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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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