Deciding what we are

June 14, 2009 by

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…We, members of the people’s council, representatives of the Jewish community of Eretz-Israel and of the Zionist movement…, hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the state of Israel.

-Israel Declaration of Independence

As I suggested in my last entry, in thinking about what it will take for Jews and Arabs to live together in peace in Israel, there are (at least) four different dimensions to consider: the political, the historical, the cultural, and the personal.

The most fundamental is the political – defining a shared life here requires us to agree upon a political structure that meets enough of the basic needs of each group to allow them to have an interest in sustaining that structure and not seeking to overthrow it. The United States is based on an approach in which the individual is the measure of all: each person has equal and inalienable rights, in a state that explicitly declines to make any differentiation between religious, racial, or ethnic categories of individuals – regardless of your religious belief, your color, where your grandparents were born, you are equal to all other citizens in your rights, obligations, and opportunities (of course, sometimes practice lags behind theory…). Lawmakers are elected by majority vote, and those lawmakers in turn make decisions by majority vote. It is understood, and formalized in the Constitution, that this majority rule does not give the majority the right to infringe on the basic freedoms of the individual; the fact that the majority are Christian doesn’t give them the right to make laws that will infringe on the rights of non-Christians, even though they might very much want to. So while the US might be a Christian state in terms of the vast majority of its population, its Christian-ness cannot find significant expression in its laws. Most Jewish citizens of the US treasure this reality and understand how it revolutionized the life of the Jewish people after centuries of discrimination under law in European states.

Israel, in contrast, defines itself as the national homeland of the Jewish people, a Jewish state. The raison d’etre of the state is the restoration of the historic sovereignty of the Jewish people in its homeland. It is not based on the equal rights of every individual, but on the right of the Jewish people to self-determination. So for me, who grew up in and valued the US concept of individual freedom, living in a state in which that concept is not primary, causes a certain discomfort. How can these two sets of values be reconciled?

Israel could be like the US, with total formal equality of individual rights, and the Jewishness of the state simply determined by the fact that the large majority of the population are Jewish and therefore are free to live out their Jewishness fully, yet without significantly infringing on the rights of others to fulfill themselves as individuals and preserve, privately, their religious and/or ethnic identity. That would require a constitution based on near-consensus, guaranteeing that it would be impossible for the majority to curtail the individual rights of the minority – and guaranteeing that the definition of the state as Jewish homeland would be similarly immutable.

Another, European, model, would see the state as comprising a dominant ethnic majority and a minority ethnic group recognized by law as having a degree of autonomy, at least in cultural areas like language and education. This model was not all that successful in 20 th century Europe, as there was always tension between group members’ loyalty to their group and their loyalty to the state. Politics became a constant power struggle between the majority and minority groups, in which individual rights could be diminished, as majority rule was too often seen as the right of the majority group to do what they wanted, without consideration for the sensitivities of the minority – who were seen as, and saw themselves as “outsiders.”

Israel has remained suspended somewhere between these two models for 61 years, leaving both the Jewish majority and the Arab minority living in a perpetual feeling of being threatened by the other. One of these days we’re going to have to decide what we are.

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