A Jewish Nation-State Can Also Be a State of All Its Citizens

We need to inculcate the concept of a shared society, where Jewish and Arab citizens are taught from an early age about mutual legitimacy in the citizenship club, and where they learn to recognize and accept each other. Citizens must be given the tools to understand the language and culture of the other, and to experience these things as beneficial to the shared public realm. In this way, a sense of closeness and sympathy will develop between all the country’s citizens.

Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state, or its identity solely as a Jewish state, or as a democratic state, affects me personally as a citizen of this nation-state whose nationality is not my own.

I did not immigrate to Israel; instead, Israel immigrated to me. The current Jewish state was not naturally born here, in my homeland, but rather, perhaps, at the First Zionist Congress held in Basel in 1897. It imposed itself on us, the local population without asking permission from my grandfather or from my father (who was seven years old when the state was founded), or from other members of their respective generations. The original sin was that the people who formulated the vision of the state lied to themselves and to the world when they claimed that the issue in question was that of “a land without a people for a people without a land.” It is true that this was corrected when the Zionist movement agreed to the partition plan in 1947, thereby effectively recognizing the Palestinian people’s existence, although Prime Minister Golda Meir claimed at a particularly wretched moment, years later, that there is no Palestinian people. As though my grandfather, father, and mother hadn’t been here. She even disregarded me as a citizen who had been born in the state and who, by force of circumstance, had lived there as a native of the place, both before the state was founded and afterward.

The nation-state idea is not exclusive to Israel or to the Jews. It dates to the Middle Ages but was first challenged in the 18th century in the civic discourse that brought about the French Revolution, which preceded the creation and formation of the democratic countries. Over the years, we have come to identify several types of nation-states: the ethno-cultural nation-state (Israel, Poland, Italy), the binational or multinational state (Belgium, Switzerland), the multicultural state (Canada, Australia), and the state of all its citizens – the civil nation-state (the United States, France).

Democratic nation-states face intellectual and practical challenges: Is the national majority group of a democratic state entitled to confiscate the entire public realm and all positions of power, to create the dominant culture, and to institute policies that serve it alone, at the expense of other indigenous national groups? Do minorities have rights, and if so – what rights? Are national collective rights reserved solely for the national majority, or should certain collective rights be granted to the national minority as well, to help preserve its identity and protect its collective interests? Of course, debate on the topic of collective rights will not exempt democracies of the obligation to ensure individual equality before the law.

Israel is constantly reminding its Arab citizens, natives of the land, that it is the nation-state of the Jewish people, i.e., not their state. The Oslo Accords tried to find a final status solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the fact that the Accords and their signatories refrained from addressing the matter of Israel’s Arab minority made it clear to the country’s Arab citizens that no permanent arrangement reached by the Palestinians and the Israelis, with the support of the international community and of the Arab countries, would result in a Palestine reaching Nazareth or Sakhnin in the Galilee, or Rahat in the Negev. The future Palestinian state would lie solely beyond the Green Line, while Israel’s Palestinian citizens would forever remain in their homeland of Palestine, but as part of the Jewish nation-state, Israel.

This realization led to speculation regarding the political status of a fifth of Israel’s citizens. How was this nation-state supposed to enlarge its purpose beyond the national mission and become a state that recognizes its inclusive Israeliness as well as its exclusive Jewishness? In its Declaration of Independence, Israel’s founders promised to ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all the state’s citizens. But over time, various laws were passed that contradicted that promise. These laws negate the political and social equality that ought to have been self-evident.

Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People (2018) set a blue-and-white-tinted glass ceiling above the heads of all Arab citizens who try to stand tall and assert that this is their country and that they are part of the national interest. The national interest is framed as the Jewish interest, not the Israeli interest. Per this law, the state serves the Jewish people, not the Israeli people. The state indicates, through this law, that it promotes Jewish settlement only – a statement that sounds like preferentiality on the civic plane, and like a built-in hierarchy of priorities between citizens in the political and social spheres.

As someone who supports the establishment of a Palestinian state that will express the Palestinian people’s legitimate desire for self-definition, I have trouble opposing Israel as a state that expresses the Jewish people’s legitimate desire for self-definition. The fact of Israel being a nation state for the Jewish people is not the problem for me. The main problem is that of how to keep Israel’s role as the Jewish people’s nation-state from undermining its democratic and civil identity, and how to safeguard the rights of its Arab citizens as a minority with a different national identity that is also part of the national identity of the neighboring Palestinian people.

Though the idea of racially pure ethnic states was thought to be past its time, this mentality, once rampant among some of the European peoples, is now regrettably present in the consciousness of Jewish nationalists seeking ways to empty Israel of its Arab citizens. These nationalists apparently wish to create a halachic state, where the Arabs who remain will be classified as gerim – foreigners – without equal rights and considered ungrateful for the privilege of being allowed to live in their homeland. This way of thinking stokes the existing national conflict instead of trying to find a formula to ease tensions, or create practical solutions, some of which can be learned from other nation-states around the world.

In my humble opinion, where there are good intentions, everything can be resolved. Israel can be, simultaneously, the nation-state of the Jewish people and the state of all its citizens. These are not two extremities but rather two needs that we need to find a way to integrate so that each can be properly met. Every country in the world is a state of all its citizens, and every democracy is a democracy of all its citizens – otherwise it has no right to be called a democracy. As a nation-state, Israel clearly must serve the majority nationality, but not at the expense of its minority citizens, and not discriminating against them. Countries with national minorities are meant to provide the members of those minorities with a dignified, even empowering framework that makes them secure in their identities and gives them a sense of purpose as bridges of peace with their own nation-states.

Even difficult issues have solutions. For example, Israel could add a flower or a bird to a corner of its flag, conveying to its Arab citizens that the addition was made for them. Israel could add to its national anthem a parallel line to nefesh yehudi homiyah (“the Jewish soul yearns”); the lips of those singing it would move slightly differently. Israel’s immigration laws could allow Arab citizens to obtain citizenship for their non-Israeli spouses; to ensure that such a policy would not upset the existing demographic balance, the right could be limited to 20% of new citizens each year. Arabic, in addition to Hebrew, is the language of the land, and it is important that its official status as a legitimate language for all Israeli citizens be restored, and at the same time, the use of Hebrew by Arab citizens should be deepened. Bilingualism is an asset; it enhances the shared citizenship experience and will even help Israeli Jews live in and integrate more easily in the Mideast arena, which is gradually opening its doors.

The Jewish tent cannot cover all the individuals and groups who currently live in Israel; it needs to be enlarged considerably. Only then will the country be able to reach inclusive civic dimensions, and only then will it be able to encompass the national identity of its Palestinian national minority. The collective rights of Arab citizens as a national minority will not derogate from the national rights of the Jewish national majority. The national minority’s national rights do not amount to a right to self-definition, and thus do not endanger the state’s character or national mission. They only require that the state’s character be expanded to include both its civil component and its Jewishness.

The Jewish majority is entitled to legitimate rights that serve it as a national majority, just as the minority group is entitled to legitimate rights that serve it as a national minority. But the interaction between these clusters of rights needs to be regulated. Similar regulation has already been tried and successfully implemented in over 23 European nation-states that have learned how to be democracies. These countries give rights to the national group that they serve and protect their recognized national minorities. This is not science fiction. It is accepted practice that effectively eases majority-minority tensions. But it entails responsibility on the part of the majority, and humility on the part of the minority. The national majority must learn that it bears responsibility for creating a public realm that is welcoming to the minority, so that the minority does not feel discriminated against or sense that its identity is under threat or that the legitimacy of its presence in its homeland is being questioned. The minority group must learn that its national rights will not reach the level of self-definition, meaning that it cannot demand independence or physical separation from the state. The minority must understand that it is not to imperil the national majority’s need for self-definition or operate as a fifth column to destabilize the country.

Israel is now 75 years old. One can no longer claim that it is still a young democracy and that it will take another few generations for the country to find its way. Nor can one argue that Israeli Jews are not in a position to address such internal issues as long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict still rages. On the ground, after 75 years, Israel is working and learning to be a state of all its citizens – a slow process due to the controversy over the political status of the country’s Arab citizens. The process may also be moving slowly due to denial on the part of Israeli politicians, who play ping-pong with narratives and identities instead of forging connections and finding common ground.

Let me stress once again: Israel’s evolution toward becoming a state of all its citizens will not undermine its status as the nation-state of the Jewish people. The state is now sufficiently mature and able to understand that its Arab citizens are here to stay and that we need to devise a strategy of equal integration not only as policy, but also as appropriate behavior and as a value to be instilled in future generations.

We need to inculcate the concept of a shared society, where Jewish and Arab citizens are taught from an early age about mutual legitimacy in the citizenship club, and where they learn to recognize and accept each other. Citizens must be given the tools to understand the language and culture of the other, and to experience these things as beneficial to the shared public realm. In this way, a sense of closeness and sympathy will develop between all the country’s citizens. Cooperation between Jewish localities and nearby Arab localities should be promoted, and the structured separation that we inherited from the military government period – an era when efforts were channeled toward maintaining separation by keeping Arab citizens confined in their villages, so as to prevent their integration in the general-Israeli space – should be dismantled. All citizens should share in the state’s assets, its land, its budgets, and its governance. In the same way that the large number of Arab doctors make the medical system better, a larger pool of Arab software engineers will improve the high-tech world, while larger numbers of Arab police officers will improve policing and reinforce citizens’ trust in the police, and more senior Arab functionaries in the civil service commission will reflect the true civil composition of the Israeli populace. More collaborations in art, sports, the culinary sphere, tourism, and municipal services will make us a more efficient, creative, and productive society, while stronger economic, governmental, and social interdependence between neighboring cities and localities will forge a shared future.

We are witnessing the emergence of many islands of successful integration of Arab citizens, and cases where these citizens are being treated as a collective, despite the denial and disregard exhibited by many in both populations. The state does ensure the collective right of Arab citizens not to serve in the army and maintains the Sharia, Christian, and Druze courts, while also according “special status” to the Arabic language and the Arabic education system, and providing a culture department for the preservation of Arab culture. These are de facto rights; they have not been compiled as a set of de jure rights. They could be so compiled, with some improvements, and designated “The Rights of a National Minority.” The improvements must include the elimination of discriminatory laws such as the Nation-State Law, the Kaminitz Law of 2017 (Amendment 116 to the Planning and Construction Law), and the Admissions Committees Law of 2011 (Amendment 8 to the Cooperative Societies Ordinance). These are laws that in my view are fundamentally racist and put the state’s democratic essence to shame.

At the same time, we need to enact an Equality Law that will defend this ideal of national minority rights and serve as a basis for future action by the government and by the private, public, and third sectors. Equality must be enshrined in a Basic Law, as majority-minority relations must be between equals, and not ones of coexistence, like those between horse and rider, ,where there is both a visible and an invisible hierarchy. That hierarchy must disappear from Jewish-Arab relations in Israel. Relations between the two groups should be based on values of mutual respect, true and ongoing dialogue, understanding and recognition of the needs of the other. Shared interests should be vigorously promoted, as should the creation of mutual dependence that would sustain the relationship. All such efforts would have the power to bring not only internal but also external benefit to the country, as Israeli Jews would be able to show the Arab world that they have come to the region to live in peace and equality with their Arab neighbors, both those who reside among them and those of the Arab states. All this can be proven solely through the successful integration of Israel’s Arab citizens as political and social equals, as stated in the Declaration of Independence.

A large and stable majority of the Arab sector supports a shared society characterized by good and equal relations between the two populations.

Most Jews also support the principle of a shared society. The difference is that they think the process should start with good and secure relations, leading to equality in the future. The Arab sector, by contrast, holds the opposite view, namely that equality must precede good relations. My position is that we must act on both planes simultaneously, without one depending on the other, as success in the equality sphere promotes good relations, while success in the relational sphere promotes equality. Responsible policy must place both of these elements at the heart of all governmental plans and actions, now and in the future.

Mohammad Darawshe is Director of Strategy at Givat Haviva – the Center for a Shared Society.