if it becomes a “state for all its citizens”. Ideally, Israel should be a Jewish state (culturally, with a majority of Jews, with the country set by the Jewish calendar and traditions) and grant the same rights to non-Jews as Jews have in Australia. For example, if a Christian wants to take Christmas off work, he/she should apply for annual leave like we do for Yom-Kippur in Australia.

  • larry Stillman says:

    Anthony–this article is about Palestinians in Israel who want to be part an Israel that defends their freedoms as much as any others –so you have missed the point there and as for accusations by Bataween  that I support a dhimmi status–wrong.  If other Israelis are thinking about constitutional alternatives (as I listed in the article, and doubtless there are others) –then something must be going on with some thinking parts of Israeli society (lay off the insults).
    Thus the question is not the mantra of two states, one state, no state–it is ulitmately, what can be negotiated to bring about co-existence?
    Rather than spending billions on continuing a state of warfare, is it worth spending billions on a state of peace?
    As Sol Sable has listed the article, I was unaware that JeremyKenner had written in the March AJDS  2007  Newsletter http://www.ajds.org.au/node/32.

  • Eli says:

    Sorry Larry I am a little confused by your last statement
    “Rather than spending billions on continuing a state of warfare, is it worth spending billions on a state of peace?”
    I thought the state of war/conflict was with those Palestinians outside of Israel, not those living within its borders.
    Admittedly I haven’t at this stage read any of your suggested readings, but since you are talking about pre ’67 as the State, how does this address the West Bank and Gaza as hostile states?
    Are we to assume that since their cousins in pre ’67 Israel will all  be  1st class citizens, happy, healthy and faithful to the “State” under some new democratic arrangement, that they will happily abandon any armed struggle for the greater good of their brethren within Israel?
    The “coming to terms” as you put it, is the problem for those Palestinians living outside of the current borders is it not?. Or is the suggestion for a “greater Israel” incorporating the West Bank albeit as an autonomous region.
    I remain confused, and with respect unconvinced.


  • Chaim says:

    Daneil Gordis (Senior Vice President of the Shalem Center, where he is also a senior fellow) writes in his book “If a place can make you cry”:
    The Jerusalem fellows met with three representatives of Arab Israeli political parties – the three largest and mainstream. This is a direct comment from the conversations:
    “The middle East is a muslim part of the world and this country will ultimitately be Muslim, too. It may happen next year or in fifty years or in a hundred years. But it is going to happen. And there is no reason for you to be worried about that. Maimonides thrived under Islam and so did Sa’adya Ga’on. Relax. The sooner you accept the inevitable, the sooner the region will know peace and then we can get on with life.”
    Larry may have his handful of palestinian intelectuals feeding him what he wants to hear but the vast majority of even Israeli Arabs do not want any Jewish influence or appearance in their state nor do they want a secular democratic state – the want a muslim state preferably without Jews but they can stay if they agree to be inferior without any political influence as opposed to the freedom of speech and beliefs Israel allows its Arabs and their political leaders.

  • Eli, in my longer piece that I have linked to, I say that a process of mutual reconciliation is absolutely necessary–that is why I am also opposed to the cult of martyrdom (naming streets, squares etc). And I have said that on a number of occasions in the past.

    Reconciliation of course takes leadership on both sides and/or with external leadership.  If it was possible, though rocky, in South Africa, it is possible in Israel/Palestine.

    As for the new State covering 1967 borders only–that is the basic condition of resolution 242. However, as many now recognize, the facts are on the ground and in many circumstances, impossible to change. That is where negotiation is neccesary, including the nature of political arrangements. So many countries have now said they will back a process, yet Israel keeps niggling and avoiding.

    As for the Palestinian state-under a state of siege, that state is bound to be weak. Until recent years, secularism was the normative ideal, but we can see what has happened.  With the development of more effective civil society institutions, transparency etc, many of the current problems would I suspect disappear. With jobs etc, the attraction to violence would go away.  But tell me, how would you feel if you couldn’t drive down a nice road because you were Jewish?

    Please remember, that this document is an proposal. The more that Palestinians can be encouraged to develop well-thought through proposals that engage both communities, the better for building trust. Essentialism on either side has prevented the development of truly bi-partisan movements to overcome the  problem. 

    This last point is a significant one, because the absence of inclusion of the ‘other’ has been one of the faults of both sides in looking for solutions. I used this quote elsewhere, but it is a significant on which both Palestinians and particularly self-righteous Palestinian partisans need to take seriously. This point has in fact been made very strongly by one Palestinian group in its criticism of the ‘one state’ solution (see here), by the American Task Force on Palestine in a long, thoughtful, and dispassionate analysis of pros and cons in various Palestinian viewpoints.  All the points that have been raised in opposition to my argument (about eternal hatred, violence, fundamentalism and intolerance of minorities,  property rights etc are dealt with in detail here–rather than quote the document here, it is just as well worth reading the book that has been developed). 

    One quote is quite interesting —

    “.. it is some proponents of peace based on ending the occupation who have moved furthest from the traditional Palestinian ethno-nationalist narrative to recognize the validity of the Israeli Jewish narrative and take Israeli national interests seriously, as a necessary precursor to developing a workable peace agreement. It is possible that one day a discourse that genuinely transcends both Palestinian and Israeli national identities and narratives may be developed. Sadly, the literature produced by most Palestinian and Arab supporters of the one-state agenda has for the most part charged headlong in the opposite direction.”

    That is, in some Palestinian quarters there is at last recognition of Jewish national interests –this is certainly the case in the Adalah proposal and that is why a constitutional realignment could be reconsidered.

    The more that a process to support ‘reconciliation of ideas’ can be encouraged between both societies, the better.

    I am not saying that this is my ultimate position, but it is important to ‘play with ideas’.  As Churchill said, I think, better jaw jaw than war war’.  The social and direct military cost of the former on Israeli society in particular, is not healthy, and as I keep saying, the US is not going to bankroll the country for ever.

    Please keep responses civil. Chaim, no Arab intellectuals are feeding me anything.  I am capable of discerning intelligence from rubbish. Social science surveys also show that most Israeli Arabs regard Israel as their country and want a more equal role. Stick with facts and reason.


  • Jason says:

    When there is an absolute denial about Jewish history, notwithstanding archaeological finds, which surprisingly have found nothing remotely associating Israel/Palestine with the so called latter day Palestinians, what on earth is there to talk about?
    What ifs?
    There never was a Jewish temple?
    Moslems were ALWAYS there?
    And as Rabbi Chaim Gutnick o’bm expressed years ago, was Jesus wandering around Jerusalem counting mosques?
    But then, that must be a Jewish conspiracy too, what?
    Oh, silly me…so what if Mohammad appeared 600 years later?
    What’s 600 years between friends?
    You’re in fantasy land if you believe we will ever be accepted.

  • frosh says:

    Sorry Larry,

    I may have misinterpreted your article. I thought you were proposing a single bi-national state (“one-state solution”).

    Are you in fact proposing a bi-national state within the green line, and then a Palestinian state in the region east of the green line and in Gaza?

  • ariel says:

    If the Palestinian state has to be Judenrein, then why can’t Israel be Araberrein?

  • Chaim says:

    Larry; Firstly civil would be addressing my first paragraph.
    Secondly, all surveys are dependent on the questions asked and their interpretations. What is the current alternative to Israel for them – Gaza and Hamas? Ramalla and Fatah? This does not mean in the very end they want a Israeli state whether secular or not.
    In the very end do you picture a one state eg 50-100 years down the track –  albeit a secular one once all parties involved “mature” into your personal beliefs? Do you value or see the need for a sate that expresses Jewish beliefs and values?
    Clearly your beliefs lead your writings rather than the evidence leading your beliefs. I will find the evidence for you and see if you have the capacity to change your beliefs…

  • Eli says:

    An Israel for all its citizens rather than an Israel for all Jews
    I think the title in the end says it all. We can tinkle with all the permutations in order to find a common ground and peaceful solution.
    It means a pluralistic society in Israel where  its Jewish identity and that of the Jews is subjugated to  accommodate an ideal that will ultimately diminish and evaporate the roots of a culture that spans 4000 years.
    In order to escape antisemitism Jews have alway searched for ways to become universally accepted. In most cases this meant giving up the ties that bind them to their history and themselves.
    Communism is the perfect example of how many Jews saw the promise of peace and acceptance as “human beings”. Yet it failed to provide that which they so longed for and almost wiped any semblance of Judaism in the former Soviet Union for those generations that followed.
    An Israel that is not for Jews would then be just another country that happens to be run by Jews.
    Is it so much to ask that after 4000 years of perpetual persecution and antagonism, that the world might grant us a small concession of a piece of dirt,without having to mortgage our identity and leave us the hell alone!

  • Refugee says:

    Larry: Do you support the continuation of the law of return for Jews? What about Palestinian refugees?
    Australian and American Jewry exist as a culture these days (as opposed to prior to emancipation) only because of the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. e.g Basques, Chechnyans etc – no state. No say in the determination of history rather a people to whom history happens.


  • Almoni says:

    Uh, refugee, it may well be that Australian Jewry has been strengthened by connection with Israel, but its a far claim for the existence of American Jewry which had a strong, vibrant and independent existence well before the state of Israel.
    I have dealt with the issue of the law of return in the longer article which I noted in a post above.

  • Refugee says:

    ALmoni: I do not think you can compare American Jewry prior to WWII and now – now it is vast, complex and is some areas flourishing. Assimilation is however again rampant among reform and secular Jews and many Jews (like in Australia) believe their only connection to Judaism other than by name is via Israel. American Jews can stand up with  confidence and optimism now only because of Israel as a back up.

  • Chaim says:

    for some reason I can not put up links…
    Note that the two near secular Arab states are realigning themselves and becoming more Islamic fundamentalist by the day – Turkey and Egypt. But I guess any Palestinian state and Israeli Arabs for that matter will always remain secular and nice to its Jewish brothers.

  • ariel says:

    sorry to be a stickler, but Turkey is not Arab. They are European Muslims, like the Bosnians, albeit with a bit more Arab influence due to their proximity to Arab countries.

  • Chaim says:

    Nor is Iran Arab. They are both Muslim though .. Are they a block of countries similar in most respects despite their ethnic origins?

  • jimmy says:

    Forget all the theoretical arguments. Israel is for Jews, PERIOD. Arabs are increasing naturally at a rate much faster than Haredi and secular Israelis. Current demographics will have them taking Israel over in the future. Israel can not be an open democracy and remain a Jewish state. Arabs can not be allowed to determine Israel’s character. That is an ignorant pipe dream of moonbat idealists. The reality is that Arabs want to destroy Israel – either by ballot or bullet.

  • Daneil Gordis says:

    I don’t know if anyone actually read his books. He was as liberal and left as Larry if not more; filling IDF trenches, sleeping in Pa villages to stop IDF gunfire demonstrating etc but actually made aliya instead of standing on his soap box across the ocean and learnt while living as an Israeli what Israel is really about.

  • Mohan replies Marky says:

    What the Zionist commemntators don’t seem to realise that the status quo – continued expansion of settlement, displacement of Palestinians – is unteneable. Israel can contine with military, economic support of the US. But the US is paying the price of such support and sooner or latter will stop or be unable to fund and arm Israel. It is sunk waist-deep in two wars and is fighting a covert war in Pakistan. What these wars will do to its economy is not clear but they are not likely to help it recover from the recession.

    The situation will be that Israel will be left with stretched out defending an large extended group of settlements with an huge military, security machinery that will be a millstone round its neck. What then ?

  • Larry Stillman says:

    Regrettably, the problems of the US and its budget do not seem to enter into the minds of some people who think that they will always have uncritical US support.

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