Nation-state law: The real challenge to Arab Israelis

Nation-state law: The real challenge to Arab Israelis

About 50,000 Arab and Jewish Israelis exercised their right to free speech on Saturday in a Tel Aviv rally protesting last month’s passage of
Israel’s nation-state law. There were really two separate agendas at the rally that night. One, from the Jews in the crowd, was in support of Israel’s commitment to equality for all citizens, enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. The other, coming from the Arab participants, was, in effect, a call for the eradication of the Jewish state.

The next day, even the most accommodating of Israel’s Arab leaders, including members of the Israeli parliament, could not bring themselves to recognize Israel as the Jewish state. Some of the less accommodating, also members of parliament, praised demonstrators for waving Palestine Liberation Organization flags and chanting “With spirit, with blood, we will redeem Palestine,” a slogan that Jews and Arabs both understand is a call to destroy Israel.

The Israeli Arabs’ grievance is real. They are not fully integrated into Jewish-Israeli society. While Israeli Arabs enjoy equal civil rights under the law, their rights to national self-definition are compromised. Israel is, after all, the Jewish state. But Jews and Arabs both understand why this is a necessity. Both know why the Jews of Cairo, Baghdad, and Damascus are not rallying for civil rights in their own countries. It is because these Jews no longer exist. Having faced violent persecution, they were expelled when the Middle East was divided into sovereign states in the 20th century. Apart from Israel, this entire region, once home to Jewish communities far older than Islam itself, has been cleansed 100 percent of its Jews. It is a widely accepted, if unwritten, assumption that a future Palestinian state on the West Bank of the Jordan River will also be free of Jews. Indeed, that is already the case in Palestinian Arab-controlled Gaza. The Jews’ history of torment and expulsion, unique neither to the 20th century nor to the Muslim world, is the reason that Israel exists as a sovereign state. After 2,000 years of Jewish statelessness and persecution, Israel was established as a belated solution to a specifically Jewish problem, as the nation-state of the Jews.

There is a natural tension between the Jewish right of self-determination in Israel and the country’s chosen form of government — democracy: Without a Jewish majority, a democratic Israel cannot satisfy its raison d’etre. But laws that ensure a Jewish majority necessarily compromise the national rights of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens. That tension can be reconciled, but the exercise demands that both sides take responsibility for its success.

The reality may be inconvenient to Israel’s detractors, but the Jews have sought reconciliation since before their independence in 1948. They accepted the partition of the land to which both Palestinian Jews and Palestinian Arabs claimed rights. In that compromise, there would have been Jewish residents in the Arab state, and Arab residents in the Jewish state. It was the Arab world that rejected this solution — and refused to propose another. Five Arab armies, joined by Palestinian Arabs, launched a war with the unconcealed ambition of annihilating the fledgling Jewish state and its inhabitants. They failed, but the newly formed Arab state of Jordan did conquer territory that many of us refer to today as Palestine. Consistent with the region’s history, that territory was immediately and totally cleansed of its Jews. There would indeed be Arabs in Jewish Palestine, but there would be no Jews in Arab Palestine.

Curiously, that territory was also annexed by Jordan. Many contend that Palestine’s Arabs were rendered stateless by Jewish independence, but what happened to that Palestinian land that came under Arab control? Why was Arab Palestine not established there? Many Israeli Jews would respond that their neighbors’ real ambition was never the establishment of Arab Palestine but the eradication of Jewish Palestine, today Israel. Considering the lack of an alternative explanation for Jordan’s annexation of the West Bank, perhaps this fear is justified. It is certainly not dispelled by chants calling for Israel’s destruction at a demonstration in the heart of Tel Aviv.

After surviving its war of independence, Israel welcomed the Jewish refugees from the final liquidation of Middle Eastern Jewry. No other nation would, which reinforced the necessity of the Jewish state. The Jews quietly accepted the moral asymmetry that would become a defining sensibility of the modern Middle East, knowing that the world would largely ignore it: Jews may not live anywhere in the Arab Middle East, but Arabs live in freedom in the tiny sliver of land that is the Jewish Middle East, while most of the Arab world denounces Israel as an oppressor. Israel’s Jews have persisted in their efforts to establish a fair accommodation with Israel’s Arabs. Despite their imperfect integration, these Arabs are Israeli citizens. They vote in Israeli elections and serve in the Israeli government. All this while many still advocate for Israel’s destruction.

There are problems with the nation-state law that provoked the rally, but it is not the racist document that many Arab-Israeli leaders have described. It is primarily a confirmation of the Jews’ refusal to commit suicide. Israel’s Jews will not give up their right to self-determination. They can’t. And Israel’s Arabs know this. The law therefore poses an overdue question: Do Israeli Arabs really want to be Israeli?

If the answer is yes, an emphatic acceptance of the Jew’s right to self-determination is the necessary starting point. Israel’s Jewish majority can never truly integrate a population that seeks Israel’s destruction. If Israel’s Arab citizens choose to identify as Israeli, Arabs and Jews must share responsibility for achieving true civic equality — without destroying the Jewish state. The Jews have demonstrated continual willingness to achieve this goal. The Arabs have pursued their rights without recognizing the Jews’ rights. This decision rests in Arab hands.

If the answer is no, it is time each side stops pretending that both somehow belong to the same enterprise and should march in the same rallies. Israeli Arabs will have to seek a different identity and define a model for actualizing it. A constructive model will almost certainly require the cooperation of Israeli Jews. It will require a sovereign Palestine. But the primary responsibility for drafting it must fall to the people who have the primary stake in its success — Israeli Arabs.

Tal Keinan is cofounder of Clarity Capital, an investment firm based in Tel Aviv. He is the author of “God Is In The Crowd: Twenty-First Century Judaism,” to be published next month by Spiegel & Grau.

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