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Our False Apprehensions

On the surface, the Israeli marketplace of ideas crosses a very deep divide that splits us into two camps—”democrats” and “Jews.” In practice, only a tiny fringe element objects to the state defining itself as “Jewish” and seeks “a state of all its citizens.” Similarly, only a small, marginal group opposes a democratic state and favors an alternative vision, like “a halakhic state.” Despite this, a shrill cacophony is aimed at imaginary trends (initiated by the courts, the media and academia on the one hand; rabbis, settlers and ultra-Orthodox citizens on the other). These trends that will supposedly harm the state’s accepted definition have shaken us. But these trends don’t really exist. The state’s dual character is ensured by the will of God and the public.

But the fears, the rotten fruit of false worries, trample over what Israelis share in common, heighten the walls of hatred and harm the nation’s fortitude. As a nation of worrywarts, Israelis entrench themselves in their positions while declaring a readiness to cast aside their neighbors’ stances—whether practical or imagined—”at any price.” We are always subjecting the other to a perpetual loyalty test: Who is with us and who wishes us ill. On these pages, a reputable leader of the Gush Emunim settler movement measured his loyalty against that of members of the Israel Democracy Institute who have championed a “constitution by consensus.” In doing so, he implicitly called into question their commitment to our nation-state. This is not called for. Let us argue, even forcefully, but let us refrain from casting blame.

Now we move from the loyalty of Jews to the loyalty of Arabs. Recently there have been noticeable fears among Jews about the Arab minority. Yet we tend to forget that Israel’s Jews constitute a solid majority of 80 percent of the population. The demographic scarecrow has already been knocked down because the ultra-Orthodox fertility rate outpaces that of the Arabs. And even if the scarecrow rears its head again, it still can’t change the bottom line: The national minorities’ struggle for equality and civil rights is a matter that every Jew and democrat should support. If any of them breaks the law, they should meet the same fate as Jewish criminals.

Nevertheless, a murky wave of nationalistic fervor against Arab citizens is gaining steam. The voices hoping to use the Knesset’s powers to legislate bizarre, racist laws—laws aimed at extinguishing a threat that does not exist—are gaining strength. If these bills are passed, they will harm the State of Israel’s moral and international legitimacy.

We are permitted to boast that the Jewish nation-state is strong. We remember our successes during 60 years of independence, when we turned dust into splendor with achievements in immigration, settling the land, security, science, finance and glorifying the Torah. It’s quite remarkable: A blink of an eye in history, just two generations, have passed since seven Arab armies assaulted the embryonic state, two generations until the state forged peace treaties with two of its implacable foes. Our might and determination created a new strategic balance. If we internalize these facts, we can divorce ourselves from our national existence’s sense of transience, restore our self-confidence and run our nation state in a responsible manner, without trampling over anyone’s rights, be that person a Jew or Arab.

Prof. Yedidia Z. Stern is Vice President for Research on Israel as a Jewish State at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Professor of Law at Bar-Ilan University and Co-editor of the journal Democratic Culture and of the book series Israeli Judaism.

This article first appeared in Ha’aretz.